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.
Duane Perry, the founder of the nonprofit Food Trust, which has created a $120 million fund to bring 32 new supermarkets to Philadelphia, has taken part in early discussions surrounding the commission.
"We're finding that there are gaps, places where the industry has not been able to provide safe, affordable and nutritious food," Perry said.
Others said the commission should devise creative ways to deliver groceries to a changing city.
"As we do new housing developments, we should think about how to structure space on the ground floor" and "make plans to incorporate street-level retail," said Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services.
Alicia Glen, the managing director of the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, brings investment capital to underserved neighborhoods to stimulate economic development, including grocery stores. She said it is difficult to convince national supermarket chains "that even though people's incomes may be low, they still shop."
"I think you could characterize it as redlining," she said. "There's a real sense that there's certain places they won't go."
She said investors have been slow to realize that grocery stores can anchor neighborhood development. "How are you going to have million-dollar condos if there's no place to buy bok choy?" she asked.
A study by the Reinvestment Fund, a development finance corporation in Pennsylvania, found that every $1 spent on supermarket construction and operation generates $1.50 in additional economic activity.
The rationale for the vanishing grocery stores is clear: Grocers traditionally make profit margins of only 1 to 2 percent, while skyrocketing rent prices in recent years have outstripped the stores' income, industry experts said.
It did not help that a recent spate of bank expansions hiked up commercial rents for everyone, said C. Bradley Mendelsohn, an executive director at Cushman & Wakefield.
High-end grocers are doing well, such as Whole Foods Market. It recently opened the largest grocery store in the city, at 71,000 square feet, including a sushi bar, an ice cream bar and a fromagerie. FreshDirect, an online grocer that delivers to certain neighborhoods, has so transformed food shopping that many new residential buildings include a refrigerated room off the lobby for food deliveries.
Meanwhile, D'Agostino, Gristedes and Key Food have each closed about a dozen stores since 2000, industry experts said.
"Unless you come up with some solution for essential services, you're going to have neighborhoods change dramatically," said John Catsimatidis, chief executive of the Gristedes chain, which has recently closed outlets because of rent hikes.
"Traditionally people went to their neighborhood stores to buy their needs," he said. "They won't be able to do that. It's not just grocery stores."