A lot of attention has been paid recently to the rise of childhood obesity and other health issues associated with America’s consumption of unhealthy foods. From Michelle Obama planting an organic garden at the White House, to the growth of CSAs and greenmarkets in Central Brooklyn, many of the solutions offered to deal with America’s growing health crisis revolve around access to healthier food options. “Food deserts,” neighborhoods that lack access to fresh and affordable food, have become part of the vocabulary, just as they’ve become a major target for improving the nation’s health.
New York City identified food deserts in the five boroughs affecting about three million New Yorkers. In 2009, our city became the first in the nation to combine zoning and financial incentives to encourage supermarket development across multiple neighborhoods. The FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) pilot program targeted four “high need” food desert neighborhoods, including Central Brooklyn.
ALIGN was part of the Building Blocks coalition, a group of community organizations, food advocates, food service unions, policy advocates and responsible businesses who came together to address NYC’s food desert problem and strengthen the FRESH policy. We organized and advocated for affordability measures like WIC and EBT requirements, increased community input and oversight mechanisms for subsidy applicants through Community Boards, and standards that would encourage full-service grocery stores.
The FRESH program has seen some limited success. In its first year, three new supermarkets have opened and several more are pending approval for development or expansion. Although this is movement in the right direction for healthy food access, FRESH does not adequately deal with the fact that food deserts are the same communities that experience rampant unemployment and underemployment and have struggled for decades with disinvestment.
The current jobs crisis has hit blacks and latinos hardest, particularly black men between the ages of 16 and 24. Communities of color need access to jobs that will lift residents out of poverty, provide career pathways, health benefits, and enough money in their pocket to afford healthy food and other necessities.
We need more comprehensive policy aimed at creating good food and good jobs throughout New York. We need job standards and local hiring to increase opportunity and prevent irresponsible employers from taking advantage of public subsidies if they only create dead-end jobs that leave families on public assistance.
Public subsidies like FRESH should advance the public good. The retail sector is the fastest growing sector in our economy and often produces low-wage jobs. If the city intends to help it grow even more quickly, it must ensure retailers are growing good jobs along with good food.