Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Peddling Success?

The NY Daily News-in its Brooklyn section-did an interesting story yesterday on the city's green cart experiment-and according to the paper the results are decidedly mixed. As we have pointed out, this underscores similar results from other parts of the city, and underscores the need for a more official and comprehensive review-something that was supposed to be part of the enabling legislation.

As the News reports: "On a recent day in Bushwick, customers swarmed over Amerfi Paulino's new fruit and vegetable carts, weighing yuca and squeezing avocados. "Most of them are regular customers," said Paulino, 26. "I'm doing business. People like it, so I feel good."But a few miles away, off Fulton St. in Bedford-Stuyvesant, two produce vendors stood on the corner lamenting their lack of business. "You came half an hour ago," Mohammed Firoz, 31, told a reporter. "I haven't sold one penny." The vendors represent two sides of the city's much-hyped Green Cart program, which since 2008 has dispatched 84 fruit and vegetable carts to low-income Brooklyn neighborhoods the city dubs "food deserts," where officials say fresh produce is hard to find. The city touts it as a big success, but Brooklyn News found more of a mixed bag for vendors, with some thriving while others are struggling."

Like in all real estate issues, it all come down to location, location, location-and an in depth analysis will show that, where at cart is successful, there is usually good foot traffic as well as the existence of food stores already selling produce: "Richard Lipsky, a supermarket lobbyist, said where Green Carts are succeeding, it's by "cannibalizing the existing stores. "The health of the neighborhood economy is equally important as the health of the individuals in the neighborhood," he said."

The response of some of the peddling customers is instructive: "But shoppers said they prefer Paulino's cart because it's more convenient, cheaper and fresher than local stores. "The vegetables are fresh - look at that zucchini!" said Maria Gonzalez, 68, who lives on the block. "To go to the supermarket, I would have to walk six or seven or eight blocks.... In the supermarket, it's expensive, and sometimes not too fresh." The key word here is expensive-and local stores, already struggling from the recession, along with excess regulations and sky high taxes and fees, will never be able to compete on price with a no overhead vendor. Abd, of course, the vendor on the street becomes a catch twenty two situation: as the business gets diverted, the store owners produce sits longer and becomes less fresh.

In a city that is promoting supermarkets in so called underserved areas, the cart policy-particularly where the carts succeed-is counterproductive. But, of course, success is not so prevalent: "t all vendors have it so easy. Firoz said he doesn't buy the city's argument that produce was hard to find before - in fact, he has trouble competing with local stores with bigger selections. "There are too many supermarkets," he said, adding he sells $100 to $150 of produce a day and pockets just $50. "I don't make money." Firoz and Mohammed Shahjahan, 47, who has his own fruit stand nearby, said they would wait to see if business improves this summer. "It's no good," Shahjahan said. "I'll try one more year."

Let's not forget, that the city wanted to put 1500 green carts on the streets when this legislation was first proposed-and now Brooklyn has 84 vendors plying their wares in the borough-a paltry number for sure. That doesn't impede the propaganda: "City food policy coordinator Ben Thomases said the program - which the city hopes will grow to 350 vendors in Brooklyn and 1,000 citywide - is already "really transforming the food retail environment. People in low-income communities do want to buy fresh fruits and vegetables," he said. "Having that place you can go that's right on your way home from the subway makes a huge difference."

We'll let one hot dog vendor wannabe set the record straight: "Meanwhile, Carlos Chuenco, 57, another Bushwick vendor - who is on the city's long waiting list to sell hot dogs and other street food - said he is making ends meet, though he's sure he'd make more peddling junk. "There are days we sell a lot, and there are days we don't," he said. "I agree with having more fruit and vegetable vendors, because it promotes health. [But] it's not a business that makes a lot of money."

Except in those good shopping strip locations that have ample food store options for folks looking to buy fruits and veggies. In those spots the cannibals will feast on the profits of the struggling store owners-another nail in the coffin of the city's supermarket business that has seen over 300 markets disappear over the past decade. Let's get a proper review and evaluation of this questionable policy; one that is built more on ideological presumptions than on fair economic and sound public policy principles.