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Supermarket Closings in New York City: What’s the Impact on Healthy Food Access?

Supermarket Closings in New York City: What’s the Impact on Healthy Food Access? 

From 2013 to 2015, the number of traditional supermarkets in New York City increased nearly 10%. However, since 2015 there has been a net loss of 16 stores: 10 former A&P, 3 D’Agostinos, and 3 Associated & Key Food.

This citywide trend masks the devastating effects of the loss of an individual supermarket -- to workers who lose their jobs and to communities already lacking quality food retail outlets. For some vulnerable residents who may not be in a position to shop at more distant, more affordable or familiar locations, supermarket closings may reduce access to healthy affordable food. 
 
At a recent Forum on Supermarket Closing in New York City, the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute;  LISC-New York City, a support organization for community development corporations; and City Harvest, a food rescue organization, convened policy makers, supermarket operators and advocates to consider appropriate policy responses to supermarket closings.

Forum participants acknowledge that the traditional supermarket industry is in the midst of a transformation. Big box and limited variety grocers on the one hand and drug stores, dollar stores, and online delivery services on the other are competing for sales revenue.  Consumers are more likely to shop at multiple retailers, reducing the already razor-thin margins of traditional retailers.
 
The city’s pattern of economic growth means that commercial rents have increased significantly, especially in neighborhoods that have experienced an influx of higher-income residents. As a result, as supermarket leases expire, operators face rent increases that in some cases would render the business unprofitable.

Nicholas Freudenberg, Director, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, in discussion with store operators and representatives from city government, philanthropy and nonprofit organizations addressing the food needs of New Yorkers. photo credit:  Reeve Jolliffe

Nicholas Freudenberg, Director, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, in discussion with store operators and representatives from city government, philanthropy and nonprofit organizations addressing the food needs of New Yorkers. photo credit:  Reeve Jolliffe

Protecting traditional supermarkets from cost increases that put them out of business requires either commercial rent control or other mechanisms such as mandatory rent negotiations that enable grocers to withstand rising property values in rapidly growing neighborhoods.
 
Creating more stable food retail options that provide access to the poorest New Yorkers may also involve re-creating the public markets that were the main source of food for New York City before the growth of the supermarket chain.  Public markets  can range from conventional market halls offering subsidized rents for small food retailers; farmers markets for direct sales; or public commissaries like those operated by the US military to subsidize the cost of healthy food. Food delivery to homes or community centers is another way to meet the shopping needs of New Yorkers without new brick and mortar locations.

In the last decade, city policy on supermarkets was often based on the theory that many New York City neighborhoods had too few supermarkets. More recent developments suggest that policies need to focus on improving the quality and affordability of the food retail system.  This may include incentives for new supermarkets but it also requires supporting a wider range of retail outlets that  make selling healthy food to all sectors of their communities at affordable prices a priority.

Developing food retail policies that can solve this problem will require understanding the shopping practices and preferences of a wide range of New Yorkers; better recognition of the obstacles faced by existing small and large  retailers; and systematic assessment of a range of policies, programs and funding streams that can be directed to expanding healthy food retail options in New York City.

For a more in-depth discussion of this topic see our new report Creating Policies to Support Healthy Food Access in a Changing Food Retail: Invitation to a Dialog by Nevin Cohen and Nicholas Freudenberg. We invite readers to join a dialogue on shaping the policies that can increase food access in a changing retail environment.