As Walmart moves forward with plans to enter the New York market by zeroing in on possible store locations, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer issued an alert to all New York City shoppers that the big box store could be a bane, not a boon for small business owners Harlem and New York City’s fresh food economy.
“Food for Thought: A Case Study of Walmart’s Impact on Harlem’s Healthy Food Retail Landscape”, a new report from the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, shows the potentially devastating impact that a Walmart at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem would have on local fresh food retailers within a one-mile radius. Modelled after a Chicago study that found that 40% of competing businesses closed within two years of a Walmart opening, “Food for Thought” projects closures of up to 66 small, fresh food retailers within the first two years. That translates into a loss of approximately 202,000 square feet of fresh food retail. The report argues that these closures could potentially undo the laudable work of the City’s FRESH and Healthy Bodega Initiative programs, which have expanded opportunities to buy healthy food in underserved areas.
“We’ve worked hard to be able to offer fresh food to Harlem. This report shows what we have always feared about Walmart coming to New York – that it would put hard-working businesses like mine out of business and make it harder for Harlem residents to get healthy food,” said Luis Corona, owner, Fine Fare supermarket.
“I’ve had supermarkets in Harlem for almost 30 years, helping make sure the community gets fresh, healthy food. I’m glad that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is standing up for Harlem residents by showing what would happen if Walmart came to our neighborhood – making it harder for us to get healthy food. It’s clear that New York City just doesn’t need Walmart,” said Ruben Luna, owner, Key Food supermarket
“We cannot close our eyes to the destructive impact a Walmart store would have on small business owners and the retail food landscape of Harlem, or any other New York neighborhood,” said Borough President Stringer, who spoke at a press conference in Harlem along with local small business owners, healthy food advocates and other community leaders. “Our study shows that the opening of only one Walmart store could have a damaging effect on small business owners and others who provide healthy food and produce to neighborhoods that need it more than ever.”
“New York City has launched crucially important programs to expand the number of retailers offering healthy food, but it’s clear that a new Walmart would work at cross-purposes, canceling out gains we have already made and threatening small business owners,” the Borough President continued. “That’s why we must think long and hard before welcoming such a retailing behemoth into our neighborhoods. The time to begin these conversations is now.”
The Borough President’s report was influenced by a 2009 Loyola University study that tracked, over a three year period, business closures around a newly opened Walmart store in Chicago. Food for Thought created a similar local case-study by considering what would happen if a Walmart were to open in New York City. The report focused on a currently vacant parcel of land at West 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, which has been the subject of media and community discussion as a potential Walmart site, especially because of its “as of right” development status. Original survey data was collected measuring the number of fresh food retailers within a one-mile radius of this land parcel; 24 supermarkets, 17 green grocers, and 157 bodegas were identified. This data was analyzed through the lens of the Chicago study, which found that 25 percent of all competing businesses within a one-mile radius of the new Walmart had gone out of business within the first year. By the second year, the closure rate was 40 percent. Using those projections, anywhere from 30 to 41 fresh food retailers in Harlem could go out of business within the first year, with an additional 18 to 25 stores could shutter for a total loss of 48 to 66 stores in the second year after the opening.
The closure of more than 50 fresh food retailers would have enormous consequences for the food economy of Northern Manhattan. Healthy neighborhood food systems require a diversity of fresh food purveyors, especially in New York.
The Borough President’s study also examines Walmart’s well-documented history of predatory pricing, and wage suppression that leads to high numbers of employees reliant on public assistance, a burden on taxpayers in states across the country. A study by UC Berkeley’s Labor Center found that Walmart workers in California earn 31 percent less than the average for workers at other large retail companies and require 39 percent more in public assistance.
“As supporters of community-driven initiatives that are improving good food access by increasing local food distribution and local control, we strongly object to a Walmart presence in NYC,” said Jacquie Berger, Executive Director of Just Food. “Bringing Walmart to NYC would not only damage local retailers and wage-earners, but would erode the great advances communities are making to increase access to affordable, fresh, healthy food.”
The report puts forward a number of recommendations for mitigating potential damage from a Walmart opening in Harlem:
§ Pro-Active Planning: If Walmart selects a site in New York, the city should create a proactive planning process that would include an analysis of the healthy food infrastructure and the potential negative impact on residents’ healthy food options.
- Expand FRESH: In order to provide support for existing and struggling fresh food retail, FRESH could be expanded. The expansion would include fresh food retailers under 6,000 square feet, the current FRESH limit, and would provide incentives not just to retailers wishing to expand or open new stores, but to retailers who need a reduction in their tax burden or financing to stay in business.
- Provide Permanent Funding for the Healthy Bodegas Initiative ( HBI ): Funding for HBI is renewed on an annual basis leaving the program in limbo each year. The Administration should baseline funding in DOHMH’s budget for this important initiative. Additionally, as in the pilot phase of the program, HBI could provide incentives to bodegas to improve their healthy food offerings.
- Support the Creation of Farmers’ Markets: Farmers’ markets are a critical component of any healthy food system. The MBPO continues to advocate for expanded City support of all types of farmers’ markets, as detailed in the office’s reports Red Tape, Green Vegetables: A Plan to Improve New York City’s Regulations for Community-Based Farmers Markets and FoodNYC: A Blueprint for Sustainable New York.
- Increase the Number and Quality of Indoor Food Markets: As recommended in FoodNYC, City agencies should evaluate vacant and underused space, buildings, and lots in order to identify appropriate locations for new indoor markets.
- Make Urban Farming a City Priority: As recommended in Red Tape, Green Vegetables and FoodNYC, the City should make urban food production a priority. Two strategies for encouraging urban agriculture are ensuring the permanence of community gardens and creating an urban agriculture program.
Manhattan Borough President
1 Centre Street
New York, New York10007