The U.S. has largely been spared the global food shortages plaguing developing countries recently, but New York City is on the brink of experiencing a grocery crisis of its own from the closure of hundreds of supermarkets in the five boroughs.
The battle to save the Key Food in the Sound View neighborhood of the Bronx has brought the issue of the city’s dwindling stock of supermarkets into sharp relief, and become the centerpiece of the United Food and Commercial Workers union’s campaign to preserve local supermarkets.
Public officials joined the UFCW and food advocates on the steps of City Hall this afternoon to pressure the city to intervene and stop the shopping complex’s new landlord, Vornado Realty Trust, from pushing the Key Food out with rent hikes.
The owner of Key Food, Pick Wick Foods, currently pays around $20 per square foot in a neighborhood where the most expensive retail runs for no more than $30 per square foot, said Pat Purcell, the director of special projects for UFCW. Vornado wants to raise rent to $50.
“Fifty dollars a square foot is an unheard of number,” Mr. Purcell said while the event organizers tried to get an earlier union protest to leave the steps well after their allotted time slot. “It’s a number you throw out there to force the market out. It’s not a number you negotiate around. The owner is willing to spend a couple million dollars to renovate and is willing to pay a very reasonable rent in the thirties, and more importantly they do $2 million a year in fresh produce.
"Do you know how many green carts you have to put in the street to get $2 million in produce sold?”
The city has only recently begun to address the impending shortage of grocery stores and sparse access to fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods with well-intentioned but limited solutions like Mayor Bloomberg’s Green Cart Initiative—giving permits to fruit and vegetable vendors in underserved neighborhoods.
“We’re going to say to the mayor, ‘If this is an issue for you, go tell your friends at Vornado.’ That’s not what we’re going to allow,” said UFCW lobbyist Richard Lipsky before the speeches began.
“Vornado is a real public player," Mr. Lipsky added. "They are a finalist in the 125th Street development. They are asking the Port Authority to intervene to buy Madison Square Garden. They are always in the loop to ask for public benefits. Now if you’re going to be in the loop to ask for public benefits and you’re going to grow your company on that basis, then you have to be a good corporate citizen. And throwing out the last big supermarket in the South Bronx neighborhood of Sound View is not being a good public citizen.”
New York City has lost one-third of its supermarkets over the past five years, most of them in the outer boroughs and in low-income neighborhoods, according to a recent report by the Department of City Planning. About 750,000 New Yorkers live more than five blocks from a grocery store in neighborhoods hardest hit by the closures, meaning they have little access to fresh produce or affordable groceries.
Assuming that a minimum of 35 people worked in each of the 100-plus grocery stores that have closed, at least 3,500 jobs have been lost, estimated Mr. Purcell.
“In some neighborhoods," said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, "banks are taking every available retail site because they pay more than other businesses, and in other neighborhoods we are being overrun by the drug chains, and what’s closing?
“Our supermarkets. Not everybody gets Fresh Direct, not everybody goes to exclusive gourmet grocery stores. They go to the Key Foods and the Associateds. We have got to get the government to approach this with ideas that make it profitable for supermarkets to open new stores."