Changing Food Policy Brings Greens to Low Income Neighborhoods

PHILADELPHIA, UNITED STATES: Changing zoning policy, increasing grant availability, and offering revolving-loan programs helps bring fresh food into low income neighborhoods.  These Pennsylvania  incentives are “aimed at improving access to nutritious food” in places with few grocery options.  The NYTimes reports:

The ShopRite, which was bustling on a recent weekday, has a pharmacy, the type of produce department that suburban shoppers take for granted and special sections stocked with items like fufu flour, a staple of Jamaican cuisine, and red palm oil, a favorite of West African cooks. The halal meat counter was set up with advice from local imams.

Supermarkets are a low-margin business, generating profits of less than 2 percent, industry spokesmen say. The ShopRite owner, Jeffrey Brown, a fourth-generation grocer, said it would not have made economic sense to open the $14.5 million store, which is at 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue, if not for a Pennsylvania grant and revolving-loan program aimed at improving access to nutritious food in places with few, if any, good stores to choose from.

“In neighborhoods like this, people have less money and the first thing they cut out are all the high-margin items,” said Mr. Brown, citing prepared foods and fancy breads as examples. Costs, like extra security, tend to be higher in poorer neighborhoods, he said.

Through the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, Mr. Brown, who owns 10 other supermarkets in the Philadelphia area, got a $1 million grant and $7 million in federal New Markets tax credits, which are aimed at stimulating investment in low-income communities. Several customers said the prices at Mr. Brown’s store were fairer than what they had been used to.

Inspired by Pennsylvania’s example, New York City officials have developed an initiative of their own to bring new neighborhood markets selling fresh food to areas of the city where they say the need is greatest.

Like Pennsylvania, New York will offer financial incentives, but the city is also proposing a series of zoning incentives for northern Manhattan, the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn and the Jamaica section of Queens. These include a density bonus that would allow developers to add 20,000 square feet to a residential building in exchange for putting a supermarket on the ground floor.

“When we spoke to operators, they said that in terms of challenges and hurdles, zoning changes would make an enormous difference to them,” said Amanda M. Burden, the New York City planning commissioner. “The level of enthusiasm was extremely strong.”

The Pennsylvania program got started five years ago after the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization that was concerned about the high incidence of obesity and diabetes in neighborhoods where fresh food was scarce, began meeting with leaders of the supermarket industry. Another participant was the Reinvestment Fund, another nonprofit organization, which raises private capital from banks and investors for job-generating projects. The fund and the Food Trust teamed up.

The program began with a $10 million allocation, which was renewed twice and matched with $90 million in private funds, for a total investment of $120 million, said Patricia L. Smith, the director of special initiatives for the Reinvestment Fund.

In all, the program has resulted in 69 projects in various stages of development, 23 of them in Philadelphia. Five approved projects have gone out of business, a relatively low failure rate, she said. Some 3,700 jobs have been created, said John Weidman, deputy director of the Food Trust.

Lucinda Hudson, who moved to Parkside in 1973, said she had waited more than three decades for a convenient way to buy fresh produce. Now she lives within shouting distance of Mr. Brown’s market. “I walk over there every day for my collard greens, my broccoli, my cabbage,” said Ms. Hudson, the president of the Parkside Association of Philadelphia, a neighborhood group. “When it opened, we had to pinch ourselves a couple of times.”

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