The federal government defines a “food desert” as a low -income community where residents do not have access to healthy food.
The concept, a top concern of former First Lady Michelle Obama, can be found in many low-income communities throughout the United States.
But not the Greater New York area, and there’s a reason why.
In the 1970s, the major grocery chains at the time took one look at the changing demographics of the inner city, realized that the neighborhoods were becoming predominantly of color, and picked up and headed for the safety of the suburbs.
The small mom-and-pop groceries struggled to survive.
Krasdale Foods, a wholesale grocery provider founded more than a century ago, recognized both a need in the market and the opportunity to do well by doing good.
Instead of just simply delivering goods to grocery stores, they decided to offer a more integrated service to the owners of the remaining bodegas and ethnic groceries in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan, and Queens. Krasdale got them to band together for the procurement, marketing, and advertising of all kinds of food.
“New York is remarkable,” says Steve Silver, who was just named President of Krasdale Foods, “in that you can walk 10 blocks and be in a totally different ethnic community. You have African American neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods, Indian, Arab, and Korean populations, all living close by each other, and all with specific food needs.”
“But after you get past the top 10 or so items for each of these communities, the staples are the same. So what our company did was to make it possible for these small grocers not just to compete, but to thrive.”
Krasdale may well be an unsung hero in the story of the grocery business in New York City. The company has certainly not sought out any fanfare for its role.
But when the federal government posted its map of food deserts across the United States, not a single square inch of Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn was considered a food desert. Indeed, the only spots in New York City where food deserts came into play were two tiny towns of barely populated areas in Staten Island.
Many of the remaining independent supermarkets back in the 1970s, after the major chains abandoned New York City, came together under the C-Town Supermarkets brand, which is a Krasdale banner.
“We provided resources,” Silver says, “so those stores could deliver to their customers the same kind of services that a vertically integrated chain provides to their outlets, whether that’s marketing help, merchandising help, or specialty help.”
“We provided our store owners with product specialists, meat specialists and produce specialists. We would arrange to bring in preferred suppliers to supply all our stores, which meant that these individual stores had the kind of buying clout they could never have had on their own. Our finance arm allowed them not only to remodel but to expand and create new locations. When that food desert map came out and there were no food deserts in any of the areas we serve, we were very proud.”
Today, Krasdale not only serves its C-Town banner, but also other banners including Bravo and AIM as well as independent delis, bodegas, and mini-supermarkets that make New York so enticing from a foodie’s perspective, while at the same time serving those ethnic communities in low income but often transitioning neighborhoods.
Silver, in his new role of President, will continue to make sure their independent food retailers have the resources and support to compete in the changing landscape.
“Big box stores pose less of a threat,” Silver says. “They have 200,000 foot stores compared to the 10,000 or 15,000 foot stores in our neighborhoods, and they can sell things more cheaply to rural America. But neither they nor Whole Foods are a problem for us, because they are located so far from where our people live and shop. Instead, today, it’s the drugstores, convenience stores, dollar stores and other chains putting in a few aisles of food options into every one of their stores. That’s the bigger challenge. But it means that New Yorkers have more food choices, and more healthy food choices, than ever before. The competition certainly keeps us on our toes.”
Krasdale finds new supermarket owners mostly through word of mouth.
“It’s a very close knit business,” Silver says. “Most of the supermarket owners in any given neighborhood know each other. They certainly have heard of us. We have a huge presence out there in the street in terms of supporting these stores. You can’t have enough presence with your customers. We have plenty. And if we’ve made a difference in the communities we serve, that’s something we can be happy about. Everybody’s concerned about whether low-income families have access to healthy food that meets their needs at reasonable prices. We actually make that happen.”