Peddling Nonsense: The Failure of the Green Cart Experiment

Over four years ago, the mayor and the city council launched the Green Cart experiment-a plan to put 1,500 veggie carts into so-called underserved areas in order to give poor folks access to healthier foods. This “field of dreams theory” was the brainchild of the brain-dead health commissioner at the time, Tom Frieden, who has since gone to greener pastures.

It goes without saying that if your primary concern is health than you’re less likely to consider economic damages when you promote a policy-and that goes in spades for the city’s green cart program designed to bring produce peddlers into those underserved communities. This initiative was a collaborative effort between Speaker Quinn, Mayor Bloomberg and Frieden.*

(*”Under a bill introduced in December at the mayor’s request – with the backing of Council Speaker Christine Quinn – the city would issue 1,500 new permits for street pushcarts to sell just fruits and vegetables in “underserved communities.” )

Putting more veggie peddlers into poor neighborhoods was seen by these three crusaders as the quickest way to provide access to healthier foods. The commissioner was convinced that if only people were given this access their consumption rates would climb;

“City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden testified that one of the underlying reasons why residents of poorer communities consume fewer fruits and vegetables is the reduced availability. When fruits and vegetables are more available and closer, people buy and eat more of them,” Frieden said.”  

Frieden, as was his custom, went on to tell the city council- carefully removing statistics from his posterior-that the plan was a life saver; “He estimated that “at least 100,000 New Yorkers would eat more fruits and vegetables” if the green carts are deployed. And they “would save approximately 100 lives per year,” he added.” (Ibid)

This was, as was said at the time, a bad idea based on a false premise-an idea that ignored the already existing food outlets strewn all through these areas; The reality here was that there were thousands of produce outlets within Intro 665 targeted areas. Peddlers with their new $50 a year licenses were not heading to the hills, so to speak, but were going right for the busy commercial streets; and just like in Manhattan, setting up shop right in front of existing supermarkets and produce stores.

So the access issue remained unaddressed, if in fact it has any validity in the first place. What the city needed to do, if it believed its own assumptions about access, was to identify specific locations and grant peddling permits for these specific locations. Our suspicion at the time, however, was that the city was in an Emperor’s No Clothes position, and hence unwilling to empirically test the proposition Intro 665’s assumptions-fearing that the access assumption is overblown and/or meaningless.

The entire Green Carts program, however, was another example of the economic illiteracy of the health advocates. As the NY Times reported back then; “At issue is the fate of the city’s Korean-owned small grocery stores, whose numbers are estimated at 2,000 to 3,000. The groups contend that a vote on the bill should be postponed and say the legislation should reduce the number of new vendors, impose a minimum distance between vendors and grocers, and give store owners preference in obtaining licenses for carts.”

Frieden remained clueless-a perfect example of how faith-based ideology transcends empirical evidence. He naively-or disingenuously-offered that the carts would enhance competition;

“According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner, the city is trying to encourage store owners to sell more produce, but many merchants have found that alcohol and cigarettes have higher profit margins. Noting that there were “very few greengrocers at all” in the proposed police precincts, Dr. Frieden said, “The carts might actually have a salutary effect on competition in these areas.” (Ibid)

Frieden never explained his economic theory that would explain how a local produce store could possibly compete with a low overhead cart whose fee for getting into business was a $250 city permit. To be fair economics was not his forte.

Now, four years later, the failure of the city’s policy is evident all over. As we have commented on this blog earlier this year:

“When the Green Cart legislation was passed in 2008 there was a provision that mandated a review of the experiment’s ability to achieve the goals that the mayor and the council speaker laid-greater access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and financial success of the vendors. The underlying assumption was what we have called the, “field of dreams theory,” the belief that if carts were placed in “underserved areas” they would be successful because all that the folks were lacking was access to the veggies.

Almost five years later and what do we find? Well for one thing there has been no study of the program’s effectiveness and no oversight hearing at the city council that would illuminate how the program is going. That, as the Marxists say, is no accident. An oversight hearing would dramatically reveal the total failure of this experiment-and the arrogance and stupidity that promoted it in the first place.” – NYAGS 

Making a bad situation worse is the Wild West nature of the proliferation of fruit and veggie peddlers all over the East and West Sides of Manhattan where these cannibals are taking away business from the brick and mortar supermarkets and green grocers-a dagger in the heart of neighborhood retailing. We see the same scenes popping up in Brooklyn as well-once again right in front of taxpaying retailers-as the following photo underscores.

New York CartsWhat you see there is one of the city’s vaunted “Green Carts” that have been licensed as an antidote to the lack of fresh produce in so-called underserved areas. The one in the picture-operating daily from 9 AM to 8 Pm between East 16th Street and Foster Avenue is less than one block away from a green grocer at 1521 Newkirk Avenue. In similar fashion, two other carts merging into one giant one between Flatbush and Nostrand Aves, operates 20 hours a day just across the sidewalk in the same block.

The Bloomberg administration has shown a remarkable hostility to neighborhood retailing and its peddler policy dramatizes this antipathy. Now on top of this-adding insult to injury-the city has proposed subsidizing FreshDirect with tens of millions of tax dollars-so it can compete against existing food retailers: the flip side of the peddler assault.

We need a total overhaul of all vending in NYC-and put the premium on those entrepreneurs who put their life savings into opening stores and paying taxes. The proliferation of food vendors all over the city needs to be stopped and a pro-small business policy put into place. This is what all city wide candidates need to consider so that neighborhood businesses can operate without the shackles that the current administration has placed on them.





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