What is the biggest problem for lower-income residents of New York? You may need a scorecard to figure it out. A few days ago, a group of protesters who want to ban FreshDirect trucks in the Bronx were ejected from a softball game at Coney Island between the City Council and the Mayor’s Office. The group, which wanted to unfurl a 20-foot banner reading “Stop Fresh Direct,” say they were interrogated by the mayor’s security detail. Leaving aside the hypocrisy—we thought DeBlasio was supposed to be sticking up for the people!—it is a reminder of how the needs of the poor are really just a pawn in a larger political game.
An outside, for instance, might wonder what anyone has against FreshDirect. Here’s a service that delivers fresh produce to residents of New York City. Sure the service is not inexpensive, but activists like to harp on the notion that the Bronx is a food “desert”—a place where there is not enough fresh food to be had. They say that one reason for the high obesity rate in places like the Bronx is that the residents don’t have enough access to healthy fresh food. So why wouldn’t activists want to support any company that will help to end that? Perhaps even subsidize the company—which the city has been doing in recent years in order to keep it on this side of the Hudson River.
Because, the activists say, the Bronx has the highest rates of asthma in the city and one of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the country--and part of that must be the result of poor air quality from too many trucks. So the activists would presumably prefer to have instead a more efficient method of delivering these fresh foods. You don’t want trucks stopping every block at individual apartments? Perhaps you don’t even want them to stop at all of the tiny bodegas that line the streets of New York. What you’d really want is for the trucks to deliver large amounts of fresh foods to a central location. Get companies to make one delivery to a big-box store and you can have your fresh food and your clean air.
But then there are all of the activists who have prevented big-box stores like Wal-Mart from moving into New York City. They claim that Wal-Mart will drive down wages or push small businesses out of these neighborhoods. In fact, they will provide jobs as well as fresh, cheap food to the people in this city who need it most.
The bottom line is that we can’t have it all: Who thinks you can get good food at affordable prices that magically shows up without any pollution in small neighborhood stores that employ lots of poor people? The best we can do, then, is ask the people who are most affected by these issues to vote with their feet rather than let the activists determine priorities on behalf of the poor.