Throughout the month of August, we'll be talking about local food issues. We're kicking off this series with a two-part essay by our very own Max Azzarello.   (Read Part I.)   Find all our local food-related content here.

If you'd like to participate in an ongoing discussion about local food issues, please join us all month on our Slack forum. Just head to the #food channel and get chatting. Sign up for Slack and get more info here.


The Rotten Grocer

Despite the repeated promises from developers and city officials that the Fresh Grocer supermarket would be a massive boon to New Brunswick’s residents of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, the store closed its doors on May 14, 2014, owing over $1 million in rent.

The supermarket was rife with issues from the start: Despite hiring 300 workers from the community, half of them quit or were fired within days of the store’s opening. Many who stuck around were victims of wage theft and Labor Law violations.

The promise of foods catered to the city’s immigrant communities never materialized, nor did the promise of affordable prices. For a more in-depth look at the supermarket’s issues, I recommend Charlie Kratovil’s piece at New Brunswick Today.

But even if the Fresh Grocer had been an ideal tenant and an ideal employer, I can’t imagine it would have had much success in providing healthy foods to underserved communities. This might seem improbable when we look at New Brunswick’s food desert map: Within a half-mile radius of the Fresh Grocer, three tracts have very low household vehicle use, and two have median household incomes under $37,000.

But this map is betrayed by anyone who has been to New Brunswick, masking a stark physical and psychological divide that cuts through each of those census tracts. The Fresh Grocer sits firmly within the city’s professional and academic enclave of development:

  • To the west is Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. The backs of two massive buildings on either side of the street offer no storefronts for 1,000 feet of French Street, making the long walk uninviting for the low-income residents who live on the other end of it.

  • To the north sits the aforementioned Gateway project, which includes The Vue luxury residence tower. While many 4-bedroom houses in minority neighborhoods are still selling for less than $200,000, Fresh Grocer CEO Pat Burns purchased a $400,000 condo at The Vue when the store first opened. Beyond that lies the Rutgers University-Easton campus, along with the most expensive single-family neighborhood in the city.

  • To the northeast is a massive parking garage, upscale dining, a Hyatt Regency Hotel, and the 14-acre Johnson & Johnson world headquarters, designed by Louvre architect I.M. Pei.

  • To the southeast is an agglomeration of New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco) projects that make up the city’s revitalized downtown, including the Civic Square court and administrative buildings ($113 million), Rockoff Hall Apartments ($75 million), and the Heldrich Hotel and Conference Center ($110 million).  Construction is underway on a new Cultural Center as well ($215 million).

  • To the south sits an uninviting hodgepodge of semi-developed blocks with government and university buildings sprinkled throughout.

The Fresh Grocer is denoted with a green dot.

The Fresh Grocer is denoted with a green dot.

The separation is obvious when viewed from above; the massive new developments throughout the downtown are in jarring contrast to the sea of small lots that radiate outward and house the bulk of the city’s minority and lower-class residents.

Would you ever take a twenty-minute walk past your usual small grocers and bodegas with familiar people and familiar products, then navigate between a desolate sea of parking garages and into a part of the city that was not built for you, but for people whose suits cost more than your rent... just to visit a new grocery store?

With all this in mind, it is absurd to think that even the most well-intentioned and well-managed supermarket could have serviced New Brunswick’s most at-risk populations in any meaningful way. Can you imagine if you were part of the city’s majority Latino population? Or if you were part of the 20% of the city’s population with a household income below $15,000, or if you had no car? Would you ever take a twenty-minute walk past your usual small grocers and bodegas with familiar people and familiar products, then navigate between a desolate sea of parking garages and into a part of the city that was not built for you, but for people whose suits cost more than your rent? Is the supermarket’s sushi bar and gelato service really worth it?

Even if the supermarket had actually been located within one of the city’s low-income neighborhoods, the disruption would have been enormous: You’d have to bulldoze an entire 30-lot block just to fit it. And even if the supermarket then attracted residents, it would cut dramatically into the sales of all the surrounding small markets and corner stores, the ones that are often owned or operated by the same residents the supermarket purports to help.

At best, this project was a well-intentioned but massively misguided one that failed to consider realities that should have been obvious—a $105 million bet on a three-legged horse.

