Deliver Us From Evil

FreshDirect Lobbies Congress for Ability to Accept Food Stamps

Can the move appease South Bronx residents?
 FreshDirect Lobbies Congress for Ability to Accept Food Stamps

(Photo: Apartment Therapy)

FreshDirect, the online grocery service that offers next-day delivery on your bounty of veggies (and cookies), has become so ubiquitous in New York that some apartment buildings advertise “FreshDirect storage” as a lust-worthy amenity. For the torturously busy (or–okay–the lazy), FreshDirect is a godsend, delivering produce, toiletries–even beer!–with the click of a button.

But in recent months, FreshDirect has seen its own share of scorn over some pretty serious issues. Though slated to relocate its Long Island City warehouse facility to the South Bronx, FreshDirect only began delivering to residents there back in May. And in February, aggrieved South Bronx residents launched a petition protesting the relocation, listing a history of discriminatory and unfair labor practices, as well as the fact that the company does not accept food stamps.

Of course, that the government is providing FreshDirect with $130 million in tax breaks to relocate doesn’t make them look any better.

For their part, FreshDirect is trying to right a few of their wrongs. According to a report in Crain’s last week, FreshDirect cannot accept food stamps because there are no laws in place that allow food stamp recipients to purchase groceries online–but the company’s CEO is lobbying Congress to change that. Writes Crain‘s:

FreshDirect co-founder and CEO Jason Ackerman wrote a letter to the House Agricultural Committee last week arguing that the “ubiquity of the Internet in the 21st century” calls for modernizing food-stamp policies.

“The government should use Internet technology to ensure equitable access to fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods,” Mr. Ackerman wrote.

Currently, Electronic Benefits Transfer, the technology that food-stamp recipients use to pay, does not allow online transactions.

As Crain’s notes, the move is an obvious attempt to endear the big bad startup to its (future) skeptical Bronx neighbors. But it’s more complex than that. Allowing food stamp recipients to order their food online could allow for access to healthier options that bodegas and local grocery stores might not always stock. In a town where the mayor thinks regulating beverage sizes will stem the obesity epidemic, easier access to healthy foods certainly seems like a net gain.

But of course, this assumes that food stamp recipients actually want to order from FreshDirect. And who says they want to–or should want to? Perhaps FreshDirect’s reputation for catering solely to the wealthy has already damaged its image beyond repair. (“Fresh Direct is for rich, lazy people,” chimed in one Gothamist commenter.)

Meanwhile, some South Bronx residents are more concerned with FreshDirect’s relocation plan than its inability to accept foodstamps. As one South Bronx resident told WNYC last May, “The really core issue here is waterfront access to the people of the Bronx just like the waterfront access that the rest of the city enjoys.”

UPDATE:

Patrick Muncie, VP of public affairs at the New York Economic Development Corporation, wrote to Betabeat to add:

Fresh Direct’s expansion in the Bronx will create and retain nearly 3,000 jobs for NYC in what is presently one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country. And overall, the project will provide an economic benefit to the City worth hundreds of millions of dollars, far outweighing the investment that will allow what is a homegrown NYC company to expand here in the City rather than in New Jersey or somewhere else.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com