Joanna Willins has sold produce along an East New York Street in 1999. At first she worked alone, but today many other vendors join her under an elevated subway line on the corner of Barbery St. and New Lots Ave, including three upstate farms and 25 East New York gardens who come once a week to the East New York Farms! Farmers’ market.
The number of customers has grown, as well, by about 50 percent a year on average since 2000. The number of customers vary â€“ the market is closed during the winter â€“ but on an average Saturday more than 600 customers shop at the farmers’ market.
Visible from the platform at the last stop on the 3 line, this once overgrown lot is now filled with local residents perusing the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, which range from multi-colored bell peppers to mackintosh apples to collard greens. Once the customers choose what they need, they reach over the mounds of produce to pay the swamped farmers, and three-quarters pay with the help of a federal food subsidy.
The market serves a population where the rate of obesity is thirty percent and diabetes is fifteen percent - both almost double the city average. Almost half do not graduate high school, and over a third live below the poverty level. By selling food and educating its customers, the market’s organizers hope to improve the health of this struggling neighborhood. They also see themselves forging a sense of community accomplishment.
“Some people in this neighborhood are really struggling to make ends meet, and for families with little time, or who have never eaten well, it's really hard for them to understand the value of what we do." says Georgine Yorgey, the Urban Agriculture Coordinator for East New York Farms! “What we're trying to create for people is really intuitive - you don't have to be a nutritionist to know that eating lots of different kinds of foods, fresh foods, will make you feel better and live a healthier life.”
The market may never be able to provide everything one needs for a complete diet. But then, it offers more than just food. The East New York Farms! Farmers’ market offers its customers nutritional education onsite. Several nutrition educators from Cornell University have a stand at the market with general nutrition info, and a recipe for each week featuring produce from the farmers’ market. They prepare the recipe on a portable burner, and then offer samples to customers. Nutrition-focused nonprofit Just Food also has a stand, where community gardeners do food demos on canning and preserving produce, and making baby food.
“I see these workshops as having a real education role. They're very hands on and practical, not focused on what veggie is in the news today, but focused on the importance of eating lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables, of eating minimally processed food, and of eating fresh food for your health," says Yorgey.
While some may be interested in the nutritional tutoring, others come because of the government vouchers they get specifically for use at farmers markets. Dess Eparis, an elderly woman, travels for about 20 minutes on the subway to shop at the market. "I come because of the government check I get,"she said when asked why she makes the trip.
These Farmers Market Nutritional Program checks come in addition to the weekly federal WIC checks, which do not allow for the purchase of fruits or vegetables. They are also provided for seniors. In order to receive the checks, recipients need to take a nutritional education class every three months when they go to pick them up. Although small, $20 to $25 a year, they do make a difference. "To some people $20 might not seem like much, but to many around here, $20 is significant," says Tawnya Mercado, one of the market managers.
The federal government is now considering a proposal that would allow the WIC program to address a more complete range of dietary needs by providing checks for fruits and vegetables redeemable at traditional markets
The market also accepts food stamps, but there are some challenges in disseminating the benefits. Food stamps now come in the form of a debit card, and since farmers’ markets are mobile, they need wireless stations. The East New York Farms! just purchased an electronic benefits transfer terminal this year, but there are still glitches in the technology and reception is spotty. Also, many neighborhood residents are simply unaware of the option, "Our challenge at this point is definitely letting all of our potential customers know that we accept" food stamps, says Yorgey.
Beyond benefiting its customers, the market is a boost to the area's anemic economy. The urban farms that provide for the farmers’ market, which are staffed by volunteers, turn a small profit ranging from $5 to $1,000 annually.
East New York Farms!, which runs the United Community Centers Youth Farm, offers paid jobs for a group of local interns. The farm â€“ which stretches a third of a block and produces about 4,000 pounds of produce a season. The 21 interns, spanning in age from 11 to 16 years old, serve as aides to gardeners in the community, help at the farmers' market, and participate in learning activities and workshops. They are paid $5.00 an hour for about 10 hours a week during the school year, and they work more during the summer.
Reflecting on what the interns gain, Yorgey points out that, "One thing that youth often talk about is just the importance of seeing that they can improve the neighborhood through what they do - it's just so concrete to work hard to grow something and then to give it to someone who's going to go home and feed their family."
Many of the institutions and community members involved in the farmers’ market are also turning their attention towards a new cooperative grocery store where community members decide what to sell and what business model to use. The project is being funded by a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, which will also be used to study the effects of the introduction of nutritious food into a previously undernourished neighborhood.
Salima Jones-Daley, a former market manager at the farmers’ market now involved in the coop plans, thinks the coop is a direct result of the farmers’ market. "The community has demonstrated that they want and need more nutritious food to be made available. This coop is the result of that," she says.
The decision of what the coop will carry is to be made at the December 1 meeting of the Food Policy Council - a group made up of local citizens concerned with the availability of nutritious food. The idea is to first choose locally grown, organic foods. Its organizers hope to step in to provide what the market has been unable to give so far â€“ all the ingredients of a healthy diet, served all year round.