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The Harlem Shuffle

My daily online missive may be called "Cool News" but sometimes the stories I write about are anything but cool. In fact, every once in a while the news is the opposite of cool. That was certainly true of a news item I picked up from the May 5th edition of the New York Times. The story was about how the number of supermarkets in New York City is declining even though the need for supermarkets there is growing, specifically in low-income neighborhoods.

My daily online missive may be called “Cool News” but sometimes the stories I write about are anything but cool. In fact, every once in a while the news is the opposite of cool.

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That was certainly true of a news item I picked up from the May 5th edition of the New York Times. The story was about how the number of supermarkets in New York City is declining even though the need for supermarkets there is growing, specifically in low-income neighborhoods.

That may not sound like the stuff of tragedy to you, but it is a real hardship for Della Dorset, who is in a wheelchair. Della used to be able to scoot across the street to get her groceries. But that store has now been demolished, to make way for a housing development and other types of retail.

So, now, as David Gonzales reports in the Times, Della has to navigate her electric wheelchair “several blocks uphill … returning home with plastic bags dangling from the handles and nestled between her feet.” I mean, can you imagine?

But the issue here is not limited to just Della. Supermarkets are disappearing from low-income neighborhoods because their margins are thin, the rents are going up, and price competition from big-box stores is intensifying.

In many cases, as David Gonzales writes, the supermarkets are replaced by discount stores and pharmacies where the food is processed and the beverages are sugared. No fresh anything in sight. The result, according to Amanda Burden, the city’s planning director, is “a health crisis in the city.”

At this point I could start to rant about the lack of corporate social responsibility in the supermarket business. But there’s no news, cool or otherwise, in that.

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Instead, I’ll point to another story I found a couple of days later, also in the New York Times, this one by Tracie McMillan, about how some inner-city folks who do not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets are growing their own — organically.

Among them is Karen Washington, who grew up in Harlem and lives in the South Bronx but dreamed of being a farmer since she was a little girl. She’s been realizing that dream since 1985, not only growing her own organic crops in a nearby vacant lot, but in such abundance that she sells her excess at a local farm stand she helped establish.

“It’s not about making money,” says Karen. “We’re selling so that people in our neighborhood have good quality. There’s no Whole Foods in my neighborhood.” To put it mildly.

As unlikely as Karen’s story sounds, it is far from unique: “This urban agriculture movement has grown even more vigorously elsewhere. Hundreds of farmers are at work in Detroit, Milwaukee, Oakland and other areas that, like East New York, have low-income residents, high rates of obesity and diabetes, limited sources of fresh produce, and available, undeveloped land.”

Karen is now working on starting a full-blown farmer’s market as well as an urban farm school, where she says she hopes kids will learn that tomatoes don’t originate from supermarkets.

Now, how cool is that?

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