Stephen Ritz: A Call to Action

by Alexina Cather, MPH
By Annette Nielsen

Stephen Ritz is emphatic that in places like the Bronx there needs to be a limit to the number of fast food restaurants. He notes a high-growth-rate for fast food businesses, particularly in the south Bronx. “As the chains come in, they push out local businesses. So, when a Domino’s Pizza starts up, they knock a mom and pop store out of the neighborhood.” He notes the benefit of tax dollars from local businesses staying local and being reinvested in the community.

“Stephen Ritz always has immensely creative and thought-provoking ideas for addressing challenging systemic issues,” says NYS Senator Gustavo Rivera (NY-33), who notes that perhaps this conversation could start on the Community Board level.

Tied to fast food oversaturation in NYC neighborhoods with chronic poverty and limited transit options, Ritz also sees a remedy to the issue of the accessibility of good food. “Where there are landlords with pervasive storefront vacancies, say, for more than six months,” he says, “the spaces could be used for a short-term pop-up shop. The shops could be run by interested individuals or groups and used to sell fresh produce from an urban garden or farm.”

Senator Rivera notes, “It would be great to see a pilot program addressing this issue so that maybe even a community-based organization could participate.”

Ritz continues, “Putting these spaces to use, even for the short-term, could offer a write-off for the landlord while providing employment and on-the-job training for teens.” 

On the topic of the workforce, Ritz is a strong proponent of providing the city’s frontline workers with a living wage. “Whether grocery store cashiers, nurses or transit workers, we need to make sure essential workers are paid enough so they don’t have to live on fast food and processed foods – it’s a health risk for them and their families.” 

NYS Senator Luis Sepulveda (NY-32) agrees. “As a general rule, yes, the income of those working the front line needs to be higher. If their wage is higher, they use it to purchase goods and services – and pump dollars back into the community in which they live.” He believes there’s a systemic problem in our country relating to how our frontline workers are valued, with higher salaries and incentives going to those working in the financial industry than those in the teaching profession, who have a profound daily impact on our youth.

“We know our society wouldn’t function without these essential workers; however, they are not paid as if they were essential,” continues Senator Rivera, noting the importance of efforts to raise the minimum wage. “While government may be imperfect, there is a public accountability. We need to consider the collective public good.”

Finally, Ritz calls for responsible behavior by non-profits. “I know everyone in the nonprofit arena has good intentions; however, we need to ask why a nonprofit executive director or CEO makes more money than someone on the front lines.” He notes that  the high six-figure compensation packages at many philanthropies end up requiring gala fundraising events to support them. 

He continues, “If we had good policy, we wouldn’t need non-profits to be the champions of poverty. Charity isn’t going to solve this; smart policy is. We need to ‘get back to better.’”

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