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NYC Council Holds Hearing on the Future of the FRESH Program

NYC Council Holds Hearing on the Future of the FRESH Program

By Beckett Flynn, Summer 2018 Fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and Graduate Student at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

The Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program was launched in 2009 to encourage grocery stores to open in underserved communities by providing zoning and financial incentives to eligible grocery store operators and developers. The program is an effort between several New York City agencies and relies on input from city government and community groups.

The status and future of the FRESH program were addressed in an oversight hearing held by the New York City Council’s Committee on Economic Development and the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises on June 21, 2018. While the hearing showed widespread support for the two-pronged goal of increasing access to healthy foods and decreasing negative health outcomes in underserved communities, ideas about how to best go about that were varied. Craig Willingham, Deputy Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, delivered testimony which outlined flaws in the original rationale used to create FRESH. His statements also offered suggestions of ways to promote public health by addressing some of the program’s limitations.

During the nearly four-hour hearing a variety of constituencies made their voices heard. Half of those testifying represented business interests and half were community, food, and health organizations. In discussing the successes, shortfalls, and future path of the FRESH program, many of the observations and suggestions aligned with those made by the Institute (see our Policy Brief on the topic). Moreover, several of those testifying stressed the value of focusing on the affordability of healthy food, versus the size of retail space. Additionally, a number of speakers noted that the program’s minimum square footage requirements often prevent FRESH stores from being included in NYCHA developments; disadvantaging residents who may stand to benefit most from the program.

The committee hearing provided an important opportunity for an unrestricted critique of the FRESH program as we approach the 10-year anniversary of its launch. FRESH, as it is currently structured, may not be the most effective way to encourage food equity in New York City, but it has potential. If the focus of the program were to shift away from development, as recommended by many who gave testimony, and more toward public health, a larger portion of the city would stand to benefit.