FreshDirect’s rotten Bronx deal
Poor people need good food, too
BY GABBY WARSHAWER / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, May 13, 2012, 4:12 AM
I recently moved to Crown Heights. FreshDirect delivers to my apartment, and I was offered a promotion to try the online grocery service that has become popular since starting to serve New York in 2002.
FreshDirect will get $127.8 million to come to the Bronx, but it won’t deliver to most of the borough.
I placed a couple orders — but stopped after I read about the deal the company made with the city in February to build a new facility in the South Bronx.
Why? Because it’s a bum deal for the city I love.
In this sweetheart agreement, FreshDirect will receive $127.8 million in tax subsidies and funds from the city and state to construct a 500,000-square-foot warehouse. Reportedly, if City Hall and Albany hadn’t pitched in, FreshDirect would have likely left its current home in Long Island City for (gasp) New Jersey.
And yet, gallingly, FreshDirect CEO Jason Ackerman has said the business doesn’t have plans to deliver to the very neighborhood, Mott Haven, where it will build a new base of operations for its more than 100 delivery trucks.
“We have always felt that the Bronx has not wanted our service, and we’ve seen over time no natural request for our service,” Ackerman told WNYC this winter.
But if our tax dollars are going to bolster FreshDirect, shouldn’t we all be invited to the table?
Many of the residents of the Bronx rely on bodegas or ancient supermarkets for their groceries. According to this year’s County Health Rankings & Roadmap report on New York State by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Bronx is the least healthy county in the entire state. The report takes into account statistics such as employment and mortality rate, as well as access to healthy food.
FreshDirect’s dozens of trucks, emblazoned with images of ripe vegetables, glistening cuts of meat and other delicacies, will be cruising in and out of a neighborhood that, in my estimation, it could do far more to help.
There’s another duplicitous aspect to this deal: City Hall claims that FreshDirect’s move to the South Bronx will create about 1,000 jobs in one of the most impoverished areas in the city.
What economic development officials are much more hesitant to discuss, however, is that the company is not contractually required to create a specific number of jobs. Without concrete thresholds for job creation, what incentives will FreshDirect have to keep its promises?
In a zip code where FreshDirect’s facility will be built, the average income per household is $14,271, according to federal census figures from 2010. A thousand jobs could make a huge difference — if they actually came.
The key word there is “if,” for as City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito put it to the Daily News last month, “We are always told that these subsidies are going to create jobs. What happens when the companies don’t produce?” Not much, apparently.
She and fellow city Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo are still trying to bring the project to a halt with an appeal to Albany.
If they fail, the “food desert” that is the South Bronx won’t get a much-needed infusion of fresh groceries. Nor can it realistically expect an economic boost from the move, either.
I went to high school in the Bronx, not far from where FreshDirect plans to build its facility. FreshDirect doesn’t deliver to that neighborhood, either. It does, however, deliver to wealthy precincts like Riverdale, where people can afford locally-foraged mushrooms and, since they probably already have jobs, don’t care much whether FreshDirect creates 1,000 jobs or only 15 of them.
I remember, however, how my daily lunch at high school was usually a milkshake from Mister Softee or a $1 slice from a pizza joint a few blocks away.
For me, this was a teenager’s indulgence; for some, unhealthy food is a way of life. What a shame that FreshDirect has so little interest in changing that.
Warshawer is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Brownstoner.com, a blog about Brooklyn.