At worst, the developer and their public-private partnership had no intention of addressing food access issues, but gladly used the supermarket’s proximity to a food desert to justify millions of dollars in tax credits for their own financial gain and to create the supermarket that they wanted in their enclave.

Either way, a mind-boggling sum of money was poured into this project, a large amount of it from public funds, and it didn’t come remotely close to fulfilling its promises.

Source: Anthony Albright

Source: Anthony Albright

Food For Thought

I don’t share this case with you to suggest that underserved urban areas in food deserts are unable to benefit from supermarkets, or that there have never been successful projects developed using any of the various healthy food financing initiatives; surely there have been benefits.

Rather, I use the particularly extreme case of New Brunswick’s Fresh Grocer to highlight four interconnected issues:

1. Supermarkets are seen as the standard tool for combating urban food access issues. Both the definition of food deserts and the structuring of financial incentives push efforts to improve food access toward building new supermarkets and large groceries.

2. Urban supermarkets are invariably big bets. Though many of us treat supermarkets as the default scale for food purchases, they have very large footprints and they require a large amount of capital to build. Bringing a supermarket to a dense urban neighborhood will invariably disrupt the fabric of the neighborhood, despite the benefits that may come from it.

3. We ought to be cautious when it comes to massive developments that promise job growth and improved community outcomes, even for developments as seemingly innocuous as supermarkets or schools or hospitals. While these outcomes may (or may not) be the best-case scenario, large-scale projects invariably carry the risk that comes with investing in them.

4. Financing incentives used to entice developers often shift this risk from the developers and investors and onto the public. Although government financial instruments can be used to help increase economic development in underserved communities, they can also be used solely to benefit a project’s private investors.

One justification for government tax incentives to build urban supermarkets is that developers wouldn’t build them otherwise. High costs and barriers make developments economically infeasible without tax breaks.

A small corner grocery story (Source: Dave Souza)

A small corner grocery story (Source: Dave Souza)

But what if we were able to improve food access — not just end food deserts — without supermarkets at all? As I said above, New Brunswick’s low-income communities are rife with food stores; they are locally operated and are an integral part of the fabric of the community, and can be found on nearly every block.

Of course, these stores largely sell unhealthy, processed foods sold at higher prices than in supermarkets. But who’s to say that they need to? While there are some efforts to help stock corner stores with healthy foods, the budgets are minuscule: Philadelphia’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative makes up just a fraction of the city’s $15 million "Get Healthy Philly" initiative, while the Fresh Food Financing Initiative has invested $74 million in Philadelphia supermarkets.

There are already efforts in New Brunswick to develop a local Community Food Hub - a centralized location that can pool together fresh produce from around the Garden State and allow New Jersey’s small farmers to combine forces in order to compete with the massive corporate farms of the west. (Full disclosure: I helped research the feasibility of a Community Food Hub in New Brunswick in 2012 as part of my graduate program).

Likewise, why not develop a similar model to get food to local vendors? Local corner stores and markets could better compete with large supermarkets by combining their collective purchasing power. Such a model would not be as disruptive or as financially risky as an urban supermarket, and it would likely have much better health outcomes by reaching underserved residents at the places they currently shop within their communities.

We may not end food deserts as they're currently defined, but we might just be able to end urban hunger.

Desert

After being shuttered for 15 months, the Wellness Plaza supermarket reopened as Key Food in August, 2015. Mitch Karon, executive director of the New Brunswick Parking Authority, the owner of the building, offered his enthusiasm: “Key Food seems to understand the demographics of the area and the types of food that are wanted by the people who reside here and work here.” Key Food has since rebranded as SuperFresh.

Despite the Fresh Grocer’s setbacks, the New Brunswick Development Corporation continues to develop nine-figure projects in downtown New Brunswick. Along with a $215 million arts center, Devco has broken ground on a $300 million initiative to redevelop the nearby Rutgers University campus.

Devco has also released renderings for a project called The Hub at New Brunswick Station on the lot adjacent to the supermarket. The price of the project is currently listed at $710 million.

If you'd like to participate in an ongoing discussion about local food issues, please join us all month on our Slack forum. Just head to the #food channel and get chatting. Sign up for Slack and get more info here.

(Top image source: Revireo)


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