Monday, August 22, 2016

Gristedes Supermarkets Stops Accepting NY State WIC Checks Saying Over 700 WIC Checks Bounce Monthly - Roosevelt Island Residents Protest And Gather Petition Signatures To Request Return Of WIC Program For Low Income Mothers And Children.

Earlier this month, Gristedes supermarkets 

announced they will no longer participate in the NY State Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The Roosevelt Island Gristedes posted this flyer in their store informing residents about the change in policy to stop accepting WIC Checks.

According to the NY State Department Of Health, WIC offers:
... a variety of nutritious foods to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding or postpartum women, infants and children up to age five to promote and support good health.

WIC improves the health of pregnant women, new mothers and their infants and children. The foods provided through WIC are a good source of nutrients often missing from the diets of women and young children. WIC participants have longer, healthier pregnancies and fewer premature births.
Roosevelt Island resident Cheshire Kitty reported:
Just heard there's now a sign up at Gristedes stating that the store no longer accepts WIC coupons....

If Gristedes is no longer honoring WIC coupons, then the matter should be brought to the attention of the elected officials pronto - considering the hundreds of low-income families who reside on RI. Also, if it is true, then it's simply unconscionable, cruel, of Gristedes to stop accepting the coupons.
Roosevelt Island resident Frank Farance added:

"Vendors play a vital role in the WIC Program by:

- Ensuring that participants have access to safe and nutritious foods.

- Ensuring that participants receive exactly what is prescribed on the WIC checks.

- Respecting WIC participants and offering a positive shopping experience.

- Offering competitive prices to help the WIC Program contain costs and reach the greatest number of eligible women, infants and children."

WHAT CAN YOU BUY WITH YOUR WIC CHECK? Answer: A short list of milks, cheeses, eggs, fruits, vegetables, cereals, breads, rice, peanut butter, etc.. Here is the food card:

WHY IS THIS SO APPALLING? Because these basic foods are the low profit items, Gristede's is making their profits selling high-profit fancier foods. But now, according to their flier, Gristede's wants to make Manhattan-size profits on the very very few customers who are most needy (women, infants, and children). Note: This necessary benefit is relatively short-term as WIC only permits a limited time-frame for eligibility (mothers up to 1 year old of child, children up to 5 years old).

FOR ROOSEVELT ISLAND: There really aren't any other places to shop.

Gristede's should be investigated: they need to explain the financials on why they cannot continue in the WIC program. Given the program requirements, there are probably relatively few WIC clients on Roosevelt Island. I'm guessing we're talking about a total profitability difference that is a tiny number.

And RIOC and Hudson-Related should see if Gristede's has violated their terms of the lease.

And State legislators should look into Gristede's actions and their profitability claims....
I asked Gristedes supermarket owner John Catsimatadis:
The Roosevelt Island Gristedes announced that the store will no longer accept NY State WIC Checks.

I have received several messages and comments on the blog objecting to this change in policy.

Do you have any comment on why Gristedes will not accept WIC checks?

What is the difference between how Gristedes is treated by the WIC program and those outside of Manhattan?...
A Gristedes spokesperson answered:
State Run WIC program bounces over 700 checks a month to Gristede’s Supermarkets - forcing Gristede’s to stop participating in program

Earlier this month, Gristede’s announced it would no longer accept WIC checks following decades of participation in the program.

“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, Chairman and CEO. “This decision was not made lightly, but the current implementation of the WIC program has made our continued participation impractical. In the end, we could not justify the burden it placed on our organization.”

What changed?

The State has gone to a system of “blind WIC checks”. The WIC check shows the items eligible to be purchased - but no longer has “an amount not to exceed”. The merchant is responsible for filling in the retail amount of the purchase, and then accepts and deposits the check in payment of the goods.

In the past, if the price of the product listed by the Retailer exceeded what the Program was willing to pay, the Program would simply pay the Retailer the price it deemed appropriate – often representing a 30%+ discount to the Retailer’s normal retail price. For decades we accepted that in full payment.

The Program now instructs its bank to return the check if the amount listed exceeds what they are willing to pay. While the Program ultimately does pay the Retailer for the product at the price they deem appropriate, the revised procedure, in the case of Gristede’s, resulted in over 700 returned deposit checks every month – resulting in significant return deposit check bank fees and a strained relationship with the branch that handles the company’s accounts.

“The thousands of dollars of unnecessary bank fees generated by ‘blind’ WIC checks distributed by the state is a significant added cost and make the program extremely ineffecient” said John Catsimatidis. “If you add all the fees and administrative expenses to the cost of the product it can cost over $70 to provide the customer with $20 in groceries”

Why are your prices higher than the state wants to pay?

We are running full service union stores in some of the most expensive retail space in the United States. Included in the ‘Urban Chain Store’ reimbursement group that the state WIC administrator is using to determine appropriate reimbursement are operators in places like Rochester and Buffalo NY. Those are fine places to live and shop but operating costs for things like rent and utilities in those areas (just like residential rents and utilities) are nothing like they are in our city.

Are other programs effected?

No. Gristede’s continues to accept EBT, SNAP, and FOOD Stamps.

“We understand the need to provide these programs and are pleased to serve all members of the community” stated Mr. Catsimatidis.

What did Gristede’s do to try and remain in the program?

