More Supermarkets, Please.

via Wikimedia Commons.

via Wikimedia Commons.

Up until last fall, I lived in Bed-Stuy, and the only supermarket near me was so far away that I would just do my food-shopping on the way back from my gym — which happens to be in a completely different neighborhood.  The bodegas on either end of the block where I lived only sold white bread; fresh fruit and vegetables were completely out of the question. Fast food restaurants abounded. After 10 p.m., you had to stand outside the bodega and tell the store employee what you wanted through bullet-proof glass; they handed you your goods via a rotating carousel. If you were hungry at that hour — and I usually was, since I work evenings — there was no place to get food, except Papa John’s. (Ugh.)

Then my lease ran out and I stumbled into an apartment for slightly less than I was paying — in Park Slope, that notorious bastion of upper middle class liberalism and helicopter parenting. My mind was blown. It’s just two miles away, but the demographic chasms are ginormous. This is the whitest, most affluent place I’ve ever lived, and the nutritional options border on the cartoonish. There are supermarkets two blocks in every direction, a surfeit of top-shelf restaurantsthe famous Food Co-Op, and the 24-hour bodega on the corner sells fresh herbs and organic kale. As dope this is for me now, I had to move to a completely different neighborhood in order to have regular access to fat-free milk.

The larger public health implications of these kinds of disparities  are obvious. The lack of access to a decent-sized supermarket is a growing problem here in the city, though it’s worse in other places:  there are just four chain supermarkets in all of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city; Detroit, a city with a population of just under a million, doesn’t have any.

When we talk about obesity and the way it correlates is poverty, we spend most of our time talking about pushing low-income consumers into making healthier choices and probably not enough time discussing how we can get food retailers to sell healthy food them in the first place.

Suffice it to say, I’m a big fan of this idea by Mayor Bloomberg.

The Bloomberg administration, in its ever-expanding campaign to make New Yorkers eat better, has already clamped down on trans fats, deployed fruit vendors to produce-poor neighborhoods and prodded corner bodegas to sell leafy green vegetables and low-fat milk.

Now, in a city known more for hot dogs and egg creams than the apple of its nickname, officials want to establish an even bigger beachhead for healthy food — new supermarkets in areas where fresh produce is scarce and where poverty, obesity and diabetes run high.

Under a proposal the City Planning Commission unanimously approved on Wednesday, the city would offer zoning and tax incentives to spur the development of full-service grocery stores that devote a certain amount of space to fresh produce, meats, dairy and other perishables.

The plan — which has broad support among food policy experts, supermarket executives and City Council members, whose approval is needed — would permit developers to construct larger buildings than existing zoning would ordinarily allow, and give tax abatements and exemptions for approved stores in large swaths of northern Manhattan, central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, as well as downtown Jamaica in Queens.

This is just one of the myriad (market-based!) ways that government can improve food options for the poor. A food program in Detroit is trying to set up a system where buyers using food stamps can spend twice as much on food if they purchase it from one of urban farms sprouting up throughout that depopulated city. And the White House is trying to make it easier for people to use food stamps at farmer’s markets. Even  junk food taxes could help, but we can’t just make unhealthy food purchases more onerous. We also have to make good, healthy food much, much more convenient.

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

22 comments to More Supermarkets, Please.

  • This is an EXCELLENT post, turning a wonky, often class-tinged issue into something totally understandable and supportable by the way you start with writing about your own experiences.

    My hunger blogger I believe wrote about this same story at Poverty in America, but I didn’t read it cuz I’m trying to get folks to join a boycott against Hyatt. :)

    Nice work.

  • Btw, what’s the deal with saving on rent by moving to PS from Bed-Stuy?

  • my horrible landlord in Bed-Stuy was raising my rent by $150. A rent hike like that isn’t legal here in NYC, and she knew it. That was really the last straw. I put out feelers at work about moving and someone who was moving in with their boyfriend put me on to their soon-to-be-vacated, rent-controlled spot. It’s much smaller than my apartment in Bed-Stuy, but since I don’t live above a crazy old lady with boundary issues, it’s also a much more livable space.

  • Scipio Africanus

    It took me at least 6 months to adjust to the idea that the Supermarket landscape in much of non-lower-Manhattan NYC is wick-whack. Luckily I live around alot of Eastern European immigrants, and apparently they demand fresh fruits and vegetables, so I luckily have a 24-hour bodega a block away that rivals any produce section anywhere else in the city. (But the folks older than about 30 still don’t believe in deoderant, and I suspect they don’t bathe daily, so it’s all relative.)

    But even the “decent”, seemingly large supermarkets here are mad cramped. I go back home and it feels like they’ve converted one of the Palaces of Versailles into a Giant or Genuardi’s, whereas growing up, that just felt normal and not special.

    I will say this, posting the calorie counts in all fast food joints is the main reason I’ve stayed away from the oh-so-tempting Angus Burger at McDonald’s. Apparently they don’t even sell that outside of the NYC area.

  • and thanks!

    moving to this neighborhood has been really eye-opening for me. There’s just a ton of resources here. I’m 15 minutes from two different branches of my gym — there are gyms all over the place here, and everyone can afford memberships— and I jog in Prospect Park 4 or 5 days a week. if i’m out in the morning, there are scores of people running uphill to the park; on Saturday mornings it’s like a parade. it’s just easier to live a healthy lifestyle over here.

    It’s why I’m so unsympathetic to the whole poor-people-are-unconcerned-about-fitness argument. Shit, if East New York was lousy with supermarkets, gyms, and play space like Park Slope, everyone would use them.

