Correction to This Article
This article on the demise of grocery stores in New York City incorrectly says that Ben Thomases was appointed food policy coordinator in 2003. He was appointed in January 2007.

Groceries Grow Elusive For Many in New York City

Cynthia Jones lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, near where a grocery store was recently torn down for a condominium.
Cynthia Jones lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, near where a grocery store was recently torn down for a condominium. (By Robin Shulman -- The Washington Post)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

NEW YORK -- Alicia Rivera has no good supermarket within walking distance of her Brooklyn home. A leg injury keeps her from taking the bus, so every three weeks a friend picks her up and drives her to a different neighborhood to stock up on green peppers, milk, chicken wings, ground beef -- as much as she can fit in her kitchen to last until the next shopping trip.

"It's hard," Rivera said as she unloaded her haul from the car into a cart. She buys mainly what she can freeze, and that means few fruits and vegetables. "I wish there was a good store close by," she added.

Many cities, including Washington, have long struggled with the lack of inner-city supermarkets, but Rivera's plight is different: There had been an Associated Supermarket across Myrtle Avenue from her housing project, but it was recently demolished to make way for a condominium development.

That fate is becoming more common in rapidly changing neighborhoods such as Rivera's section of Fort Greene. Soaring real estate values are prompting property owners throughout the city to shutter grocery stores and sell to developers, according to city officials, supermarket owners and industry analysts. In the process, another of the essential services that make New York livable is pushed further away, replaced by glittering condos and more banks.

Today there are one-third fewer supermarkets in New York's five boroughs than there were six years ago, said Lawrence Sarf, the president of F&D Reports, a retail consulting company.

The impact of losing a neighborhood grocery is powerful, not only eliminating a spot where residents come together but also affecting a community's health. Some poor neighborhoods in central Brooklyn or the Bronx that have lacked a good supermarket for decades have the lowest rates in the city of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the highest rates of diabetes and obesity -- a trend that has been found in inner cities across the country.

Bodegas have long flourished in the poorest city neighborhoods, but they often offer little in terms of nutritious food, with shelves carrying little more than hamburger mix, white bread, canned pasta and peanut butter, generally at higher prices than a supermarket charges.

The administration of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is treating the loss of supermarkets and its effects as a looming health crisis and an impediment to economic development.

"Part of what we are trying to do is build a broad momentum," said Ben Thomases, whom Bloomberg appointed food policy coordinator in 2003.

One project is the return of the greengrocer pushcart, an effective and low-cost way to get fresh produce in certain neighborhoods, Bloomberg said. The city plans to license 1,500 street vendors to sell fruits and vegetables in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Another program encourages bodegas to carry low-fat milk and to sell fruits and vegetables in single-serving bags.

Officials are also planning to launch a statewide supermarket commission that will seek new ways to interest grocery stores in neighborhoods that need them.

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