Food Access for New York City’s Poorest: Nutritional Education and Subsidies

“I have my own theory that, fences of any height are deterrents.”

This is why Lily Kesselman started the South Bronx Farmer’s Market. In my previous piece, I mentioned that 30 percent of residents in the South Bronx live below the poverty line. Especially taxing for these residents is the issue of cost; when is an organic tomato worth the price over a regular one? Kesselman informed me that some larger corporations (such as FreshDirect) have said they would begin to accept payments through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that is a form of food stamps for residents of New York City. But, Kesselman explained, cost of the food itself is only one barrier preventing poor residents from accessing nutrition.

“If you’re on SNAP you can’t afford a $6.50 delivery fee. And that’s all food that trucked in from California and wherever. So this was also a way for us to say, we can do something for ourselves.”

She has lived in the neighborhood for eight years, but the market started only last spring after she spoke with a farmer who had tried to sell his goods in a community garden, off the main stretch and behind some fences. So she proposed that they move it, and they did a survey of the community to see what day of the week would be best.

It was especially important to Kesselman that their produce be affordable. “We’re not selling $16/lb. greens,” she insisted. “We’re selling cabbages and collards and pumpkins. We cook stuff and we like to share it and have people taste things.”

In addition to affordability, it is often difficult for working mothers with children to get to markets where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables. 

As Jessica Turner, farm intern at White Pine Farm said, “There is no Whole Foods. I can think of one health food store in the South Bronx.” But she explained that White Pine’s founder will sometimes bring things from Whole Foods to market customers because they don’t have the time or resources to go all the way into Manhattan. “When you’re working or you have kids, [going to health stores] is just not an option,” she said.

Many of the residents who attend the South Bronx Farmer’s Market receive EBT (the method by which New Yorkers receive SNAP and cash assistance) or WIC (Women Infant Children checks). As a result, the market is slow-growing because many farmers are reluctant to get paid at the end of the month or growing season (when MBT, SNAP, and WIC are cashed in). To help sustain itself, the market is also a recipient of grants, including one for $40,000 from the USDA.

Kesselman and others expressed deep belief in the efficacy of programs like Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables, sponsored by the Department of Health. David Nuss, who works as a culinary instructor for cooking demonstrations at different markets across the city, said that his initial skepticism soon faded.

“It’s a very, very effective program,” said Nuss. “I thought people were just going to walk by and throw tomatoes at us. But instead people really stop and listen, they really try the recipes. They’re very curious. I’m totally blown away at the effectiveness of it.”

Anna Rickards, a nutritional educator for the same program, explained another feature.

“Everything’s translated bilingually. Some markets have Bengali translators, Mandarin translators.” She explained that, while there were many African immigrants in the South Bronx, they had not yet provided a translator for any African languages.

In addition to providing bilingual nutritional and culinary instruction, Just Say Yes gives participants a two-dollar coupon with which to buy fresh produce. They also distribute recipes with every demonstration, so the odds are high that observers will walk away with some form of new knowledge.

“Even if somebody comes and they don’t speak English and they don’t speak Spanish and they don’t really know what’s going on throughout the whole workshop, they still leave with a two-dollar coupon to buy fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Rickards, who has been cooking for Just Say Yes demonstrations for three years. “They still leave with better access to foods, regardless of whether that information is acknowledged.”

Another well-known program is City Harvest, which brings reduced-cost and free food into high-risk, low-income areas of the city through a variety of programs. I attended a meeting between community members in the Astoria Houses at a Boy’s & Girl’s Club in Queens, where City Harvest has been involved for two years.

Sally Cooper, a short-haired enthusiast with sneakers and a quick smile, is the director of the Healthy Neighborhoods program in Queens (there is a different director for each borough). She introduced the meeting, which would primarily be a chance for community members to express what they saw as the pros and cons of the program. Standing at the front of the room—that, during business hours, served as a community center recreation area—she acknowledged that shopping for groceries meant different things to people in different parts of town.

“You travel around New York City and it looks very different depending on which subway you get out of,” she said. Representatives of City Harvest spoke of the variety of programs they had around the city aimed at improving food access: in addition to their Community Food Programs, they “rescue” surplus foods from a variety of suppliers, put out research and reports on food insecurity, and work with supermarkets to to improve the availability and quality of produce in local bodegas.

We later broke into groups and discussed pros and cons of the Healthy Neighborhoods program. The women at my table wanted more information on how to “can things in Mason jars” and which vegetables could be easily frozen. Some of the women attendees spoke of having to come up with creative uses for the food that comes in their bags every couple of weeks—“boy, did we have watermelon!”—but all expressed gratitude for the program.

“If I had to go into the supermarket to buy it, I probably wouldn’t,” said Fanny Johnson, a resident of the Astoria Houses in Queens.

Programs like City Harvest, Just Say Yes, and GrowNYC are far from perfect. Residents of the Astoria Houses complained of having to wait in line outside during the winter season, and supplies for the Just Say Yes demonstrations are primarily stored in community centers and churches, necessitating strong community cooperation. However, those involved were overall very positive about the impact of the programs.

“It’s really amazing that a bureaucracy as big as New York City Department of Health can put people on the ground, in the field like this, and affect as much change, and reach as many people as we do,” said Rickards.

Ultimately, the programs may not be a final solution, but provide an access point for lower-income residents to begin to access the healthy lifestyles they deserve and desire.


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