Many American cities were having a tough time in the late 20th century. The days of a working-class urban center were a fading memory, and virtually the entire country struggled to cope with the change. The 1919 Census of Manufactures showed that the garment industry alone employed over 250,000 New Yorkers in more than 11,000 factories—and that was just counting the businesses in Manhattan. By 1944, the Regional Plan Association found that there were under a million manufacturing jobs in the whole New York Metro, total—and things didn’t look up from there.
New York, along with virtually every city in the industrialized world, passed new zoning regulations throughout the mid-1900s that made it more difficult to build factories in the city center, and urban development shifted towards white-collar office jobs. A mass exodus of middle- and upper-class residents from the city to the suburbs following World War II caused the populations of urban centers to shrink dramatically—and the new suburbanites took amenities, jobs, and capital along with them.
The formal conversation around what we now call “food deserts” began in the late 1960s when researchers started seeing strong ties between lack of access to fresh, quality food and the burgeoning obesity and diabetes epidemics. While early studies focused primarily on gaps in retail activity in urban centers caused by migration to the suburbs, more recently they’ve included suburban and rural areas as well.
To no surprise, most food deserts are concentrated in poor areas, both urban and rural. These are the same areas that typically lack access to quality education, health care, and other social services. But when new grocery stores start opening their doors in these areas, often doing so because the area is perceived as an untapped market, the health problems don’t disappear. In some cases, people buy the same unhealthy food they may have bought at the convenience store before, but in larger quantities and at lower prices.
“The first Whole Foods in NYC opened in 2001; there are now 12 stores between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The newest store, on W. 125th Street in Harlem, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, opened this summer.”
In 2015, the New York Times ran a piece summing up some recent studies that critique the whole concept of the food desert, tilted “Giving the Poor Easy Access to Healthy Food Doesn’t Mean They’ll Buy It.” What this and similar articles show is that there’s more at play than just access to quality food. Consumer preference, large-scale market forces, education, income, and regional cuisine are all part of the equation. In short, “fixing” food deserts is a complicated issue. Food is an important part of culture, and culture is a lot more permanent than a grocery store.
But people have been working hard to shift the food culture in New York for decades. One of the biggest names in this effort is GrowNYC. From their website, their “mission is to improve New York City’s quality of life through environmental programs that transform communities block by block and empower all New Yorkers to secure a clean and healthy environment for future generations.” They oversee the Greenmarket network, which has over 50 locations throughout the five boroughs, and provide resources and education on topics like recycling and gardening. They’ve been around for over 45 years—about twice as long, in fact, as “food desert” has been an academically recognized term.
Michael Hurwitz, director of the Greenmarket Program, has seen GrowNYC take on new life since he started there in 2007. “I was incredibly fortunate to come to GrowNYC a year after our Executive Director, Marcel van Ooyen, arrived. While GrowNYC established itself in its first 30 [or so] years as a crucial resource to New Yorkers that wanted to make a significant impact on the environment by making simple changes in their everyday lives, Marcel took this organization to the next level.” Hurwitz noted that some of the most impactful programs GrowNYC has championed over the past decade include gardening programs in area schools; teaching gardens on Governors Island and Randall’s Island, where visitors can learn about urban farming firsthand; and the first-of-its-kind Heath Bucks SNAP incentive program, which gives SNAP recipients a two-dollar voucher for every five dollars they spend at farmers markets using SNAP on an EBT card, extending their local-produce purchasing power by 40%. Hurwitz was also instrumental in establishing Greenmarket Co., which connects farmers directly to commercial clients, “from Michelin-rated restaurants and specialty retailers to bodegas, senior centers, and soup kitchens,” according to their website.
GrowNYC is now in the process of developing a new Regional Food Hub. “With the construction of 75,000 square feet dedicated to regional food aggregation and distribution, hundreds of area farms will have access to the New York City marketplace in a way that has never existed before,” shares Hurwitz.
While GrowNYC’s work has undoubtedly done much to increase food access across the city, most New Yorkers still do their shopping at the grocery store. And when it comes to grocery stores, Brooklyn is changing. Fifteen years ago, no one besides, perhaps, a savvy real estate investor, could have imagined a high-end grocery store on the corner of Bedford and N 4th. But today, there it stands in all of its ten-dollar kombucha glory: Whole Foods.
The first Whole Foods in NYC opened in 2001; there are now 12 stores between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The newest store, on W. 125th Street in Harlem, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, opened this summer.
