In September, Green Cart vendor Palma was excited about her small business and proud of the produce she sold. By November, the onset of winter meant a decrease in foot traffic and loss in revenue. So to make ends meet, she is now working a part-time job at a bakery to supplement the income she earns from the cart.

Photo by: Marc Shavitz

In September, Green Cart vendor Palma was excited about her small business and proud of the produce she sold. By November, the onset of winter meant a decrease in foot traffic and loss in revenue. So to make ends meet, she is now working a part-time job at a bakery to supplement the income she earns from the cart.

Correction appended

“Those are just like the ones they use at Whole Foods”, said Palma, pointing proudly to a pint-sized blackboard advertising two speckled nectarines for $1. Palma, herself a former employee of Whole Foods, saved up $2,500 over the past year in order to purchase the license and pushcart that would allow her to vend fresh fruit and vegetables from what New York City refers to as a “Green Cart.”

And on a bright September morning, with kids and parents stopping by to select from her carefully curated selection of fruit and vegetables, Palma’s enterprise seemed to emblemize the American ideal of the self-sufficient bootstrapper.

Palma takes great pride in the produce she brings to the area. So do the other 10 vendors working in the same two-block radius. But by November, the onset of winter meant a decrease in foot traffic and loss in revenue. While she loves being a Green Cart vendor, Palma has a family to support. So to make ends meet, she is now working a part-time job at a bakery to supplement the income she earns as a Green Cart vendor.

A history of misgivings

Palma and others vendors like her have existed since the founding of the United States and their contribution to the overall economy has not been insignificant. In 1906, a Push Cart Commission recorded over 25,000 street vendors selling produce and dry goods. In 1918 there were 237 municipal markets in cities with populations above 30,000 and street vendors were so numerous that the census had its own category for them until 1940.

The tradition and pride in vending, however, took a turn under the Mayor Fiorella La Guardia’s administration. Despite his own origins from a poor immigrant Italian background, in a reversal of sympathies, La Guardia sought to criminalize street vending by reducing the number of permits from 15,000 in 1934 to 1,000 in 1945. Peddling was almost completely abolished in the 1930’s when enclosed markets buildings were established to “tidy up the streets” in preparation for the World’s Fair. Street vending faced another major setback in 1979 when Mayor Koch capped the number of permits at 3,000 for food vendors and 853 for general merchandise vendors.

Street vendors were among the many groups targeted during the Giuliani administration when he implemented his vision for a cleaner New York. In 1998 Giuliani attempted to ban food vendors from 144 blocks in Midtown and lower Manhattan; his plan, however, was largely thwarted as a result of protests and threats of lawsuits. Recently under the Bloomberg administration, fines for all vendors have drastically increased, with some penalties as much as $1,000.

Because of the cap on the number of permits for street vendors enacted by Koch over 30 years ago, the difficulty in procuring a permit is still apparent today. For most vendors, those aspiring to operate their own vendor cart can either sign up for the waiting list and wait decades for a vending permit or purchase one on the black market for up to $10,000 a piece.

A green take on vending

In 2008, the Bloomberg administration passed Local Law 9, which opened up the cap on permits only to vendors who would exclusively sell raw vegetables and fruits in “food deserts,” or under-resourced neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is seemingly scant. The idea was that sending a fleet of a thousand Green Carts to the outer boroughs would help tackle the obesity epidemic in New York City. The city estimated that the program would combat obesity by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption by 75,000 New Yorkers each year and in the long term would save 50 lives annually.

To ensure the program’s success, the Tisch Illumination Fund donated a sizeable sum to the New York City Department of Health. According to Laurie Tisch, Mayor Bloomberg approached her after the passage of the law with the request that her foundation provide $1.5 million dollars in support towards the Green Cart program. Tisch’s grant provided extra positions at the DOH to oversee the program’s implementation. In addition, through public Request for Proposals, the DOH awarded portions of the donation to Karp Resources, a private, for-profit healthy food consulting firm, as well as other organizations, to provide program and development support to the Green Cart program. To date, Karp Resources has assisted hundreds of Green Cart vendors in obtaining their permits, becoming educated on the law and navigating the complex world of produce vending.

