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New York City is eyeing a new target for promoting health among Gotham’s poor: supermarkets.

On Friday, the city’s food policy coordinator, Benjamin Thomases, sat in on a briefing about the nuts and bolts of bringing supermarkets into low-income neighborhoods. “We’re definitely looking at the issues of access to healthy food,” said Thomases, who said the city has been meeting with local food industry players, from biggies like Pathmark – whose extremely successful store on 125th Street in Harlem is generally considered a model project – down to the Washington Heights-based National Association of Bodega Owners, to discuss possible strategies.

While new urban supermarkets often rely on some degree of public funding to get going, as the 125th Street Pathmark did, fostering large food retail stores has typically been a piecemeal affair in New York. Public efforts to expand access to healthy food here have focused on smaller-scale developments such as bodegas and farmer’s markets. In part, that’s been driven by the fact that supermarket development is extraordinarily complicated – a fact driven home repeatedly by industry representatives at the Friday panel hosted by Policy Link, a national policy and advocacy group.

Large food markets take large parcels of land – which are hard to come by in New York – employ complicated financing structures, and may put pressure on other small food retailers. The formulas developers use to assess sites’ potential were developed for suburban locations, however, and often suggest that urban projects will fail, said Lamont Blackstone, a private consultant specializing in urban retail development who spoke on the panel. Still, when it comes to residents’ health, the trouble and expense may be worth it: For every additional supermarket in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent, according to a 2002 American Journal of Public Health study.

Research like that has already encouraged other places to lure supermarkets to their poorest neighborhoods. Most notably, Pennsylvania launched a statewide Fresh Food Financing Initiative in 2005, a public-private source of financial incentives and technical assistance to interested developers; 22 additional supermarkets have since been funded under its umbrella. While the head of that project, Duane Perry, spoke at the breakfast, Thomases needed no introduction to him: The city has already met with Perry to talk strategy.

-Tracie McMillan

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