The South Bronx is part of one of the poorest congressional districts in the entire United States. Ninety percent of Bronx County is non-white, and thirty percent of the residents living in this neighborhood live below the poverty line. As a result, the nutritional landscape is—limited, to say the least, and residents experience serious health disparities. Rates of diabetes and high blood pressure are far higher than the rest of New York City or New York State.
Yet new attention is being given to food access in parts of New York that have been historically neglected. When I first began to research initiatives aimed at improving food access, I expected to find one or two. Instead, I found websites and online platforms filled with useful information on how to find local farmer’s markets and reduced-cost produce in even the most underserved parts of the city.
Although residents in lower-income neighborhoods and boroughs may also have more limited access to healthy supermarkets than many others in New York City, there is no shortage of efforts to use food as a way to remediate social disparities. I focus on three farmer’s markets in different boroughs of New York City: East New York Farms (Brooklyn), South Bronx Farmer’s Market (Bronx), and Grassroots Farmer’s Market (Harlem/Manhattan).
From the Ground Up
Commuting to the first farmer’s market I attended—East New York Farms—took two hours by subway. While I asked at first to speak with the market director, David Vigil, I wound up instead speaking to two youth volunteers: Helen Hernandez and Domica Roberts. Both young women, raised in Brooklyn, became involved with the farm and the market after hearing a presentation at their school. Roberts, who is a freshman at City College and a third-year intern at the farm connected to the market, described the importance of nutritional education.
“All vegetables are lettuce to people who don’t know where food comes from!” said Roberts. “I didn’t even know about these Caribbean vegetables, and I’m Caribbean.” She said that, although her mother usually uses a lot of meats in her Caribbean cooking, she has become more interested in cooking since starting at the farm. “I feel like it’s important to know where your food’s coming from. And to know what it looks like before it’s cooked.”
Hernandez, who is a market manager and a junior in high school, similarly felt that the community reaction to the market had been positive. “There’s definitely not a lot of places to get fresh produce,” she said, adding later, “I feel like the farmer’s market is the only place where it’s fresh.”
Farms like East New York Farms that have programs for students are not rare, but they are unique; they mobilize a demographic that is not the focus of the program efforts. Many of the programs focus on mothers, as nutritional choices are often made by the women of the households.
Health & Healing
A big focus theme throughout my conversations at farmer’s markets was the “healing” that comes with nutritionally rich foods. Jessica Turner, a farm apprentice on White Pine Farms who was selling at the South Bronx Farmer’s Market on 138th St., further delineated what healing meant to the low-income residents in the area.
“In the 21st Century, so much of what prevents us from accessing that often has to do with class and privilege and race, and certain people having access to ‘the great outdoors’ and certain others not,” she said.
Turner spent some time farming in Hawaii before moving back to New York State. Both sides of her family have roots in farming and fishing, and she felt it important to be working land in a place that was connected to her family. She emphasized the crucial role that food can have for addressing larger issues.
“Just being here every week and talking with people, and being able to be a resource to people for dealing with ailments that are pretty common to lower-income folk in cities,” she said. “Diabetes, high blood pressure, general anxiety and stress. We also encourage people to come to the farm.”
Sonya Simmons spoke similarly of the aims of the Grassroots Farmer’s Market, running along 145th St. in Harlem, when she started it seventeen years ago.
“Of course there’s an exercise portion to [health], but if you’re getting more of fruits and vegetables in your diet, then you’re living longer because you’re not contracting a lot of what’s happening,” she said. “Here in this neighborhood, everybody has diabetes, everybody has high blood pressure. I would sit here ten years ago—I had to put up a tent and just say ‘Bring me your ailment.’”
Thus, markets like the Grassroots Farmer’s Market do not just they provide nutritional food—they also address a more deeply-rooted pain that is particular to the lifestyle of the poor and marginalized in New York City. They foster community through food and taste.
For the Love of Food
“I wanted an apple that was unwaxed, and I wanted it to smell like an apple.”
This is the kind of prerequisite Sonya Simmons had for the produce that came to her market. Glancing at her crates of produce, beautiful beets and collard greens practically jumping out, it was clear that a thread that wove all of these conversations together—was food.
“There’s a lot of one-on-one experience that happens here,” mentioned Lily Kesselman, who started the South Bronx Farmer’s Market. “[The market] definitely attracts the people who enjoy cooking. You can tell that people really like to cook by what they buy.”
White Pine Farms sells goods that would be unusual at an upscale natural foods store, much less a market in the Bronx: sumac, ground cherries, nettle tea, and kale pesto, scooped out of squat mason jars. After one bite of the pesto, I picked up two jars.
As I spoke to Sonya Simmons at the Grassroots Market, she was frequently interrupted by neighbors and customers, showing appreciation for her produce and her presence in the neighborhood.
“You can just see the difference [between good produce and conventional produce],” said Simmons, picking up a head of broccoli with the stems still attached, branching out like tentacles. “You can also taste the difference. I can sit here and bite off a piece of kale and taste just how different it is from one’s that been sitting.”
Oases in Food Deserts
Despite shocking figures on nutritional disparities in New York City, local farmer’s markets have been an effective way to improve access for the most neglected residents. And even in speaking with those who knew the scene far better than I did, it really did seem like things were starting to look up.
“I think [kids today] have a better understanding [of nutrition],” said Simmons. “Whether they make the choice or not is totally up to them. And the only reason why I know that the children have changed is because I had served this for quite some time, for 11 years.”
As I spoke with Kesselman, some young children were running around the tent in their costumes—it was Halloween weekend, after all. “We had kids today who came trick-or-treating and they ended up tasting the salsa, and I gave them an apple,” said Kesselman, watching a Batman zoom by.
For more information on markets near you, visit: http://www.justfood.org/urban-agriculture-and-markets/city-farms-markets/market-schedules
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.