Putting the Cart Before the Market

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City officials last week announced that they would be boosting the number of street food permits by 1,500, with a healthy catch: The new food carts will have to sell fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods where residents consume them at low rates.

Going by the name “Green Carts,” the project is being backed by the city’s Food Policy Task Force, Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Permits will be good year-round, and could be available as early as summer 2008, with 500 going to the Bronx and Brooklyn each, and the remainder divvied up between the other boroughs. Carts would be required to sell only unprocessed fruits and vegetables, or pre-packaged fresh produce that is already peeled or cut.

The initiative makes for a big boost over the city’s current 3,100 permitted food carts that sell year-round, said Sean Basinksi, director of the Street Vendor Project. “Vending carts in a lot of ways are ideal for this,” said Basinksi. “But there are logistical issues…[selling] fruit is so low-margin that you need to be able to sell a lot.”

Indeed, city officials are banking on the idea that fruit will be a big seller. The carts initiative, said Bloomberg spokeswoman Dawn Walker, is part of a broader city effort “to let the free market work by supporting retailers in their efforts to sell healthy foods, which will result in higher quality food, more easily available, at better prices.”

The carts mark the first new initiative to come out of the city’s one-year-old Food Policy Task Force. Until now, the group’s energies have been directed at bolstering existing efforts such as expanding food stamp enrollment, increasing utilization of free summer meals at public schools and strengthening the city’s Food and Fitness Partnership.

The announcement comes at a time when real estate development pressures are making it difficult for basic supermarkets to survive in the city. An Associated on Myrtle Avenue, at the edge of gentrifying Fort Greene, closed last year when the plaza it was located in was demolished to make way for a massive development project, slated for completion in 2011. On the Lower East Side, activists last week protested the potential closing of a Pathmark on Cherry Street. (Pathmark would not comment on the matter.)

While the city will not subsidize reduced prices on food, city officials are exploring the possibility of accepting federal nutrition programs such as food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children coupons at the carts. Doing so would require overcoming a typical problem of farmers markets, where it’s been a struggle to accommodate food stamps because they are now administered solely through electronic debit cards.

Over the last few years, the city has been trying to promote healthier food through several programs, with varied rates of success. A “healthy bodegas” initiative that launched in 2005 has had mixed results; promoting low-fat milk has been successful, while selling “snack packs” of apples and carrots has faltered. City officials have also spurred development of farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods, and have been meeting with supermarket operators to discuss ways to increase the number of food stores in New York City.

Increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables through supermarkets has been shown to correlate with greater consumption of fresh produce: For every additional supermarket in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent, according to a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Still, many of the city’s low-income communities see corner bodegas and fast food outlets outstripping food markets – a 2005 city health department study of Bushwick found bodegas outnumbered supermarkets by more than ten-fold, and only one-third of bodegas sold fresh fruit. A more recent analysis of Harlem showed a ratio of nine-to-one, bodegas to supermarkets. Both communities post some of the city’s highest rates of diabetes; Bushwick is the most obese.

Still, it’s the idea of a supermarket, not a cart, that was most meaningful to Mozella McDaniel-McCadney, a 64-year-old resident of Fort Greene. “We need a store where it has a variety of foods like canned goods and bread – a cart won’t do,” said McDaniel-McCadney, who said she had been a patron of the razed Associated on Myrtle Avenue. Since then, the disabled diabetic has traveled to a Pathmark on Atlantic Avenue, about a mile away, for her groceries. “It’s a nice gesture,” said McDaniel-McCadney of the carts, but “it just wouldn’t be sufficient for the community.”

– Tracie McMillan