On Roosevelt Island

Gristedes - WIC = Protest

Updated 35 weeks ago Peter McCarthy
Ellen Polivy and Helen Chiviras
Ellen Polivy and Helen Chiviras
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

"Boycott!" was the first shout heard last week when Gristedes, the only full service supermarket on Roosevelt Island, abruptly canceled the WIC Program for women and children, but by week's end, calmer tones angled for a solution.

With a reputation already lagging behind most other local businesses, Gristedes took a step in the wrong direction when the chain announced that, as of August 12, they would no longer participate in the WIC Program, which is designed to improve nutrition among small children and their mothers struggling on limited incomes.

The State program is designed to insure that funds go to high quality, nutritious foods and is not wasted on chips and sodas. But Gristedes decided that reimbursement for vendors was so inadequate, it did not make good business sense to continue. But there is much more to the story than protestors were initially aware.

In a candid conversation with the Roosevelt Islander blog, Gristedes makes clear why arbitrary changes by the State in program administration made WIC too expensive to continue.

Opponents, including this newspaper, pointed out that Gristedes action punished needy children when a solution with the State should be sought instead, but it's far from simple.

A Voice for Moderation

With calls for a boycott finding resonance in some island circles, State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright stepped in and prodded the Department of Health to find a way that makes it feasible for the local Gristedes to return to the program, given our unique location.

As calmer voices prevailed, protest leader Frank Farance, who initiated calls for a boycott, arranged for a brief information demonstration outside Gristedes on Saturday morning. With others, he collected signatures on a petition asking Gristedes to bring WIC back to the store while briefing whoever would listen on the issues.

In just an hour, over a hundred signatures were collected.

Among the startling facts Farance discovered was that there are only about ten Roosevelt Island families now participating in WIC. (Gristedes estimates three to five families per week.) Whatever savings the supermarket gained by dropping out, the impact of the protest seemed to impose a much greater likelihood for losses.

Joining Farance for an hour of education and protest was his frequent Residents' Association ally Helen Chiviras and Community Board 8 member (and former RIRA president) Ellen Polivy.

Polivy's concerns were more aligned with Seawright's point of view. Rather than a boycott or severe criticism of Gristedes, Polivy told the Daily, she thought Gristedes should be the one protesting about poor program funding. But because she strongly favored bringing WIC back, she showed up to add her voice to the hour long education campaign.

What to Expect

Now that Assembly Member Seawright has stepped in and resident anger has been modified, the atmosphere seems good for finding common ground. The sooner the better.

But Farance has already began working to develop local alternatives that may substitute for Gristedes departure. Wholesome Factory, for one, although much smaller than Gristedes, already handles many of the products needed for the WIC program as does the Bread & Butter Deli.

Farance has talked with local state administrators and has engaged local merchants.

Our best hope now is that, wherever the fault lies, the young families involved are not penalized long for a dispute in which they were never engaged and over which they have no control.

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