Have City Subsidies to Supermarkets Made NYC Healthier?

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This Food Bazaar soon to open on 163rd and Brook Avenue in the Bronx is one of the project subsidized through the city's FRESH program.

Adi Talwar

This Food Bazaar soon to open on 163rd and Brook Avenue in the Bronx is one of the project subsidized through the city's FRESH program.

Fresh groceries are one aspect of healthy living routinely absent from the lives of the poor. In 2007, the City Council partnered with the Food Trust in Philadelphia to identify areas with a severe shortage of fresh food access. In response, the Bloomberg Administration formed a Supermarket Commission with the goal of identifying underserved areas in order to “encourage the opening of new grocery stores and help existing operators upgrade stores in neighborhoods that need more healthy food stores.” A study conducted for the Mayor’s Food Policy Task Force by the New York City Departments of Health and City Planning and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) found that New York City was suffering from a “widespread shortage of neighborhood grocery stores and supermarkets,” with low income New Yorkers suffering the worst of it.

The study found that pharmacies, convenience stores, and discount stores were the largest food retailers in underserved neighborhoods like the entire Bronx, central and eastern Brooklyn, far eastern Queens, and Harlem—all areas that also display high rates of diet-related diseases. “New York City can support more than 100 new neighborhood grocery stores and supermarkets,” the report, called “Going to Market,” concluded. “Increased competition in underserved neighborhoods would reduce grocery costs. More stores would increase convenience and availability of fresh foods, empowering consumers to make healthier decisions about what to buy and what to eat.”

The city established a program that would incentivize supermarket owners to build new stores or renovate existing ones in these food deserts, providing financial incentives to address health concerns. The program, called the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program, “provides zoning and financial incentives to promote the establishment and retention of neighborhood grocery stores in underserved communities throughout the five boroughs.”

The benefits on offer are huge, including an exemption from the 8.875 percent sales tax on materials to construct, renovate, or equip facilities, plus a $500 tax abatement for each full-time employee, and a deferral of mortgage recording taxes. Zoning incentives include reductions in required parking, and additional square footage in mixed-use buildings.

A total of 21 FRESH projects have been approved so far, according to the NYCEDC’s website, six of which have been approved for zoning incentives and 16 for financial help. Ten stores are now open to the public. To date, the city has provided approximately $48 million in incentives, but it’s a net gain for the City, according to NYCEDC Spokesperson Ian Fried. “The city will receive approximately $110 million back in tax revenues,” he wrote in an email.

There are other economic impacts, too. “These supermarkets are expected to provide about 590,000 square feet of new or renovated space, are estimated to retain more than 500 jobs and create over 940 new jobs, and represent an investment of approximately $80 million across the city,” says EDC literature on the program.

But it is unclear that health benefits have kept pace with the economic gains under FRESH. A look at where FRESH-funded sites are and interviews with shoppers paint a picture of a program that has succeeded at bolstering the market for food, but made less apparent progress at filling gaps or reducing disparities in New Yorkers’ access to fresh produce.

A map of subtleties

The FRESH website doesn’t specify the neighborhoods a supermarket must be in in order to qualify, only that it “must be located in an eligible area.” A 2010 City Council report on the program says, “The FRESH zones currently cover three areas in the city identified as the highest need based on health outcomes and grocery store shortages: Jamaica, Central Brooklyn, and South Bronx/ Upper Manhattan.”

At least two stores that have received FRESH benefits are not in the original map of underserved areas, while one of the priority areas, Jamaica, has yet to see a single store that uses FRESH incentives.

At least one supermarket that is listed by the EDC as new—the Super-Fi Emporium on Lexington— is on the site where a supermarket has long existed, according to customers who recall it being an Associated.

While the idea for FRESH was being debated by the City Council, then-Councilmember Simcha Felder said it was “critical” that stores already “doing the right thing” receive incentives and benefits.” Indeed, Felder’s former Midwood district (he is now a state senator) is not on the map of underserved areas created in the 2007 study, but an owner there received incentives nonetheless to renovate “Moisha’s,” a supermarket on Avenue M. (“Market analysis determined those areas to be underserved and in need of fresh food options,” Fried insisted via email).

“Renovations often also include an expansion of the existing facility so that supermarkets can meet growing demand and provide produce at an affordable price,” writes EDC spokesman Ian Fried. “The FRESH Program helps supermarket operators make necessary improvements to their stores that will help drive traffic and sustain operations long-term. This investment has been a net-win for the city.”

