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How FreshDirect Delivers Misery Along With Your Groceries--And How Workers and the Community are Fighting Back

The upscale grocery delivery service pays less than $9 an hour, has faced discrimination complaints, and is a union-buster--so why is New York giving it a handout?

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“It really doesn't fit their business model to say they accept food stamps, as they're trying to service people who live in affluent areas,” Johnson said. “Their customer base is people who want to have their food delivered to their door, not people who need to have fresh food or good service or access to decent foods or variety or choice.”

The biggest argument for building FreshDirect's facility in the Bronx is, of course, jobs. But Johnson pointed out that the company has only promised to create 1,000 jobs over 10 years, and that it's promised only 30 percent of those jobs to South Bronx residents. That's only 300 jobs for a borough with a 14-percent unemployment rate and 39 percent of its residents living in poverty.

Sandy Pope, president of Teamsters Union Local 805, which has been working to organize FreshDirect's current workers, thinks the money could be much better spent actually helping the South Bronx. “Why do we have little trucks that leave instead of getting big trucks that come in with food for supermarkets here?” she asked.

Johnson agreed. “We definitely need more choices and better, healthier choices, but give that money to incentivize that kind of business to come here rather than giving one business $129 million. You could get a lot more impact by diversifying and giving it to a lot of businesses,” he said.

John C. Liu, the city comptroller, opposed the deal, saying, “For the cost of this benefits package the city could give 4,385 students full four-year scholarships to CUNY or hire 1,458 new teachers or pay for 350,000 GED test-prep programs or launch a micro-lending program for minority and women entrepreneurs.”

Part of the anger at FreshDirect's move comes from the fact that residents feel completely shut out of the process. The decision was announced without any meetings with the community board, of which Johnson is a member. “It never came before the land use subcommittee, it never came before the full board, we only heard about the plan when it was announced, then two days later there was a public meeting at the IDA office, in the financial district,” Johnson, a member of the board, said. “Nothing happened in our community, where residents of this area could voice their concerns about how this would affect them, until it was already a done deal.”

Sandy Pope, who was involved in a community fight over development at the Red Hook piers in Brooklyn, said during that fight there were numerous meetings in the neighborhood with the community board. When it came to the less-desirable real estate in the South Bronx, though, residents were left out of the loop, their input not considered.

Looking at FreshDirect's sweetheart deal, Michael Powell noted that the company pays $48,000 a year (nearly twice what its average warehouse worker makes) to a well-connected lobbyist, Evan Stavisky’s Parkside Group. This year, with the move coming, Powell reported that the company added Steve Polivy of Akerman Seterfitt, giving him $17,825--so far--to lobby city politicians and the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, a public agency, for subsidies for FreshDirect.

Pope contended that the company has never been viable without government aid—from the very start, it relied on subsidies and tax breaks from the city. Without taxpayer dollars and low pay for its workers, she said, the company wouldn't still be in business. “As investors, the EDC, whoever is making these decisions, they're not looking at the viability of this company,” she said.

But Bronx borough president Diaz is all in, even setting up a Facebook page for “supporters” of the move. Yet that might not be working out the way he thought it would. One of those “Bronxites for FreshDirect” says “this is ridiculous!!! further low wage jobs, pollution and gentrification!! no to fresh direct! what are u thinking mr borough president!” Another says “If they won't deliver to me (12 blocks away from proposed site) I don't want them here. The insult makes me want to spit out of sheer disgust as to how we are a 2 class city.”