Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lisa Sharon Harper's Testimony to City Hall

New York City Council

Zoning and Franchises Sub-committee Hearing on F.R.E.S.H

City Hall, October 26, 2009

Testimony of Lisa Sharon Harper

Co-founder and Executive Director of NY Faith & Justice

Honorable City Council members, thank you for this opportunity to address the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee today regarding the city’s proposed F.R.E.S.H program. 


My name is Lisa Sharon Harper.  I am the co-founder and executive director of NY Faith & Justice.  NY Faith & Justice is a collaborative network of individuals, churches, and organizations dedicated to ending poverty in New York.  Our network reaches nearly 1400 New Yorkers and others across the nation. Among them, approximately 150 faith leaders from all five boroughs and surrounding suburbs of New York City participate in the Faith Leaders for Environmental Justice initiative, a diverse network of inter-faith leaders and advocates committed to leveraging its collective influence in partnership with communities suffering under the weight of environmental injustice.  Today, we stand with the coalition of labor unions, food justice advocates, community based organizations and borough presidents calling for good food and good jobs standards to be attached to F.R.E.S.H. program participation.

On November 5, 1984, our city passed a law with the best of intentions.  Local Law No. 71 created the Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program (ICIP), now the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP).  Among the many intended benefits of ICIP was the creation of jobs in low-income areas as the law paved the way for chain stores to enter under-resourced neighborhoods.  Fast food establishments took advantage of this program and now line the corridors of low-income communities.  Supermarkets were ineligible for ICIP/ICAP.

The 1984 City Council had good intentions, but history has revealed a plethora of problems in its wake.  The council provided jobs, but demonstrated no concern for these communities’ access to healthy food.  The result?  

40% of new cases of Type 2 diabetes cases in Central and East Harlem are children, according to a recent report issued by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.  NOTE: Type 2 diabetes usually occurs in adults 40 years and older.  61% percent of people in under-resourced neighborhoods are obese.  Fast food establishments and pharmacies now line the streets of poor areas while supermarkets are closing.  What’s worse, the ICAP strategy only brought a marginal number of good jobs to targeted neighborhoods.


Now, the current economic downturn is exacerbating the unemployment disparity between black and white New Yorkers.  According to a July 12, 2009 report by the New York Times, “Job Losses Show Wider Racial Gap in New York,” the unemployment rate among blacks is rising 4 times faster than among whites in our city.  Who is being hit the hardest?  The residents of neighborhoods targeted by the F.R.E.S.H. program are.

Consider this:  In a September 23, 2009 New York Times report, “A Plan to Add Supermarkets to Poor Areas, With Healthy Results,” Whole Foods executive Christina Minardi voiced interest in the F.R.E.S.H. program.  “It’s definitely enticing for us,” she said. 

I ask you; without good jobs guaranteed, will the residents of F.R.E.S.H. target neighborhoods really have access to the high-priced fruit and vegetables offered by stores like Whole Foods?  Most likely, they will not.  With no job standards attached to the F.R.E.S.H. program there is no guarantee these stores will hire from the community.  There is also no assurance that unscrupulous stores will not take advantage of F.R.E.S.H. communities by targeting residents for low wage jobs.  More likely, residents will be priced out of the only fresh food being offered in their neighborhoods and unregulated stores will trigger accelerated gentrification and displacement of the very people the F.R.E.S.H. program intends to help.  Good jobs would put money into the hands of residents, making it possible for them to buy the food offered by F.R.E.S.H. markets.

The 1984 City Council passed policy that provided jobs without good food.  History is revealing the repercussions of their vote.  Today, this Council considers another proposal with good intentions. This time it offers food with no guarantee of good jobs.  The members and organizational partners of New York Faith & Justice urge you not to make the same mistake as your predecessors. Not now.  Not when the cost would be so real, so quick, and so dire for people already hurting so much.

Good food without good jobs is not enough. At best it is charity.  At worst it is a tease and a Trojan horse for accelerated gentrification and the displacement of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.  With the real threat of gentrification bearing down on F.R.E.S.H. target communities, the Council must go beyond charity.

You have an opportunity today.  Supermarkets naturally employ large numbers of staff.  Good food with good jobs attached can empower more people in F.R.E.S.H. target communities and lay the groundwork for a transformational kind of development—the kind that stabilizes at-risk communities from the inside out.  By attaching good food and good job standards to F.R.E.S.H., you have the opportunity to keep families in their homes while lifting the health and buying power of entire neighborhoods. 

Mahatma Ghandi said, "A society's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."  Cardinal Roger Mahony echoed Ghandi: “Any society is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members -- the last, the least, the littlest.” 

History will look back on this City Council.  She will judge you not by your good intentions, but by the effect of your policies on the last, the least, and the littlest in our city.  The 1984 Council had its watch.  This is your watch.  Take this opportunity to make things right.

We are praying for you and we are watching.

1 comment:

  1. I can't help but have some business questions:

    1. You say that supermarkets in these neighborhoods are closing. Why are they closing? If fast food is thriving, and supermarkets are closing, is it a valid assumption that new supermarkets in these communities will be frequented by members of those communities? For any new business to thrive, it needs to have a realistic addressable market that will be ready to change from whatever its current solutions are to the new one presented - and rather quickly - or the business will hemorrhage its startup capital.

    2. What are the current solutions? In any new business strategy, one must ask who the competitors are and how they are faring in the addressable market. Is there room for a new player? In Central Harlem and East Harlem, there are several large supermarkets (e.g. Pathmark and Fine Fare) that have significant produce selection. There are mid-size supermarkets (like C-Town and Associated) which also have fresh produce offerings, and there are small independently owned grocers (particularly prolific in East Harlem along 3rd Avenue) that have significant and reasonable fresh produce offerings. As an entrepreneur, I'd want to know what these alternatives are failing to offer and why a new player would increase the addressable market rather than just displacing the smallest outfits - thereby forcing out the self-employed.

    3. Is proximity the only or primary issue? Since there is already fresh produce available from a variety of grocers in these neighborhoods (specifically Central and East Harlem), it seems that the "access" argument means primarily proximity. If this is true, then enticing large-scale supermarkets like Whole Foods seems misguided because they are, by definition, in one place, not everywhere. It seems, rather, that the best strategy would be to attract small, independently owned grocers. In order to do that, you need to show an unmet need with a significant addressable market, or it simply isn't worth the risk for the business owner.

    I can't help but conclude that the real need is demand creation for fresh produce at this stage. Then, when demand exceeds supply, there will be good reason for new supermarkets to open that don't close the doors of the existing ones who are already providing a meaningful service to the community.