The Action Diet: Get Better Food In Your Neighborhood

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Supermarkets: Why we don’t have more of them.

    In the battle against the bulge, easy access to a wide range of quality, healthy food is front and center. Supermarkets as a rule carry more healthy food than smaller stores, and consumers will eat it: A 2002 study found that for each additional supermarket located in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption increased by as much as 32 percent.

    But as millions of New Yorkers know, finding decent produce and other healthy food is often easier said than done. That’s true across the country as well: The wealthiest neighborhoods have more than three times as many supermarkets as the poorest ones, according to a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The same study found the gap is even wider along racial lines, with white neighborhoods having as many as four times the number of supermarkets as black ones.

    By the early 1990s, the situation was so dire that the Local Initiatives Support Corporation started a subsidiary, the Retail Initiative, to step in where private developers feared to tread: developing urban supermarkets. Even when financing has been available, attempts to close the gap and get fresh food to greater numbers of poor consumers in New York City have been frustrated by two things: Costs are too high, and revenue is too low. The profit margin in the supermarket business is extremely small–about 1 percent.

    “It’s tough to get high quality supermarkets into the ‘hood,” says Alicia Glenn, vice president of Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, which is participating in a federal incentive program to spur commercial enterprises in low-income areas. To turn a profit, supermarkets must move large volumes of goods. To really make the numbers work, says Glenn, “You need ground-floor, large-scale development, something that’s half a city block.” And in New York, stores of that scale have to be built from the ground up.

    Community development groups have helped lead the charge to bring supermarkets into urban areas. Pathmark’s Newark development is widely cited as a model for community supermarket development, as is the central Brooklyn Pathmark developed with Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration. Of eight supermarkets developed through the Retail Initiative, six were done with CDCs.

    Not every partnership is successful. With the Retail Initiative’s help, the community development corporation Mid-Bronx Desperadoes (MBD) broke ground on a commercial project near Crotona Park boasting a Pathmark supermarket as its anchor tenant. MBD was an experienced housing developer, and the project was its first foray into serious retail development. According to a developer associated with the project, that made for a bumpy ride. The original contractor’s work was deeply flawed, delaying the project–originally set to debut in 2002, the supermarket still has not opened. “It’s one thing to renovate an existing building. New construction is a new animal,” the developer says. “It would’ve been probably easier if they’d partnered with a private sector group to develop that site.”

    There are logistical challenges unique to urban areas: restrictive zoning, parking shortages, proximity to public transportation, traffic congestion. Community opposition to chain retailers is also common. When Pathmark partnered with Abyssinian Development Corporation and the Retail Initiative to develop its mammoth Harlem store, smaller local grocers organized opposition to the project, arguing that Pathmark would put them out of business. The ensuing battle delayed the project for two years, and ultimately led the mayor to reduce city financing available to the project before it finally opened in 1999.

    The feds have stepped in to make the going easier. Looking to entice businesses to locate in high-poverty census tracts, the Clinton administration launched the New Markets Tax Credit in late 2000, offering developers financial incentives. Still in its early stages, the program has left some developers skeptical that it will do much to generate new retail development. “It sweetens the deal,” says the adviser on the Bronx Pathmark. But unlike the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which has helped produce millions of new homes, “it’s probably not going to make or break a deal.”

    Yet some previously underserved areas are seeing a surge in supermarket development. The force bringing in the new stores is also a mixed blessing for poor communities: the boom of high-priced housing in formerly marginal areas. “Some of the retailers are still scared of these neighborhoods,” says Glenn. “But we have to get high-quality grocery stores, because why else are people going to buy these condos?” –TM


Farmers’ Markets: Abundant, but still far from universally accessible.

    Allyson Bennett is on a mission. “Alfred, you got my apples?” she calls out, marching purposefully to a farm stand in front of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. Bennett has trekked here from East New York on foot–the hike took her about two hours, she says–to purchase two boxes of Fuji apples from Wilklow Orchard, staffed this morning by Albert Wilklow, a sixth-generation farmer from upstate (Bennett, he laughs, never gets his name quite right). Bennett makes her purchase before heading to the chem lab at New York City Technical College, where she is a student. Recovering from a long illness, Bennett pursues a diet high in fruits and vegetables, with a special focus on fresh juice.

