Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Designing Foodman Departs

Ben Thomases, whose parents brought Designing Women to television, has quietly departed from his job as NYC's food czar. As the NY Times reports: "New York’s first food czar, serving in a position considered groundbreaking when the city established it in 2007, quietly left the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg late last month. The food czar, Ben Thomases, 35, who came to City Hall as food policy coordinator to take charge of a campaign to combat hunger and unhealthy eating, is now the chief operating officer of Wildcat Service Corporation, a nonprofit work force development contractor."

This is kind of strange for someone who came in with trumpets blaring-but Thomases tenure has been marked, well, it has been marked by very little. Much fanfare and hoo ha about food deserts-but, in the end, besides annoying and counterproductive green carts, not much in the way of getting greater access to fresh food-and particularly supermarkets-for low income New Yorkers.

In the supermarket department, we have money for a burned out Foodtown in the Bronx-along with the expansion of a Western Beef ion the same borough-but the exodus of such stores from "underserved neighborhoods," continues unabated because of factors that were beyond the control of the rather lackluster Mr. Thomasses. The loss of hundreds of such food outlets is owed to rising rents and the city's own policies of higher taxes and punishing regulations-not to mention the promotion of box stores that create a zero sum game with neighborhood markets.

If the mayor and speaker want to preserve and protect supermarkets, they need to dramatically lower the cost of doing business for these food outlets-and, as we have suggested, treat them as if they were public health facilities. And as far as the green carts go, the policy of allowing-or at least trying to allow-the proliferation of these sidewalk competitors into shopping areas where supermarkets are trying to stay in business and thrive, is just the dumbest kind of policy making. Last week, for instance, such peddlers appeared in front of two Morton Williams stores in the Bronx, and by locating right in front of existing markets, they provide no greater fresh produce access to Bronx residents-but make it harder for the higher overhead supermarkets to survive.

So, in our view, if the city is looking for a replacement for Thomasses it needs to find someone who is sensitive to the business issues that make access to produce and other fresh food hard in the city; but at the same time, must also understand that getting people to eat better is not just about sticking a green cart on their block-it also must address the mindset of the people who, for whatever the reason, are not inclined to eat in a healthy manner. The departure of Thomases is, in our view, a good thing, since it offers the mayor the opportunity to select a more senior, and hopefully energetic person, to help stem the hemorrhaging of local supermarkets from NYC.