When FreshDirect received a $128 million package of cash and tax breaks in February to move to the Bronx, residents of the borough, the city’s poorest, protested loudly about a peculiar indignity: the online grocer did not deliver to most of their neighborhoods.
Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Vendors, like this one on Fordham Road, and supermarkets sell produce in the Bronx, but options have not always been plentiful.
This week, after months of criticism, FreshDirect expanded its service to include every corner of the Bronx.
Though the move was hailed by city leaders, the effort has drawn mixed reactions from residents, who say they cannot afford FreshDirect prices on their small incomes, and from community advocates, who say that any benefit will be outweighed by more truck traffic and exhaust fumes and a loss of waterfront access and green space at the company’s new site in the Harlem River Yard.
“They would serve the Bronx better by not coming in,” said Kelly Moltzen, a Mott Haven resident who is also a nutrition coordinator for Bronx Health REACH
, a community program working to reduce obesity and diabetes. “There are a lot of other ways to get healthy food to people without giving a subsidy to a private company that is not part of the neighborhood.”
FreshDirect is expanding its service in a borough that is already striving to improve access to healthier food. Although home to the famed Hunts Point produce market, the Bronx historically saw little of that fresh food in its own supermarkets and bodegas. In recent years, city officials and community groups have worked to expand farmers’ markets and green carts across the Bronx, and persuaded stores to stock more fresh produce.
But Bronx residents like Oscar Rivera, a father of three in Mott Haven, say that while there is plenty of produce at his supermarket, Western Beef, the quality can be so poor — mushy tomatoes and brown bananas — that he does not want to eat it. His wife tried to order from FreshDirect as an alternative only to discover that it did not deliver to their address.
Mr. Rivera, 35, said they might give FreshDirect another try. “If it’s too expensive, we can’t get it,” said Mr. Rivera, who was laid off from his maintenance job last month.
Myrna Maldonado, 45, who is diabetic, also said she would consider using FreshDirect for food that she cannot usually find in her Morrisania neighborhood: Granny Smith apples, seedless tangerines and specialty pears. “But if I can get it cheaper elsewhere, I’ll go there,” Ms. Maldonado said.
Jason Ackerman, chief executive at FreshDirect, would not say how many orders had come in during the first few days of the expanded service. But he said that the company’s prices would be “very competitive” in the Bronx, and that certain foods may cost less than in Manhattan.
By the end of the year, he said, the company will also accept food stamps from some customers in a pilot program meant to reach more people in poor neighborhoods. The standard delivery charge of $5.99 (and a fuel surcharge of 47 cents) will be waived for those using food stamps, but not for other Bronx customers.
In the past, FreshDirect served some affluent neighborhoods in the Bronx, like Riverdale and Woodlawn. Mr. Ackerman said he saw the expansion of service to the rest of the borough as a small, first step toward helping residents eat healthier. “It’s not just access,” he said. “It’s also knowing what to buy and getting people in the right mind frame.”
But critics say FreshDirect’s efforts do not justify the $128 million subsidy it received for its new headquarters in the Bronx, which the company said would employ residents for a third to a half of the 3,000 jobs there. Critics say the money FreshDirect is getting could have been used to help many poor families.
“FreshDirect didn’t come here to help the people of the Bronx,” said Heidi Hynes, executive director of the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center
, which started a food-buying club this year to provide $25 bags of fresh produce and grains to the community. “They came here because they got a subsidy, and they’re only serving the Bronx because the people got mad,” Ms. Hynes said. “It’s insufficient to need.”
At green carts and produce stands around the Bronx, many shoppers said they had not heard of FreshDirect. Some said it was not an option because they did not have a computer with Internet access. Others said it could not match the bargain prices in the Bronx.
“This is my FreshDirect right here,” said Ali Rivera, 56, a former cook who spent $3 for four pears and five nectarines at a stand in Fordham Plaza.
A bustling green cart at East 167th and Gerard Avenue in the western Bronx looked more like a dollar store this week, with offerings like a bag of five tomatoes and a bunch of extra-large carrots. Frances Sosa, a green cart worker, said she had more than 100 customers a day, about half of whom use food stamps.
“Every day, the same people buy here,” she said. “In supermarkets, you get it for $5, here it’s $1, where are you going to buy?”