New York City is famous for innumerable gut-busting culinary delights enjoyed at delis, street carts and restaurants – though not as much for veggie-laden meals prepared at home. But a host of new proposals aimed at improving city residents’ access to healthy food could take a bite out of the city’s high-calorie culture.
The city is widely expected to soon introduce new zoning and financial incentives aimed at encouraging supermarket development in neighborhoods with few grocery stores. The Department of City Planning last week would confirm only that the city is working toward announcing the details of the plan – but details have been emerging.
Update: The city released its “FRESH” plan on May 16.
Meanwhile, a report released recently by the Harlem Food & Fitness Consortium, a coalition of community and advocacy groups, also proposed providing subsidies and incentives for supermarket developers – with a caveat. “Community residents should have a say in this,” said James Subudhi, sustainability coordinator for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a member of the consortium. “Let’s say there’s a supermarket operator who applies for this [subsidy]. What are the sorts of contractual obligations that they should meet to receive this money? They should require some sort of community input in this.”
The Harlem consortium’s report is based on input from neighborhood residents. It recommends that stores receiving subsidies be required to provide fair wages for employees and fair prices for the neighborhood’s shoppers; stock high quality, fresh foods; and accept the federal food subsidies WIC (for Women, Infants and Children) and SNAP (formerly called food stamps, requiring an EBT or electronic benefits transfer card). It also proposes opening supermarkets in public housing projects and subjecting new fast food restaurants to a review process similar to that which new liquor stores undergo.
A new initiative proposed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer could support both advocacy groups’ and city policymakers’ efforts on these issues. Announced last week, Stringer’s “FoodStat” would produce ratios of the number of unhealthy vs. healthy food retailers in each city neighborhood.
Like the NYPD’s CompStat program, which maps crimes for targeted policing, FoodStat could help policymakers, medical professionals, and community groups zero in on neighborhoods where healthy food is particularly scarce. East Harlem, for example, has 15 fewer supermarkets – and 24 more fast food outlets – than the Upper East Side, according to Stringer’s analysis. (Though East Harlem also has about 100,000 fewer residents.) But, he stipulated, FoodStat is only a partial solution to the city’s food access woes. “This doesn’t work unless you have a comprehensive plan for incentives to supermarkets, healthy bodegas, getting young kids to go to farmers markets,” he said in an interview. “It’s part of a larger initiative.”
Such proposals are only the most recent efforts to improve New Yorkers’ access to healthy food. Previous city initiatives have added salad bars to some public school cafeterias, installed EBT card machines for food stamp use in the farmers markets, encouraged bodegas to stock healthier food, and boosted the number of food carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables on city streets. Gov. David Paterson has also set aside $10 million to provide loans to grocery stores that locate in the state’s “underserved” communities.
In New York City, where the prevalence of diet-related diseases, like obesity and diabetes, has increased dramatically in the last decade, healthy eating is more important than ever. “There is a generation of New Yorkers who are being poisoned by their diets,” said Councilman Eric Gioia, a vocal food reformer presently pushing for a ban on fast food shops near schools. “If we do not fix this, they will live less long, less healthy, less happy lives.”
For now, the details of the city’s supermarket development incentives remain murky. A draft of the plan circulated earlier this spring proposed easing some of the requirements that market developers find onerous. It reduced off-street parking requirements and allowed supermarkets to bypass the special permit required for developing retail stores in areas zoned for manufacturing (a prospect that causes the city’s manufacturing-sector boosters some consternation, as it could open the door to an influx of big-box retailers).
Property and other tax exemptions for new supermarkets and existing stores that make capital improvements were also outlined in that draft. The city’s Economic Development Corporation would oversee those, or other similar, financial incentives.
So far, City Planning Director Amanda Burden has revealed just a single component of the city’s revised proposal. Speaking at NYU last month, Burden reportedly told the audience that the zoning changes would make it possible for developers to exclude grocery store square footage from a larger building’s total development rights.
It’s unclear if supermarket developments in all city neighborhoods will be eligible for the incentives. The draft proposal made public earlier this spring focused on “low-income neighborhoods…underserved by neighborhood grocery stores.”
Allen Strouse of UFCW Local 1500, which represents New York City grocery store employees and has worked with City Planning on the incentives package, said a more recent version of the plan focuses on 20 community districts, including Districts 9, 10, 11 and 12 in northern Manhattan, where a spate of supermarket closings have forced residents to travel greater distances to buy groceries – or else turn to bodegas and convenience stores, where fresh produce and other healthy foods are hard to find.
Strouse called the city’s proposed incentives “terrific,” but noted that the UFCW 1500 has reservations about the some aspects of the revised plan. “Our only concern is that without standards and mechanisms for accountability, we may end up bringing in stores that pay low wages and don’t offer health insurance to their employees.”
Among other supermarket industry groups, the Queens-based National Supermarket Association (NSA), which represents independent supermarket operators, said the city’s development incentives are long overdue. “We have been telling the city for 10 to 15 years that we cannot continue the way we are—we can’t afford to be in the city, the business climate in New York City is unbearable for the independent supermarket operator,” said NSA executive director Nelson Eusebio. “This fell on deaf ears and so a lot of stores have closed.”
Eusebio hasn’t seen the city’s revised proposal, but he ticked off the subsidies his association would most like to see in such a plan: commercial rent control, tax incentives, and utilities concessions.
For Emma Jackson, 69, a longtime resident of the public Taft Houses in East Harlem, speedy implementation is the key. “I wish they’d hurry up and announce” the new incentives, said Jackson, who contributed to the Harlem report. “Until it trickles down and we see it, it’s not there.”
Jackson has experienced the city’s supermarket policy debate firsthand. After the grocery store nearest her building closed last year, Jackson and her neighbors convinced the New York City Housing Authority to open a grocery store in the basement of their building.
Her advice for city policymakers: talk to the people whom the policies will affect. “Come up with ideas that work with them. If it doesn’t work for [the people], they’re not going to try it,” she said, adding, “Let’s make some change now—I think we can do it. Before I leave the planet, I want to see things different.”