Posted by: Alvin | July 16, 2009

Learning from New York on Fresh Food in the Inner City

Sunrise MarketThe connection between an individual’s health outcomes and their ability to access fresh fruits and vegetables are a no brainer. The easier it is to buy affordable healthy foods, the more likely people will do so, and the healthier they will be as a result. What is less of a no brainer is how to insure a city’s entire population has access to fresh groceries that are affordable. Chances are, if you are the average city dweller, you think nothing of where you get your fruits and veggies. It may be the Superstore or Safeway a 10 minute drive away, it could be the green grocer down the street, or even the weekly farmer’s market at your local park or community centre. But chances are also that you would scoff at the suggestion of buying groceries at the corner store, 7-Eleven, or gas station. Imagine how much extra it would cost if you had to buy your bananas, juice, milk, cheese, and deli meats at a Mac’s. But that’s exactly the situation that many people living in the inner city are faced with, and many of these people are low income with no access to personal transportation to easily get them to a cheaper source of good food.

For most people, the supermarket, green grocer, or farmer’s markets are all part of living in a big city. In Vancouver it’s starting to border on religion. Take the recent Alan Richman article in Bon Appétit magazine that profiled this city’s demand of local chefs to buy local ingredients:

“…There is an unvarying obligation to serve products that do the region proud. Culinary masters are in the background. True believers—the proponents of sustainable dining practices—are the new stars.”

So why is it that we are so far behind in making sure citizens here have access to fresh produce, no matter where they live and how much they earn? Take a drive through the downtown eastside, or even gastown, and you’ll find it very hard to imagine where you would buy fresh food if you lived in the area. Now, to be fair, Vancouver is lucky enough to have a Chinatown centrally located enough that it is possible to walk to Sunrise Market, for instance, and buy affordable fresh produce. But we can’t expect Chinatown to be able to service the entire inner city, especially for people that are elderly or mobility challenged. So what can be done?

A recent New York Times article profiled both the state of Pennsylvania and the city of New York as leading the way in creating incentives for grocery stores to set up shop in lower income neighbourhoods. In the case of Pennsylvania, the state is using their “New Markets” tax credit system (designed to stimulate investment in lower income areas) as well as large grants to enable supermarkets and grocery stores to set up shop. The initiative was started five years ago after a local non-profit, concerned about the “high incidence of obesity and diabetes in neighborhoods where fresh food was scarce,” met with supermarket industry members to come up with ways to expand grocery offerings in these areas. After a successful start which meant funding renewals and matching funds from private groups, the project now has $120 million worth of investment.

The city of New York went a step further. Building upon Pennsylvania financial incentives system, the city added zoning incentives to go along with their project, called “Food Retail Expansion to Support Health” (FRESH). New York’s incentives will mean density bonusing for developments, adding an additional 20,000 square feet to a residential building if a supermarket is put into the ground floor. Following the Pennsylvania model, New York City officials entered into a dialogue with supermarket industry members to find out the most effective way of making the positive changes a reality. From the article:

“It was one of the first times that public officials were asking the right questions,” said Patricia Brodhagen, a vice president of the Food Industry Alliance, a statewide association of retailers and wholesalers. “The answer is simple: if supermarkets could make money, they would be there. Finally, we had somebody saying, ‘What are the barriers?’ ”

Pennsylvania and New York City appear to be only the beginning of these types of public policy initiatives. At the beginning of June, Illinois’ General Assembly approved $10 million in funding for a “Fresh Food Fund,” a project modeled after Pennsylvania’s.

There are positive changes happening in Vancouver. As part of the city’s new “Summer Spaces” program, Gastown will see the creation of a new Farmer’s Market vastly improving access to fresh foods in that inner city neighbourhood. Farmer’s Markets, however, tend to occupy the higher end of the food-buying spectrum, and are far less approachable for lower income individuals when compared to a simple trip to a regular grocery store. Vancouver needs to be far more proactive, but so does the BC Government. I would like to see a Ministry of Health that understands the role healthy eating plays in reducing health care costs among lower income individuals and weigh that against the cost of investing in tools providing incentives for small to medium sized grocery stores in the inner city. While the Province could foot the bill for grants, the City of Vancouver could work with members of the supermarket industry to determine the more appropriate mix of zoning incentives to make setting up these shops easier and, ultimately, profitable for the owners.

Vancouver likes to think of itself as a city where healthy citizens demand the best food for themselves from the stores and restaurants around them. It’s time we start to think more broadly though, and demand access to healthy, affordable food for everyone in our city. Vancouver’s City Hall should take a leadership roll and work with the Province, developers, the supermarket industry, and inner city agencies to make it happen.



  1. THANK YOU for so eloquently presenting the case of New York – an example, as supposed “health//foodie” conscious Vancouverites we should really be aware of and making efforts to move towards. A good friend of mine, Garrick Ng of Innovolve ( runs a sustainability think-tank that normally focusses on sustainability from an environmental standpoint external to ourselves. But I did make the case for sustainability to start with our OWN health and this includes access to things like fresh fruits and vegetables. He described future projects in which roof-top gardens and veggie patches would be INTEGRAL to building design etc. Such a fantastic concept that doesn’t necessarily mean we all need to become farmers to sustain it – perhaps a new sector of employment could begin with “urban farmers” who would manage these locations…. (see But that’s jsut the beginning – tax breaks for local food producers and potentially TAXES for empty calorie items like soda pop could help level the playing field to give “equal access” to fresh foods. (see article on “Obesity Tax” : But at the end of the day, regardless of need to involve government action, it’s all about EDUCATION and awareness – not just exclusive to higher income healthy foodies. Local food education projects/organizations like Fresh Choice Kitchens ( should be given equal support and backing. Thanks Alvin, for shedding a little more light on where we need to be headed!

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