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Subsidies Are Not Enough To Fix Food Deserts

J. Mijin Cha
The Indypendent

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.”