Monday, September 28, 2009

A Plan to Add Supermarkets to Poor Areas, With Healthy Results

In a city known more for hot dogs and egg creams than the apple of its nickname, officials want to establish an even bigger beachhead for healthy food — new supermarkets in areas where fresh produce is scarce and where poverty, obesity and diabetes run high.

Under a proposal the City Planning Commission unanimously approved on Wednesday, the city would offer zoning and tax incentives to spur the development of full-service grocery stores that devote a certain amount of space to fresh produce, meats, dairy and other perishables.

The plan — which has broad support among food policy experts, supermarket executives and City Council members, whose approval is needed — would permit developers to construct larger buildings than existing zoning would ordinarily allow, and give tax abatements and exemptions for approved stores in large swaths of northern Manhattan, central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, as well as downtown Jamaica in Queens.

“This is about being able to walk to get your groceries in those areas that are really, really underserved and basically have no place to buy fresh produce,” said Amanda M. Burden, the city planning commissioner. Residents in such areas, she said, have been spending “their grocery dollars at Duane Reade and CVS on chips and soda.”

The move comes as governments across the nation struggle to solve what public health advocates call an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Schools have banned sugary drinks; lawmakers have helped urban farms spread like crabgrass on undeveloped lots; and cities like Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., have limited the concentration of fast-food restaurants in low-income areas.

But the New York proposal, adapted from a Pennsylvania program that provides grants and loans for supermarket construction, is unusual because it employs a mix of zoning and financial incentives to attract, rather than repel, a narrowly defined type of commercial enterprise.