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Celebrating the FRESH Initiative

December 10, 2009

In an effort to inform those of you looking to this blog in its most initial stages, I have decided to “reblog” the writing of one of WFPA’s own, Gabbie. On her blog site, http://locavores-rex.com/, Gabbie has done a wonderful job of summarizing this initiatiive and the impact its advocates hope to soon see.  Note, an update of yesterday’s meeting will be posted and circulated tomorrow. Now, please enjoy…

A study conducted by Mayor Bloomberg’s Food Policy Task force in 2008 found that many neighborhoods around NYC are underserved by grocery stores. The residents of these  areas, which have since been identified as ” food deserts” , are forced to shop at convenience stores and fast food restaurants. As you would imagine, there are very few nutritious options at these establishments which are stocked primarily with processed foods. The resulting lack of fresh affordable food in these neighborhoods has been linked to higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Over the past ten years the number of super markets has decreased by one third and the diabetes rate has doubled in New York City.

To address this problem the City has established the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Food Stores Program. The initiative provides zoning and tax incentives for investors interested in establishing or retaining grocery stores in  food deserts in Harlem, South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens. The program is also open to business owners who want to renovate existing stores by adding retail space and refrigeration units for fresh produce and developers who want to lease their property to grocery store operators.

Community and labor advocates have successfully lobbied city council members and the mayor to ensure that all of the new stores accept EBT & WIC (food stamp) benefits, seek community input, and provide information on business practices. Information about business practices and employee and community relationships will be posted online before the NYC Industrial Development Agency decides whether the store should be subsidized or not to create transparency and accountability. In addition, Many of the community boards in areas that FRESH will be affecting passed resolutions to ensure that stores provide good jobs with living wages and health benefits. After all, what is the point of offering fresh food if the people living and working  in the neighborhood you are targeting can’t even afford to buy it?

On December 7th The New School hosted a celebration of the  FRESH  initiative which will be voted on by the city council on December 9. Speakers at the event included Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn; Dan Barber, owner of Blue Hill Restaurant; Peggy Shepherd from the West Harlem Environmental Action Group; Bruce Both from UFC Local 1500 representing supermarket workers across the city; and Bob Lewis of the Department of Agriculture and Markets and founder of Greenmarket.

Although a great start to tackling the health disparities between low and high income groups in New York, this project is not the panacea it appears to be.  As Dan Barber noted, to “get people cooking more is not only key, its compelling.” Its all well and good to bring fresh produce to a neighborhood but if people are not cooking with it, it will not have any impact on the resident’s health. The fact of the matter is that a lot of Americans eat junk food because it is cheap and simple and easy to prepare. Many people lack the time, interest, or knowledge required to cook and prepare fresh ingredients. To make this program a real success, free cooking classes and nutrition programs should be provided in targeted neighborhoods to create interest in cooking and to teach people how to integrate fresh food into their diets.

Also, this program does not include any standards to gaurantee that the produce available will be of high quality. I know from experience living in Brooklyn that just because there is a grocery store offering  produce for sale in your neighborhood that does not mean it is fresh. It is not unusual to find many of the fruits and vegetables at my local Associated Supermarket covered with mold or wilting. As a graduate student I have the luxury of time on my side and can spend an extra 15 minutes walking to the next grocery store over. However, if I were a working parent, I may not be able to take this extra time out of my day and might just do the easier thing and just go straight for the cheaper canned and processed food. Obviously relying on grocery stores to police themselves does not always work and if this program is truly going to get customers to eat and buy more fresh produce it should ensure that the quality of those fruits and vegetables is high enough to entice them. – Gabbie, Locavores-Rex

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