Yet the FRESH support for both new and existing sites, as well as sites outside what were originally considered high-need areas, make it hard to gauge the program’s public-health impact. In fairness, that’s not all down to the design of FRESH. The fact is, the precise connection between access to food and healthy eating choices is poorly understood.

While research has shown that people who live in neighborhoods without supermarkets tend to have poorer diets, the research hasn’t shown that if you put a supermarket into one of these food deserts, people end up with healthier diets and obesity goes down. So says Beth Weitzman, Professor of Public Health & Policy at NYU.

“The federal and local government have gotten behind this effort based on an assumption—that because people who live in communities look worse in terms of diet and weight, putting a supermarket there will be a fix,” Weitzman says. “And the evidence to date doesn’t support that.”

The connection between access to food and healthy eating is particularly hard to establish in a place like New York. As Fried wrote in an email, “There are no food deserts in the City, but there are underserved neighborhoods where access to fresh food is not available.” And in places where food was available, FRESH supports renovations because, Fried writes, it allows “supermarkets to modernize in order to bring the best possible facilities to the community.”

Welcome changes, but not game-changers

Indeed, the shoppers in FRESH-incentivized supermarkets seemed happy to have them. Down the block from the Dewitt Clinton NYCHA houses, in a neighborhood that boasts block after block of bodegas and Taquerias, one enters Super-Fi amidst the fragrance of bright rows of fresh flowers for sale outside the store. Inside, customers are greeted by a beer selection, and then a fresh fruit and vegetable area.

A woman who gave her name as Leslie was standing in the grains aisle on a recent afternoon. A medical professional, Leslie has lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years, and used to shop at the location when it was an Associated, until it closed for renovations, at which point she switched to the Fine Fare Supermarket at 105th and 3rd. She still frequents Fine Fare, as well as other places in close proximity. “I go all over,” Leslie said. “Whoever had the best sale, I go.” When asked if the neighborhood is a food desert, she said it’s hard to get organic food, a problem she says is not solved by the renovations at Super-Fi, which doesn’t carry more organic food than other spots.

I met Shante Williams near the frozen-food aisle, where she was stocking up with her husband. She has lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years. She likes Super-Fi, and says she basically always shops there. She comes for the prices, the sales, and the customer service. “The management and workers, they are very friendly,” she said. And the store enriches the neighborhood, according to Williams, but not necessarily because of its current reincarnation. “It was very much missed when they had closed,” she said, referring to the period about four years ago, after the Associated shut down and before the Super-Fi opened up. “You get to know them, you become like part of the family.” Still, Williams says, it’s not hard to get fresh produce in the neighborhood. There’s another store around the corner. “But it’s not the same,” she added. The Super-Fi feels more like a family, she said.

Uptown, another FRESH location is located on East 161st St in the Bronx, in a strip mall that is also home to a Payless Shoe Store, a Burger King, and a Popeye’s. With a huge parking lot outside and enormous photos of fresh fruit on the side of the building, the store itself is warehouse-sized.

Inside, Faustino Chapman was perusing the produce section. “I come to this store because all the time they have whatever I need,” he said, like the lemongrass he had his eye on for making tea with ginger.

Christopher Morelles was looking over some oranges. He has lived in the neighborhood for 31 years, and says the supermarket adds value. The store was listed as a renovation by the EDC, though Morelles couldn’t remember whether renovations had taken place, if any. He comes for fruits and vegetables—”Anything I can keep a healthy body for myself.” But it’s not the only place he goes for produce in the neighborhood, says Morelles. “There’s several other places I can go to.”

Latoya Ingram moved to the neighborhood three months ago, and lives seven blocks away. I found her in the cereal aisle. She likes the sales, the wide variety, and the unique items. But she also shops at other stores, like BJs, or the street vendors. She had never heard the term “food desert” before, but she laughed when I explained it. “Hunt’s Point was where we moved from,” she said. “That was a food drought. Every piece of ground beef you get, you open it up, and it’s black in the middle.” Compared to Hunt’s Point, Ingram is astounded by the amount of choices she has in her new neighborhood. She buys her meat from a small butcher, and her vegetables from a street vendor. “The fruit stand is what we trust the most,” she said.

A Food Bazar on Junius Street in East New York was listed by EDC as having undergone renovations approved for by FRESH in 2011, though none of the customers I met there on a recent afternoon remembered anything changing in the recent past. Across the street from the Woodsen NYCHA houses and a Family Dollar, the store doesn’t seem new. The checkout counters looked old and worn, and the floors, too, seemed to have seen better days.

