New York: ALIGN Challenges Walmart Expansion

March 30, 2012 -- Partnership for Working Families

It’s hard to imagine or believe that in a region like New York City having access to quality food is challenging.  However, millions of New Yorkers live in “food deserts,” neighborhoods in which the absence of full-service supermarkets denies residents access both to affordable healthy food and to quality jobs with decent wages and benefits.

Food Options Impacted by Poverty and Race

Access to quality food retailers is often determined by factors like socio-economic status and race.  Not surprising, food deserts occur primarily in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of communities of color.  Compounding the problems of chronic unemployment and underemployment with disproportionate incidences of diabetes, obesity and other chronic health problems is the lack of access to quality food and jobs. This is the focus of ALIGN’s Good Food Good Jobs campaign which continues to unite labor and community groups to win access to quality food and good jobs. 

Smart Policies Create Good Jobs and More Food Options

One effective strategy for confronting this problem is for municipalities to adopt policies that create incentives and encourage responsible employers to open supermarkets in underserved communities. In 2009, the New York City Council passed the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health, also known as FRESH.  

The program encourages stores to sell a full range of food products with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and other perishable goods. The action provides zoning incentives for neighborhood grocery stores to locate in some of the most underserved neighborhoods with primarily pedestrian-oriented, local shopping districts.  The results have been significant. To date there been 6 new or expanded union stores and 84 new jobs created in food desert neighborhoods.   

Report Exposes Lobbying Efforts and Walmart's Motives

While policies like FRESH offer hope, the potential entry of Walmart into New York City poses a real threat.  In a detailed report published by ALIGN, “The Walmartization of New York City” researchers describe the negative economic impact and social service drain created by the big box retailer known for creating poverty-wage jobs.  

According to the study, Walmart has saturated non-urban U.S. markets to such a degree that it is beginning to cannibalize sales at its own stores. So it is now focusing on growth in urban markets it had once ignored. Walmart’s CFO, Michael Fung, recently pointed out that “Wal-Mart has twice the opportunity to grow in Los Angeles or New York than the opportunity in India and China combined.”

Job Killing Record and Poverty Wages "Not Welcome" 

"This study makes it clear that what's good for Walmart is not good for New York City," said New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. "Millions of dollars worth of advertising can't sweep Walmart's record of killing jobs and small businesses under the rug. We have to protect our city's middle class from companies that actively undermine it."

While ALIGN’s coalition partners have successfully kept the retail giant at bay, organizers continue to encourage real estate developers to resist Walmart’s “race to the bottom.” There message: choose responsible retailers who will recycle profits into the community and pay better wages that do not increase demand for public assistance programs. 

Advocates have organized multiple community discussions, however corporate officials refuse to participate.  This approach was covered in the New York Observer -- contrasting Walmart's community engagement attempts in Los Angeles were the City Council recently voted to temporarily block building permits for big box retailers in the Chinatown neighborhood.  The victory in LA followed effective community actions organized by LAANE's coalition.

“Walmart has made lots of promises about creating jobs and investing in communities, but the company’s rhetoric doesn’t match reality,” said Reverend David Dyson of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.  Given its power and influence, Walmart has an obligation to answer questions about its long-term impact on New York City.