We worked for months at the local and the state level to try and find a solution to our problems with the administrators of the NY WIC program. The onerous rules and procedures coupled with the very low reimbursement rates made it unwise to stay in the program.

Are you the only chain that is not in the program?

We believe nonunion operators Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are not in the program and suspect other grocery chains and stores have opted out as well.

Will Gristede’s take WIC in the future?

Gristede’s would like to take WIC checks again in the future and hopes the state can adjust it’s program so as to not make so unfair for operator in the New York City area.

Background on WIC

WIC is a supplemental support program run by the USDA and administered in NY by the NY State department of health. The goal is to ensure that certain at risk members of the community get proper nutrition.
The Gristedes spokesperson added that the Roosevelt Island Gristedes store took 3-5 WIC checks a week.

On Saturday, August 20, Mr. Farance protested Gristedes cancellation

of the WIC program and asked Roosevelt Island residents

to sign a petition

asking for the return

of the program to Roosevelt Island.

I asked Mr. Farance about the reasons for the protest.

Mr. Farance adds:
Thanks to Helen Chirivas and Ellen Polivy who helped with Saturday's protest ... both Helen and Ellen did a fantastic job! As I said, the goal was to engage with residents and inform them of the problems and potential solutions. We had petitions that stated "I WANT THE WIC PROGRAM RETURNED TO ROOSEVELT ISLAND". We had the opportunity to inform residents about WIC, its importance in providing healthy foods to poor families, and how our neighbors were dependent on it. We got over 100 signatures in about an hour's effort....

... I ran into Israel Wengerd who runs the Amish market, and he might have some interest in taking WIC (I'm getting him info to help him understand more about the program). Regardless of whether the Amish market can make it work or not, it is truly wonderful to hear Israel's Excellent Neighborly Attitude.

For some of the people they were really upset with Gristedes (Yet Another Reason To Dislike Gristedes), for other people they really felt WIC was important, and some people held both points of view.

Many people were already aware of Gristede's withdrawal from the WIC program thanks to the RI Blog and Roosevelt Island Daily (there hasn't be a WIRE issue or bulletin since the issue started).

And I will have more news to report soon (mostly good ideas/options).

So that's the Good News.

Here's the Bad News: Our engagement with residents also means that we hear what they are thinking, and I will be blunt (some of this is disgusting thinking).

- "I Don't Have Children": This was a reason given for not wanting to support this. After the event I ran into neighbor Jim Bates, who has worked on several food efforts/drives. Jim told me, as head of the Roosevelt Island Disabled Association: this is what I get when I ask for help, people say "But I'm Not Disabled".

- "I Might Lose My Benefits If I Complain": They fear reprisal ... there must be some credibility to this concern because, certainly, these people know the importance of WIC. It is worth understanding the basis for this fear.

- "I Don't Want To Boycott Gristedes": This is interesting because it reveals how many people are really dependent upon Gristede's and have few other practical options.

- "Only 27 Participants, It *Should* Be Smaller": Not it "is" smaller, but it "ought to be" smaller, i.e., we need less low income people on Roosevelt Island. Truly disappointing, I am disgusted reporting this kind of thinking.

- "We Shouldn't Be Trying To Make Gristede's Look Bad/Stupid": While Gristede's might have the right to make this decision, it doesn't mean it is a good decision. In fact this is a very poor decision, based upon looking to maximize the profits (of a billionaire's business) to the extreme that it can't participate in a government food distribution program (who is paying for the food, Gristede's is not paying for the food) and there are poor families dependent upon it. I guessing that it cost more to brand "Catsimatidis Water" for sale at Gristede's than to provide WIC for our neighbors....
The Roosevelt Island Daily has more on Saturday's protest.

Roosevelt Island's NY State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright wrote to April Hamilton, NY State Department of Health WIC Director, to:
... request that you provide incentives to keep a WIC authorized store on Roosevelt Island....
Here's Assembly Member Seawrights August 19 letter to Ms. Hamilton in full:
Gristedes Supermarket located at 686 Main Street, New York, NY 10044 is the only store that accepts the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) on Roosevelt Island. Since Gristedes decided to opt-out of the program, my constituents on Roosevelt Island are left with no alternative to redeem checks for nutritious foods that help keep pregnant and breastfeeding women and children healthy, without having to leave the Island.

I ask that you consider Roosevelt Island separately from Manhattan and Queens when grouping vendors, and specifically, to give it your special consideration due to its geographic location. With Gristedes leaving the WIC program, the closest location to Roosevelt Island where participants can redeem their WIC checks is Long Island City. Although approximate distance from 10044 zip code is only within two miles, it represents a significant burden for my constituents to have to leave the island to meet their basic needs. Therefore, I request that you provide incentives to keep a WIC authorized store on Roosevelt Island.

I appreciate all that you do to provide healthy nutrition options for woman and children in our state and I hope that we can work together to maintain the nutrition programs that my constituents rely on every day. Thank you for your consideration. I am looking forward to hearing from you.
More info from NY State WIC Program Guide

Image From NY State Health Dep't WIC Foods Guide

and this 2012 video.

Let's hope Gristedes, our elected officials, NY State Department of Health and Roosevelt Island residents can work together to bring the WIC program back to our community.

UPDATE 8/23 - NY Post has more.

UPDATE 8/25 - Gristedes owner John Catsimatidis adds:
We tell the truth.