    Though open-air markets like this one, nestled on a sunny plaza lined with gardens, connote bourgeois urban living, many of the city’s 63 farmers’ marketsare vital conduits for bringing fresh produce into the kitchens of lower-income households. That’s in large part due to two federal nutrition programs: WIC and food stamps.

    The Women, Infant and Children program offers coupons for purchases at farmers’ markets. Food stamps–which Bennett uses to pay for her apples–can also be used at some markets.

    WIC coupons, distributed as part of the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), are widely considered a success. Redeemable only at farmers’ markets, the coupons offer pregnant women and mothers of young children $24 per season, in $2 increments. This is virtually the only allotment for fresh produce under WIC. Nearly 90 percent of FMNP recipients in a 2002 survey said they would eat more fresh produce year-round because of the coupons; more than three-fifths said they used their own cash in addition to the coupons. For Wilklow, FMNP represents a significant amount of his sales at the city’s farmers’ markets, his primary outlet. “A good chunk of it is WIC,” says Wiklow. “It does bring us a lot of business we wouldn’t otherwise get.”

    Food stamps, however, are barely trickling into the farm stands. When New York eliminated the old coupons and switched to electronic benefit transfer cards in 2001, farmers didn’t have the technology to process them. A few vendors at markets around the city have since joined a federally funded pilot program testing wireless terminals that can process the cards. But the prospects for expansion remain limited: Most people receiving food subsidies don’t live near a year-round farmers’ market and don’t have the time to make a trek. –TM


Community Supported Agriculture: Farmer co-ops put down fresh roots.

    Genevieve Richards needs fresh vegetables. The home health aide, well into her fifties, has dangerously high cholesterol, and her doctor has her on a strict regimen of lean meats and veggies. But in East New York, where she has lived for 25 years, the produce available at the local market can be “kind of terrible,” laments Richards.

    That’s why Richards chose to join the East New York Community Supported Agriculture Project (CSA). A group of consumers team up with a local farmer, paying for food up front and then collecting it weekly throughout the growing season.

    In some ways, it’s an ideal model to bring quality food into low-income neighborhoods. CSAs are relatively easy to establish, capable of scraping by with a few committed volunteers and a church basement. They bring farm-fresh produce directly into the neighborhoods where people live, and charge about $15 a week for a heap of food. But while they offer quality produce at low prices, CSAs have had to struggle to open up access for low-income members.

    “In a traditional arrangement, you pay the farmer in January and you’re assured a share from June to November,” explains Ruth Katz, executive director of Just Food, a New York–based nonprofit that coordinates the city’s CSAsand advocates for a stronger local food distribution system. Because one household’s CSA share typically costs around $350, Just Food has coordinated fundraising to subsidize low-income memberships, including grants from the New York Community Trust and United Way. Richards is a beneficiary: She gets a reduced price and pays for her food every other week, instead of a lump sum up front. Just Food has also learned how to do the paperwork to accept food stamps, which Katz says are now accepted at about half of the city’s CSAs. “That initially is kind of a pain for folks,” she concedes. “But once they do it, it’s done and people can use their food stamps.”

    CSAs are part of a growing sustainable agriculture movement that argues for localized food production, building connections between farmers and consumers, and generally encouraging community built around wholesome food. As a CSA member, “You’re kind of forced to think about how to use what’s available,” says Sarita Saftary, a Just Food staffer who coordinates the East New York CSA. Saftary admits that some members have a hard time adjusting to simply taking whatever the farmer brings them, but that, she says, is part of the point: “It gives people a much stronger connection to agriculture and to the idea of not having whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever quantity you want, at the expense of whatever else.”

    At a recent cooking class held for the members of East New York’s CSA, the menu featured a salad of fruit and organic quinoa, oven-fried chicken with a red pepper coulis, and lacinato kale cooked with sun-dried tomatoes. The ingredients, confesses Saftary, were bought at the Park Slope Food Coop, six miles from East New York. “The preseason classes are to educate people about nutritious foods,” explains Saftary, “and to introduce them to foods they might not be familiar with. So it was a lot of stuff you can’t find in East New York.” Saftary notes there’s been talk among CSA members about trying to start a food co-op in East New York.

    Richards is looking forward to the produce, but she’s also pleased with the focus on farming. “They have the agriculture thing, which I like–I grew up with that,” the Antigua native remarks. In the midst of cleanup before she sits down to her quinoa salad, Richards pauses at the sink. “Probably I can learn something too.”