Perusing the city’s promotional material about Green Carts, one gathers that the program has been a success. Remarking on the upward mobility of Green Cart vendors, Ben Thomases, the former NYC Food Policy Czar for the Bloomberg Administration, remarked in an interview: “After two or three years of funding, the vendors are entrepreneurs, and they are self-sufficient.”

Contributing to this narrative is ‘The Apple Pushers,’ a film commissioned by the Tisch Illumination Fund about the Green Cart program and released in the fall of 2011. With narration provided by the actor Edward Norton and sweeping, expansive helicopter shots, ‘The Apple Pushers’ casts the vendors as protagonists in a tale of hard-won triumph: After crossing borders and surviving hostage crises, these immigrants are elated in their reborn lives as respectable vendors.

An exhibition from March through August of last year at the Museum of the City of New York entitled “Movable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program” included photographs by a number of emerging photographers who were commissioned to depict vendors involved in the Green Carts Program. In a press release issued by the museum, Susan Henshaw Jones, the Museum’s director, said, “We hope these images focus renewed public attention on a vitally important civic program. The NYC Green Carts are nourishing New Yorkers in a variety of ways: by providing jobs for newly-arrived immigrants, and by providing expanded access to wholesome, nutritious food.”

Karen Karp of Karp resources, the organization that provides technical assistance to Green Cart Vendors, has said that vendors sometimes sell as much as $800 to $1,000 of produce in a day.

Questions about results

But evidence suggests this is not the case for most vendors. Based on interviews with 35 vendors in four boroughs conducted over a six-month period, the average vendor takes home an annual net income of approximately $7,500 dollars (based on an average of $62 a day for an eight-month work-year, which was typical of our sample, minus expenses), putting them in the bottom 7 percent of income in the United States. While some vendors own their own carts, others are employees of the cart owners and receive anywhere from $30 to $80 a day.

Indeed, many Green Cart vendors are finding it very difficult to make a living. Over 561 vendors have received a permit to operate a Green Cart; the number of active permits has increased every year the program has operated, from 248 in fiscal year 2008-2009. But according to the Department of Health, 60 percent of Green Cart vendors who started in 2008 did not renew their permits. In Queens, almost 50 percent have given up. Those still vending are sometimes approached by other vendors who have given up and want to sell their vendor cart and permit. According to Green Cart vendor Amerfi Paulino, over 20 people have offered to sell him their permits.

Attracting new vendors can also be difficult due to a lengthy and complicated application process. For instance, since the inception of the program, over 4,200 applications have been submitted, yet only 640 permits were issued. One reason might be that the only Street Cart inspection facility is located in Maspeth, Queens, where eager vendors wait hours to have their cart inspected. Many vendors say that after the long wait, they are informed that their cart’s measurements are a few inches off or that the paperwork is not quite right. Palma, for example, made the trek out to Maspeth on two different occasions; on one day she was not seen until four hours past her scheduled inspection appointment. Other vendors waiting for inspections attest to similar experiences.

Process problems identified

Interviews with Green Cart vendors point towards severe structural — yet quite redressable — problems faced by workers who hail from the city’s poorest and most vulnerable populations.

To start, the city mandates that Green Cart vendors sell produce only in low-income neighborhoods mostly located in the outer boroughs. Challenges to making this financially viable include a lack of foot traffic, competition among vendors for competitive spots, the difficulty in locating a overnight storage unit for the vendor cart (or “commissary”) near the sanctioned vending spot, the challenge of obtaining produce at an affordable price from the main produce wholesaler located in the Bronx, and the harsh fines (up to $1,000) that vendors receive for infractions like vending too close to an intersection or not using a mandated Green Cart umbrella.

Mohammed Islam’s cart is located in a relatively bustling corner Avenue J and 15th street, directly across from the famous Di Fara pizza in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. Islam started vending in July of this year and says he was immediately harassed when local store owners, perceiving his business as a threat to their own economic livelihood, called the police. In his first three weeks of vending, Islam received five tickets, totaling over $1,000 dollars. Many vendors interviewed reported similar problems. Of the 35 vendors interviewed, the average number of tickets per vendor was almost four. Similarly, from the first year to second year of the program, the number of tickets per number of vendors increased by 150 percent.

