On February 7th, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. announced a deal that provides FreshDirect with $127.8 million in taxpayer money to subsidize a relocation of FreshDirect’s headquarters from Long Island City to the Harlem Rail Yard on the South Bronx waterfront. Two days later, the NYC Industrial Development Agency held a hearing on the FreshDirect deal to provide community members with an opportunity to voice their opinions before the deal was voted on. The concerns were many. South Bronx residents raised concerns about the impact on the environment, promised job creation, living wages, acceptance of EBT (food stamps), and the inaccessibility of FreshDirect services to South Bronx residents. A group called ‘South Bronx Unite: Stop FreshDirect’ was formed to speak out against the deal. South Bronx Unite members have created social media outlets (blog, Facebook and Twitter) to get the word out and have started a Change.org petition to stop FreshDirect from building its new headquarters in the South Bronx, and another petition encouraging a boycott of the company.
Many of the concerns that South Bronx Unite has raised include the environmental impact of bringing FreshDirect to the neighborhood, as well as how it will affect residents in the South Bronx. They have asked for an environmental impact statement for the site, noting that bringing FreshDirect to the area would add another 130 trucks per day to the South Bronx (already home to some of the highest asthma rates in the country). The group also says there is no written guarantee that FreshDirect will bring jobs to the area, though the company has said that 30% of the estimated 1000 jobs created in the next 10 years will go to community residents. However, even if the jobs materialize, community residents have argued that the wages are low and the workers will be exempt from any local living wage mandate adopted by the city (nearly 40% of current FreshDirect employees makes less than $25,000 per year). Other concerns center on the clientele that FreshDirect services. Currently, FreshDirect does not deliver to the South Bronx and does not accept food stamps. While the Bronx Borough President put together a Memorandum of Understanding to try and address these concerns, South Bronx Unite has protested that it does not adequately address the issues.
But concerned residents and community groups are not just protesting, they’re also developing different solutions that would make efficient use of the nearly 100 acres of public waterfront land that FreshDirect will be leasing. Part of this effort entails having the city call for a moratorium on all new development at Harlem River Yards until a new Environmental Impact Assessment is conducted. The city could also consider funding new, innovative projects that make fresh, affordable, healthy food available to New York City residents in a way that provides living wages to its workers and does not add to the environmental burden of the Bronx.
One such idea is that of landlord and developer Steve Smith, who has crafted a vision for a regional food campus at Oak Point in the South Bronx. This would provide access to “locally grown, locally raised, locally made” food for South Bronx residents and the larger NYC area. Paul Lipson, consultant to the project, presented at Bronx Health REACH’s February 2012 Nutrition and Fitness Workgroup meeting about the proposed 130,000 sq ft regional food hub. It would house GrowNYC’s Wholesale Farmers Market and provide the opportunity for store owners and community members to access produce directly. Plans include a kitchen on the second floor and a “wash and chop” facility which would allow everyone – from bodegas to institutions such as the NYC Department of Education Office of SchoolFood – to make more direct use of local produce. Other proposed ideas for the site include having a rooftop hydroponic greenhouse operation serving grocery delivery chains in the New York metro area; an agricultural cooperative aggregating over 60 regional growers and producers; a borough-based brewer of beers and ales (the Bronx Brewery currently brews in Connecticut); a Bronx-based caterer and institutional food service providing meals for charter schools and senior centers; and a produce distributor. South Bronx Unite says that while this whole project would be dependent on subsidies, it would be a tenth of the price of the subsidies the City is planning on giving to FreshDirect.
Bronx Health REACH will continue to monitor and evaluate efforts to hold the city and FreshDirect accountable to the South Bronx community in which FreshDirect is looking to relocate.