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Where’s the Beef? Subsidies are not enough to fix food deserts

J. Mijin Cha May 3

Check out all the Indy Food Coverage from Issue 176:

Last summer, a Western Beef store in the East Tremont section of the South Bronx became the first supermarket in the city to receive funding through the city’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program. The FRESH initiative provides financial and zoning incentives to entice supermarket chains to build new stores in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, wholesome foods.

The project, which involved tearing down an existing Western Beef store and rebuilding an expanded store on a nearby lot, cost the chain more than $15 million — but through the FRESH program, it also received $5.6 million in real estate and sales tax exemptions and a mortgage recording tax waiver worth $154,000. According to Tom Moranzoni, chief financial officer for Western Beef, the store created 120 jobs, with 80 percent of employees living within four to five blocks of the store.

Since then, three more supermarket chains — Associated, Food Bazaar and Fine Fare — have been approved to receive FRESH funding to construct, renovate or expand additional stores in the Bronx. Eleven grocery stores in total have benefited from FRESH funding since the program’s inception in 2009.

In a borough where nine out of 12 community districts qualify as food deserts — areas where a substantial number of residents live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store — increased access to fruits and vegetables is essential. Bronx residents suffer from disproportionately high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Neighborhood bodegas rarely offer much beyond sodas and packaged foods, and fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Kennedy Fried Chicken fail to offer healthy meal options.

However, access to fresh food is just one part of the solution. In his 2009 report, “Good Food, Good Jobs: Turning Food Deserts into Job Oases,” Joel Berg, director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, noted that “for a community to have good nutrition… food must be affordable; food must be available; and individuals and families must have enough education to know how to eat better.”

The real costs

In justifying these corporate subsidies, politicians often pit health concerns, like access to fresh food, against economic interests, like job creation. The argument is that while supermarket chains may be taking money out of the community through tax and real estate exemptions, they bring money in by creating jobs and other kinds of secondary economic benefits.

In a borough where the unemployment rate has spiked to 14 percent and a neighborhood where 39 percent of residents live in poverty, any job creation can seem alluring.

While part of the FRESH program’s goal is to improve local economies, it imposes no wage or benefit requirements on participating stores. Since supermarket chains like Western Beef pay workers less than a living wage (which in New York City means $10 per hour with benefits, or $11.50 per hour without benefits for full-time employees, according to Mayor Bloomberg’s 2002 living wage ordinance), the city is forced to make up the difference through food and housing benefits. In essence, the taxpayer pays twice: once for the big giveaway package and then again in providing a basic safety net for the company’s workers, whose full-time jobs do not pay them enough to feed and house their families.

smaller solutions, bigger impacts

What, then, are the solutions? Food justice activists propose a number of possibilities. Increasing access to farms and farmers’ markets would help in re-establishing local distribution channels for fresh fruits and vegetables. Accepting government benefits at farmers’ markets is a good first step, but only if the produce and fresh food at the markets are affordable for people on tight budgets.

Communities need radical approaches that reach beyond the current food delivery system; the system itself needs to be redesigned by the people it serves. One promising local example in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of central Brooklyn is the Child Development Support Corporation (CDSC), a community-based nonprofit that provides a range of services to help residents become self-sufficient and self-reliant. In addition to a food pantry, the CDSC boasts a 250-square-foot indoor farm that uses hydroponic techniques to grow a range of vegetables, including dark-leaf lettuce, bok choy and collard greens. Clients can grow fresh produce year-round and take workshops on how to grow greens hydroponically in their own homes. The CDSC farm provides produce for hundreds of families each week.

In Brownsville, Brooklyn, Nora Painten, a teacher at P.S. 323, has created the Student Farm Project, which is mobilizing students and volunteers from the community to transform an 8,000-square-foot vacant lot near the school into an educational student farm. The farm will have a chicken coop, beehive and outdoor classroom and grow dozens of vegetables and herbs. Participants will tend the farm and gain hands-on skills training.

A kickstarter campaign for the Brownsville project raised more than $24,000 last fall, and the CDSC started construction on its indoor farm last year thanks to a one-year $24,000 grant from the United Way. Instead of padding corporate profits, shouldn’t public funds be used to invest in communities and the people who live in them?