Chelsea activists demand more vouchers for low-income mothers



Gristedes grocery stores stopped accepting WIC vouchers in August 2016. Photo: Yuhong Pang

Nearly 1,000 Chelsea residents and several elected city officials have signed a petition urging Gristedes supermarkets to renew their participation in a food assistance program that helps low-income women buy groceries.

On October 4th, a letter to John Catsimatidis, the owner of Gristedes, was presented by Manhattan Community Board 4 at the full board meeting held at Mount Sinai West. Italo Medelius, a member of the Housing, Health and Human Services Committee, drafted the letter that urges Gristedes to accept WIC vouchers once again after the store chain stopped in 2016. In early June, Medelius launched a petition to address the issue.

WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program for low-income women, infants, and children under five. It offers a variety of nutritional foods, such as baby formula, milk, whole grain breads, fruits and vegetables. In May 2017, each participant received an average of $72.17 in WIC benefits per month.

“The only people that can actually get these vouchers are people that can’t feed their children without any other help. So, when they are not able to buy baby food, what will happen to their kids?” said Medelius. “Gristedes has the biggest market share in our neighborhood as a chain. They have the responsibility to take WIC.”

Gristedes, which opted out of WIC in August 2016, has three stores in Chelsea between West 23rd and 26th Streets along Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

WIC serves an estimated 237,209 women and children in New York City, 507 of which live in Chelsea and Clinton, according to Jill Montag, the public information officer for the Department of Health. There are 158 WIC vendors throughout Manhattan, but only two are in Chelsea: Ideal Marketplace and Western Beef.

Many WIC mothers in Chelsea said the two stores could not fully satisfy their needs for baby food.

“The only thing I don’t like about Western Beef is they don’t have too much stuff that fits into WIC food categories,” said Jackie Rodriguez, who began using WIC in 2016 when her son was three months old.

Rodriguez, who lives on West 52nd Street, has to take a bus to Western Beef to shop with her mom who lives in Chelsea. She said she was upset when Gristedes stopped accepting WIC vouchers. “I knew some single moms who live in that area used to shop at Gristedes. How could they take that away from those poor parents?”

Jackie Rodriguez, who uses WIC vouchers, hopes to have more food choices for her son. Photo: Yuhong Pang.

Gristedes did not respond to an interview request from The Midtown Gazette, but Catsimatidis previously told Chelsea Now in August that it left the program because of bounced WIC checks and inadequate reimbursement by the government.“We went out of our way to accommodate. The state is paying us the same prices as people in Buffalo, where the rent is one-tenth what it is in New York City,” he said.

CB4 said the reason why Gristedes got bounced checks is because of their “above the value” price.

WIC participants can choose certain products in authorized stores to redeem their benefits. The vendor records the value of the goods and submits the total cost to the DOH to receive reimbursement. The DOH uses a vendor peer group system to establish maximum reimbursement amounts for each WIC item. Usually, vendors in a peer group are similar in size, store type and geographic characteristics. “If the vendor charges more than WIC allow, the check bounces,” Montag said in an email.

Miguel Acevedo, president of the Fulton Houses Tenant’s Association, doubted the explanation Gristedes gave since the other two stores both accept WIC checks. “Gristedes’s price is much more expensive than Western Beef,” said Acevedo. “If you don’t want people who unfortunately can’t afford certain stuff, then you don’t want them in that store. That’s the way the stigma looks like.”

Fern Gilford, who lives in Chelsea with her 3-year-old son, started using vouchers in 2015. “I can’t use WIC in our neighborhood,” said Gilford, who often shops at Stop & Shop and Associated stores in Brooklyn because they have a wider selection of items. “It’s exhausting to go so far with a baby. I have to get on the train with a shopping cart and a stroller, then I have to ask somebody to bring me back.”

Gilford added that she stopped shopping at Ideal on 9th Avenue after she got expired milk and outdated baby food two different times.

Jeromi Fernandez, the manager of Ideal Marketplace, disputed Gilford’s claim. “I’m confident that we haven’t sold any expired baby food at all. We are still on top of our baby food section.”

Ideal has taken WIC vouchers since the store opened in 2009 and normally serves about 100 WIC recipients every month. Bounced checks used to be a problem for Ideal too, Fernandez said. “But now we trained our staff pretty well in order to fill out the transactions correctly, so we don’t have this problem now.” He added that for vouchers, “the reimbursement is adequate, but it’s not as profitable as to operate normal business.”

Afraz Khan, a coordinator in the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, said the president is going to write a letter to Gristedes to address the issue. “WIC checks are especially important for CB4, because there are lots of affordable housing units in it,” he said. “We want to support people who use the checks and make food more accessible.”

“That’s a good baby step, but we need to keep putting the pressure until it actually happens,” said Medelius who is preparing a protest on October 28th to urge Gristedes to re-enter the WIC program.