  • ladyfresh

    and probably not enough time discussing how we can get food retailers to sell healthy food them in the first place.

    also affordable healthy food.
    the vegetable/fruit price difference from bushwick to flatbush astonished even me

    when we discussed the price difference (a jump from her neighborhood to mine)
    we wondered if it had to do with accessibility easier to get to her neighborhood than mine?
    but really we couldn’t understand the price jumping

  • Yep. I had an interesting if tangential thought exercise happening yesterday in my discussion sections – I’m a Teaching Fellow for this Soc class at Harvard, Crime, Justice & the American Legal System and every Wed I have to teach 2 sections totally 40 undergrads. (It’s totally nervewracking, since I’m comfortable lecturing on most topics related to crime – neighborhoods, poverty, race, inequality, politics – but am learning alongside them about criminology and crime theory and stats.)

    Anyway, we were focusing on juvenile justice and I had the students pretend they were a committee of community leaders, parents and policymakers advising me the Mayor (Menino) on which youth and community-based programs I had to keep vs. cut given the recession vs. the reality of rising homicide rates among African-American teen boys. The majority of the kids are white and mostly from suburban areas, and there was a lot of vocal support of absolutely keeping the city’s youth sports initiatives. I’m bringing this up not to contest you but to agree w/your description of Park Slope. I was struck by how normal and taken-for-granted the benefits of sports were to these kids: well, of course, you need sports because it builds teamwork and “collective efficacy” (academic term) and skills and keeps kids busy and of course the parents will come to the games!

    The harsher side of this frame of reference some had though, was, cut the sports because why should the city pay when the schools can just provide sports? Yep, nope. One kid who’s actually worked for several years in after-school programs in Roxbury was like, yeah, that’s not an option. But he hardly had to raise the point because the white, suburban majority was like youth sports = good and mandatory!

    I think the challenge is getting people with this level of resource access to understand the lack of them in other places or for other groups w/o moralizing about it or proscribing solutions that are only feasible in higher-income places (e.g., the one magnet school in Boston which is whiter and more middle-class than the other high schools is installing a green roof that the parents are paying for. Yes, all public buildings, incl. schools, should be more energy efficient but where does the $$ come from to realize this in lower-income areas?). This is a good post cuz you can speak from personal experience about it, versus someone who only knows the good life. You boundary-spanner, you.

  • I had a somewhat similar experience in NYC, had a great rent stabilized studio on the UES but moved for mostly personal reasons but also because I had this real b-tch of a next door neighbor who I fought with on a regular if infrequent basis. Her sensitivity about noise – you would have thought she lived on a quiet country lane and not off 2nd Avenue facing the street. I moved in w/friends across town to a crappier building but much nicer neighbors and all was well.

  • Affordable is key and you need more competition to drive down prices. If it’s only one spot that sells that food, then they can mark it up as much as possible w/o driving every last customer away.

  • When I first left NYC and lived w/my dad in the Boston suburbs for awhile I felt the same about the supermarkets. Amazing in size and choice. My neighborhood of Boston has pretty substantial supermarkets so now I’m kind of used to it!

  • Thank you for this insightful post. It resonates with me on many levels. I went home to Detroit last month to see my grandparents after two years of being away, only to find that Farmer Zeke’s had disappeared from the city. There used to be two within the 7 mile/Outer Drive area, and they were quite large. Now, my grandmother only has one, much smaller grocery store that she can go to. Naturally it is overcrowded and poorly stocked. Also, I used to live in Prospect Heights, so I know all about the better food and healthy living options in neighboring Park Slope. The deeper you go into Crown Heights the fewer grocery stores you have. It’s an amazing contrast. I also used to work in Brownsville. If you think the food options are horrible in Bed Stuy, just take a trip across Atlantic Avenue into Brownsville. It’s absolutely terrible. We really need people to shed light on this issue. BTW, East New York does have some decent parks and workout areas (I believe there are tennis courts and tracks near the New Lots area), but when you think about the poor transportation, coupled with the crime, it’s easy to see how some people might be reluctant to take advantage of the public spaces.

  • LaJane Galt

    Excellent post.

  • thanks.

    been meaning to ask: what’s with the Randian username?

  • ladyfresh

    it’s an odd neighborhood

    it’s like the supermarket bonanza of ny, they just can’t seem to get fruits and vegetables right.

    they are way waay better than 10 years ago, and leaps and bounds better than the 80s but there is still a marked difference in quality, fruit and vegetables sit and rot on the shelves basically and it’s not like people don’t buy, but the rotation is very bad

  • blackink12

    Agreed. This is a great post.

    You always wonder about these sorts of things, like whether gas or tilapia or chocolate milk is really cheaper and more readily available in certain parts of town.

    And that tidbit about Detroit is just amazing. I can’t even fathom the decline that city has been experiencing over the last 20, 30 years. Jeebus.

  • aisha

    I’m late to the party so I will simply say. Place Matters. If you went to any public health school worth a dan you learn about the Social Ecological Framework. It simply acknowledges that behavior chance is more than personal. Think about how taxes have had a huge impact on smoking cessation beyond all the education.

    Good news in DC and also in Philly is that they are a part of the Healthy Corner Store Project. Just this week 7 cornerstores in DC started carrying limited amounts of fresh organic vegetables.

  • On the Detroit tip, there are recent plans to bring in a Meijer supercenter, which is basically like the Midwest’s version of Wal-Mart. The grocery store part is actually quite good; it’s where I did all of my food shopping in college.

    http://industry.bnet.com/retail/10003923/meijer-plans-detroit-supercenter-michigan-plans-to-reward-new-food-stores/

    (But excellent post as always).

  • steve

    I live in Camden, NJ and the big thing people always say is “there is not a grocery store in the city”. This is close to bring true, but technically there are two grocery stores on the border line of the city. It’s a 15 minute drive atleast for me to get to a grocery store.

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