You can lead a fat guy to a fruit cart, but can you make him eat? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is betting that he can. The city is issuing permits for new food carts that will only be permitted to sell fruits and vegetables:
The carts, which are expected to start appearing on the streets later this summer, are restricted to low-income areas that have the fewest sources of fresh produce in the city.
Coming in the wake of the city’s indoor smoking ban, a campaign to get restaurants to eliminate the use of trans-fats, and a requirement that menus list calories, the Green Carts project is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest public-health crusade.
This isn’t a terrible idea, but before lamenting the lack of fruit available in NYC food carts it’s worth noting that the city has been restricting the supply of new permits since the 1970s. If the city had been more willing to open the cart market to competition, it might see more variety in what gets sold (as has recently happened here in DC). Strict regulations and frequent fines also drive up the costs of doing business, possibly pushing fruit carts off the market.
Fruit carts have the advantage of being much cheaper to purchase: $1,000 compared to $15-30,000 for carts designed to process prepared food or coffee, according to this fascinating article from New York magazine. The fact that vendors aren’t buying them suggests that on-the-go diners would rather have stuff like pretzels, hot dogs, and kebabs, thank you very much.
There is also the fear that the subsidized fruit carts will hurt the revenues of grocers. If they drive grocers out of business, they might even lessen access to produce in some neighborhoods.
In short, subsidizing green carts might marginally drive up fruit and vegetable consumption, but it’s silly for the city to be playing favorites. Freeing the cart market would likely do much more to encourage variety and deliver the products people actually want.