Peter McCarthy
Gristedes Roosevelt Island Store
Gristedes Roosevelt Island Store
© David Stone / The Roosevelt Island Daily

While Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright searches for a solution to the WIC issues, Gristedes reaches out to the media for support, prompting protest leader Frank Farance to cry, "Foul!"

"Catsimatidis is fibbing," shot back Frank Farance. Catsimatidis is Jim, the supermarket's owner, and Farance terms it "Gristedes WIC gouging."

WIC is a federal program, administered locally, that seeks to provide critical nutritional support for at risk children under five and their mothers. On August 12th, Gristedes and Catsimatidis other chain, Red Apple, abruptly dropped out.

“We try very hard to service the needs of the community, and were very sad to stop taking WIC after supporting the program for decades,” said John Catsimatidis, quoted in the Roosevelt Islander Blog. “This decision was not made lightly, but the current implementation of the WIC program has made our continued participation impractical."

The core of Catsimatidis argument results form a change in the New York WIC program.

Instead of a "not to exceed" price included in the order forms which become check deposits, there is a blank, leaving the store owner in the dark, according to Catsimatidis. Gristedes deposits the WIC checks as always, but because of an administrative change to counter fraud, an individual item price that exceeds an approved amount (known to the State) results in a bounced check.

Previously, the owner says, the State would simply reduce the the amount to an approved level and accept the check.

The change costs Gristedes $10 per bounced check, a hefty price to pay for an already reduced item.

In a New York post story by John Crudelle, the writer reports, "In fact, the company showed me hundreds of WIC checks that had bounced in July alone. Checks that were used to pay $8 or $5 orders all came back with $10 bounce fees from the bank."

Hard not to sympathize with Gristedes on that one.

But wait a minute. Not so fast, according to Farance.

As for the bounced checks, Catsimatidis "fibs about the reasoning, which he is well aware of. The Vendor Management Agency told me they conveyed (the problem) to Gristedes. For example, the VMA  griped that Gristedes was charging $26 for infant formula."

That is, Gristedes is deliberately overcharging, according to Farance, and should have known their prices would bounce as reliably as soccer balls off kickers' feet.

Farance continues, "The NYS Department of Health official told me that all vendors know quickly about the pricing of their peers, and the limits on pricing, as it is described in the vendor management handbook in dealing with a bounced check.

"Simply, Gristedes could have avoided the bounced checks (as described in the vendor management handbook and as the VMA advised) by not overcharging and keeping in line with their Manhattan peers."

Bolstering his argument, both the New York State Department of Health and the VMA report that no other chains are dropping out of the program. Only Gristedes seems to have an unmanageable bounced check problem.

As of this writing, the issue remains unresolved. Assembly Member Seawright is trying to find a solution and will have more to say as developments continue. But it does not appear that community pressure to date has been enough to change Gristedes's decision.