May 5, 2008
The Lost Supermarket: A Breed in Need of Replenishment
By DAVID GONZALEZ
Even Kings and Queens are facing their own food crisis.
Kings and Queens Counties, that is.
A continuing decline in the number of neighborhood supermarkets has made it harder for millions of New Yorkers to find fresh and affordable food within walking distance of their homes, according to a recent city study. The dearth of nearby supermarkets is most severe in minority and poor neighborhoods already beset by obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
According to the food workers union, only 550 decently sized supermarkets — each occupying at least 10,000 square feet — remain in the city.
In one corner of southeast Queens, four supermarkets have closed in the last two years. Over a similar period in East Harlem, six small supermarkets have closed, and two more are on the brink, local officials said. In some cases, the old storefronts have been converted to drug stores that stand to make money coming and going — first selling processed foods and sodas, then selling medicines for illnesses that could have been prevented by a better diet.
The supermarket closings — not confined to poor neighborhoods — result from rising rents and slim profit margins, among other causes. They have forced residents to take buses or cabs to the closest supermarkets in some areas. Those with cars can drive, but the price of gasoline is making some think twice about that option. In many places, residents said the lack of competition has led to rising prices in the remaining stores.
The residents of the Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, have been without their local supermarket since last year, when it was razed along with a strip of stores and restaurants to make room for new housing and retail developments. What used to be a quick jaunt across the street for Della Dorsett is now a tricky trek, as she maneuvers her electric wheelchair several blocks uphill along Myrtle Avenue, returning home with plastic bags dangling from handles and nestled between her feet.
“I’m tired of going uphill,” she said. “But we have nothing around here now. From Myrtle to St. Edwards and down to Flatbush, not one store.”
The lack of easily available fresh food has prompted city and state officials to convene several task forces to address the public health implications.
The recent study conducted by the Department of City Planning estimated that as many as three million New Yorkers live in what are considered high-need neighborhoods — communities characterized by not enough supermarkets and too many health problems. Within those dense, urban areas, the study estimated that 750,000 people live more than five blocks from a grocery or supermarket.
“Many people in low-income neighborhoods are spending their food budget at discount stores or pharmacies where there is no fresh produce,” said Amanda Burden, the city’s planning director. “In our study, a significant percentage of them reported that in the day before our survey, they had not eaten fresh fruit or vegetables. Not one. That really is a health crisis in the city.”
The study, which was released last Friday, found that there is enough need in the city to support another 100 groceries or supermarkets. To spur supermarket growth, officials could consider using city-owned property or economic incentives, or relaxing requirements to make it easier to set up stores in areas zoned for manufacturing, Ms. Burden said.
“We have to determine why the stores are closing and what the barriers are,” Ms. Burden said. “Stimulating the investment of supermarket owners in these communities is essential to the future of the city.”
Jimmy Proscia, the co-manager of a Key Food in Flushing, says the business has gotten a lot harder in the 33 years since he started. Competitors, he said, cut costs by hiring nonunion workers. Big-box stores buy in bulk and further eat into his sales. Some days it looks like everybody is in the food business.
“You got gas stations now selling milk for $2.99,” he said. “Go to the drug store and they’re selling what we have. It’s ridiculous.”
In St. Albans, Queens, several empty supermarkets line the streets. Every day, Desiree Gaylord walks past a shuttered Associated store on Farmers Boulevard and on to her elderly mother’s house.
“Before I go to work, I call to see what she needs,” Ms. Gaylord said. “I’ll buy it somewhere else and bring it to her. I don’t know why they closed that store. It was an asset, especially for the elderly. Now I see them on the bus with the shopping carts.”
She walked down the street, past the corner house where Elizabeth Lopez moved in just last month. Ms. Lopez had been told there were plenty of places to shop in her new neighborhood. What she found were bodegas. By the time she gets home from her job driving a school bus, the closest supermarket is usually closed. So she drives to Brooklyn each week for her groceries.
“My husband hasn’t even seen this house yet because he’s been in Puerto Rico dealing with his relatives,” she said. “He is going to have a fit. He likes his stores close by.”
The residents who live in the high-rises and private homes that ring Bruckner Plaza in the Bronx can relate to that. Their local supermarket, a Key Food on White Plains Road and the Bruckner Expressway, is the only one south of the expressway, tucked into a corner of the outdoor shopping center that also features a Kmart and assorted smaller stores.
Executives at Pick Quick Foods, which owns the supermarket, say that Vornado Realty Trust, which bought the shopping plaza for $165 million last year, wants to double their rent to $50 a square foot. They fear the landlord wants to push them out.
Pick Quick used to own 15 Key Food stores, which are part of a buying cooperative. Now they are down to six. The smaller stores — those under 10,000 square feet — could not make enough of a profit to stay open. Other stores were priced out of their spaces by rent increases.
At stake at the Bronx store are more than 100 jobs, many of them filled by local residents, including teenagers and single mothers. Some of the employees more or less grew up in the business, starting as teenagers with part-time, unionized jobs. The pay and benefits have helped them support their families, and even prosper.
“What does this job mean to me?” said James Hutcherson, the store’s frozen foods manager. “I got a house and a daughter in college. That’s what I got out of this place.”
He is 46, and values his job so much that he takes three buses each day from his house in Queens. Both his father and his uncle worked for the company.
“I’m used to the people around here,” he said. “I’m used to the whole neighborhood.”
He excused himself to help a customer find several bags of ravioli that were on sale. Nearby, Efrain Rosa, 66, carefully read the list of ingredients on some Lean Cuisine meals. He is a diabetic, and he has to watch his diet. Like other older people in the neighborhood, he is worried that if Key Food closes, the shopping choices on his side of Bruckner Boulevard would be severely limited. Getting to the next closest supermarket — a Pathmark on the north side of the boulevard — would add more than a half-mile to the round-trip walk. Other options are not appealing.
“There is a grocery store across from me,” he acknowledged. “But they don’t carry the kind of groceries we want. Of course, their prices are higher too.”
Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents the store’s workers, have made this Key Food in the Bronx the poster child for a citywide campaign to preserve local supermarkets.
“We’re at a point where landlords do not feel any concern that they are taking supermarkets out of communities,” said Pat Purcell, the union’s director of special projects. “They just want to maximize their profit. I get that, up to a point. But food is different. It affects your health.”
Wendi Kopsick, a spokeswoman for Vornado, said she would not comment on the record about the company’s plans to renew Key Food’s lease. But Vornado’s Web site lists the Bronx parcel as available for “proposed retail.”
Whatever plans the company has for the site are bound to face opposition from the local community board, whose members expect to meet with Vornado executives this week. Enrique Vega, the chairman of Community Board 9 in the Bronx, said the board would not allow anything but a supermarket on the site.
“They are in deep trouble if they think they are going to put another type of store there,” Mr. Vega said. “They’ll need a variance or an agreement with the community board, and they are not going to get it. We want a supermarket.”