And what about that new Trader Joe’s in Downtown Brooklyn? There were virtually no residential buildings within walking distance of the store’s current location before parts of the neighborhood were rezoned in 2004. But over the past decade there has been an explosion of development, with well over 10,000 new apartments either completed or currently under construction in Downtown Brooklyn. This has transformed the area from a 9–5 business district to an up-and-coming, 24-hour neighborhood. Trader Joe’s has been breaking into similar neighborhoods in the New York City market since their first store in NYC opened in 2006, with seven locations currently open for business and two more slated to open by the end of 2017.
The expansion of these two brands in particular paints the picture of what’s been happening in a lot of neighborhoods over the past decade or so years. Gentrification isn’t just making the rent go up. It’s changing the way NYC eats, too.
But not everyone is benefitting from the presence of these new, higher-end (and higher-priced) grocery stores. I spoke briefly to Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who represents East Williamsburg and parts of Bushwick and Ridgewood, about how he’s seen the neighborhood change since the Whole Foods opened on Bedford. He noted a decrease in the number of bodegas in the neighborhood, even mentioning that one former bodega now houses a vintage home-goods store.
When almost half of the neighborhood is doing their shopping elsewhere, the other half, shopping near home, suffers, because the stores are catering to a decreased demand, thereby often providing less variety and lower-quality goods.
While most food advocates don’t consider bodegas a great source of quality food, they play an important role in the food culture of the communities they serve. Affordability is a huge part of access—if longtime residents can’t afford these new, higher-end chains, they’re forced to travel farther for the same goods that used to be just around the corner; if new, less-affordable bodegas replace the old, the challenge, too, persists.
When I attended a Community Board meeting in my neighborhood last fall, I heard about a study on grocery shopping habits and satisfaction with area stores. The Board wanted to know where neighborhood residents were shopping, and how satisfied they were with things like affordability and the quality of fresh produce. I recently sent an email to learn more about that study. Atim Oton, the chair of the Economic Development Committee for Brooklyn Community Board 8 (CB8), which is composed of Prospect Heights, northern Crown Heights, and Weeksville, says the study is, “based on some discussions of what we felt were key issues facing the residents and from concerns we heard over the years about the food options in the community.”
According to a 2014 study by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, CB8 ranks in the lowest 15 of the city’s 59 Community Boards for grocery store square footage per 100 residents. Brooklyn as a whole ranks substantially lower than the five-borough average by the same measure, beating out the Bronx for the number four spot by only one square foot per 100 residents. Oton shared that the Board is hoping “to use the study as a needed tool for our discussions internally and externally and one that is based on actual sampling work rather than speculation.” In the future, they would love to see more grocers come into the neighborhood, especially in Weeksville and northeastern Crown Heights.
So far, the Community Board’s study found that about 40% of residents shop almost exclusively outside the Community District boundaries. Much of the out-of-neighborhood business is split between the Gowanus Whole Foods, Court Street Trader Joe’s, and online services like Blue Apron or Amazon. What exactly do numbers like these mean, and why are they important, especially in a rapidly changing neighborhood?
When almost half of the neighborhood is doing their shopping elsewhere, the other half, shopping near home, suffers, because the stores are catering to a decreased
demand, thereby often providing less variety and lower-quality goods. It might be a pain to pick through the avocados at the local grocery store, but maybe that’s because they don’t have enough demand to keep the produce you like in stock. By shopping in their own neighborhoods, residents become a part of creating that demand.
Even if we claim that food access is a product of larger economic forces, we can’t deny our role in their manifestation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shopping at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. (And I’ve ordered bloody mary mix and fancy pickles on Amazon Prime Now more times than I care to admit.) As consumers, we’re allowed to choose where we shop.
But we are responsible for those choices, and there is power in deciding where we spend our money. It might be convenient to stop at the Whole Foods in Union Square on the way home from work, but why not check out the Greenmarket right across 14th Street? Take a few minutes and think about the extra packaging waste you’re creating before you order that bag of groceries from bed on a Saturday morning. Does the food you’re buying support good jobs, sustainable farming practices, and a shorter, more efficient supply chain?
New York is growing. The Department of City Planning projects that the city’s population will hit 9 million in 2040, up from 8.2 million in 2010. The city has a lot of work ahead to accommodate that growth. We can’t foresee every challenge, nor is it likely that we’ll fix all issues around food access, but we can do something. And if we claim to care about the future of our neighborhood, city, country, and planet, we need to think about how our eating and shopping habits affect that future.