Rolinda Walls was passing a big pile of lemons when I spoke to her. She has lived in the neighborhood for 53 years. But she shops at a number of different stores. “At the beginning of the month I hit all the stores for the sales,” she said. “I get the brochures, and I check what I want, and it lasts me from month to month.” She comes to the Junius Food Bazar for the fish and beans. She goes to Associated for meat—it’s too expensive at the Food Bazar, she says. But she likes the produce here, and the deli.

Regan Wilson came to the Food Bazar that afternoon for an ice-cream cake. He has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years. “There’s about seven supermarkets here,” he said, and proceeded to list them. “Key Foods, C Town, Associates—like three Associates.” He, too, laughed at the term food desert. “There’s [a supermarket] right across the street! Literally, right across the street. At the parking lot, turn right, and there’s another one! When you walk out of here, get in your car, make a right at the next block, there’s a supermarket on the corner.” He was still chuckling while I walked away.

One of the FRESH-funded sites—a brand new supermarket called Shoprite—is located completely outside the 2007 map that spurred FRESH, at the Gateway Mall between East New York and Howard Beach. Next to a Home Depot, a Target, and a Sports Authority, the Shoprite is not very accessible via public transportation. Everyone I met shopping there on a recent afternoon had driven, and they seem to have come from all over Brooklyn. That doesn’t mean that patrons aren’t grateful for the store.

Lois Maglione lives in Ozone Park. She shops at Stop and Shop and Key Foods too, and says it’s not hard to find fresh food. She comes to Shoprite for one thing: the sales. “It’s a nice store, has a lot to offer, and the prices are pretty good,” Maglione told me.

Ella Farmer has lived in the neighborhood since 1984. She also shops at Associated, and Cherry Valley— “Wherever I look in the paper and see sales,” she said. “But this is where I do my monthly shopping.” She said the FRESH-subsidized store brings value to the area. “You can come here and find just about everything. You don’t have to go to a number of stores.” She used to go to Pathmark, “but once this store came into play, very seldom are you going to go to Pathmark. Here you can find just about everything you’re looking for.”

Charles McCoy lives in Starett City. He used to shop at Pathmark, too, before it closed. “I find this store a little more modern,” he said. “But Pathmark offered more sales.”

“I see a lot of ethnic groups in here,” he said. “And it’s in a good location—you got Howard Beach in Queens, and East New York. It’s strategically located.” People come from all over, he said. McCoy drives to the store.

Is it hard to get good quality fruits and vegetables in this neighborhood? “Quality? Yes.” But that includes ShopRite, too. “I go to Trader Joe’s to get my fruits and vegetables,” McCoy said. “Matter of fact, I just came from there. I’m just picking up some loose ends.”

FRESH perspective

The anecdotal evidence doesn’t conclusively answer the question of whether the FRESH program is the best way the City could be spending money aimed at ending food deserts. How does a store accessible only by car address issues as local as food deserts for low income New Yorkers? At the same time, all the shoppers were happy to have the options afforded them by the program.

Indeed, the effect of FRESH seems to have been more economic than anything else, incentivizing the building and renovation of large stores rather than investing in smaller bodegas and the pharmacies, convenience stores, and discount stores that are already serving these communities.

Professor Weitzman believes this was a good call. When you build a supermarket in a poor neighborhood, there’s evidence that even if diet doesn’t change, satisfaction does. For goals like developing and anchoring communities, employment, and satisfaction, “shoring up bodegas is not going to ensure that sense of investment,” says Weitzman. Bolstering larger stores “gives people a belief in government, pride in place. A lot of things may spill off of this that may be beneficial.” So too for renovations. “Qualitatively, when one goes into a supermarket in a better resource neighborhood it looks really different than supermarket in poor communities,” Weitzman explained. “They’re more appealing, there’s more fresh fruit and vegetables. The idea of [improving] supermarkets that are no longer fully functional is actually a cheaper way to going about it than starting de novo.”

Still, adding a supermarket to a neighborhood, or a city, can have complex health impacts, Weitzman says. “Supermarkets don’t just put fruits and vegetables into a neighborhood. They put aisles and aisles of crap,” she said. As a sole step, FRESH is insufficient to provide the health benefits low income New Yorkers need, according to Weitzman. “It needs to be scaffolded with other programmatic efforts to expect any impacts on diet and health.”

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City Limits’ reporting on food policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.