To stay afloat, Islam needs to sell at least $300 to $350 of produce each day; so far his average has totaled between $150 and $250. Vendors like Islam often face tough competition from illegal vendors who are able to sell produce at even lower costs and who do not have the same start-up and overhead costs that permit-holding Green Cart vendors face. For example, Narciso Moran, a Green Cart veteran who has vended in the Bronx for the past three years, is considering giving up vending due to illegal competition. According to Moran, illegal competition is one of the greatest obstacles to his livelihood as a vendor.

Another obstacle is the weather. Because the current legislation mandates that Green Cart vendors must work outside, the weather factors into calculating monthly profits. Due to the harsh northeast winter, most vendors end their vending season around the end of October. And even when the cold is not a problem, vendors still have to compete with the rain. For instance, between March and October, there averages more than 63 days of rain in New York City.

Obtaining the fruits and vegetables to sell can also be a challenge. To get to the main produce terminal located in the South Bronx, vendors like Islam who do not own their own vehicles can pay a driver, or they can rely on a service that delivers—at a premium price. Some vendors avoid the distance to the produce terminal and the hassle of delivery trucks and instead buy produce at reduced rates in Chinatown or other discounted markets.

In order to receive a permit, vendors must show the Department of Health inspectors that they are storing their cart at a licensed commissary, or storage facility. Vendors demonstrate compliance through an up-to-date signed letter from the commissary owner. In the passage of the Green Cart legislation, one of the key points that wasn’t adequately considered was that the areas where Green Cart vendors were sanctioned to work have very few commissaries—and even fewer that actually have space to store Green Carts.

Of the 13 commissaries in the Bronx listed on the Green Cart’s website, only three had available spaces that ranged in prices from $150 to $250 per month, and most require two months’ deposit. More importantly, most of these commissaries are not in close proximity to attractive vending locations. According to the owner of Casablanca commissary on Barry Street in the Bronx, Green Cart vendors do not store their carts with him because of the inconvenience of his location and the high price he sets. Instead, many vendors bribe commissaries for a letter attesting to DOHMH that the cart is stored there, then actually store their carts, along with their fruit, in more conveniently located and affordably-priced parking lots.

Those with vans or trucks can tow their own cart and have a wider selection of storage spaces. Others pay a van driver to deliver it at a cost of $50 per trip, or manually push their cart up to two miles to the nearest commissary at the break of dawn or late at night. Some, as Islam often does, pay a friend to stay with cart all night long.

When asked why Islam just doesn’t try vending in a different location, he responded that he is scared to vend in certain sanctioned Green Cart areas. Islam’s apprehension is not unreasonable. According to vendor Mohamed Firoz and a local Bed-Stuy resident, a Green Cart vendor was hospitalized in late August 2011 after he was beaten and robbed at his spot on Nostrand and Macon. Other vendors — especially those for whom English is not a native language — have reported incidents of theft.

After working 12-hour shifts seven days a week and losing $100 and $150 each day, Islam was planning to call it quits by the beginning of December. His travails clash with the American tale of entrepreneurial success painted by the program’s backers.

A push for reform

The city’s Department of Health maintains that the “Green Carts are an innovative use of mobile vending in underserved areas to bring in healthy and fresh produce” and that they have “learned several valuable lessons in the first three years of this Initiative and are taking steps to make Green Cart vending an easier way to start a micro-business.”

Asked about the low profits that Green Cart vendors earn, the lack of enough viable locations for Green Carts to vend, the high cost and low feasibility of commissaries storage, the high cost of tickets that vendors receive, and the challenges of inclement weather, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund declined repeated requests for a comment.

However, in terms of consumption of healthy food, the Health Department’s annual Green Cart report indicates mixed results. From 2008 to 2010, the percentage of residents in Green Cart communities who reported consuming no fruits or vegetables the previous day increased from 17.1 percent to 18.1 percent, while in non-Green Cart neighborhoods, the same number decreased from 10.7 percent to 9.5 percent. During that same period, the number of residents in Green Cart areas who reported consuming between 1-4 servings decreased by 2 percent. However, residents with Green Carts in their neighborhoods reported consuming five or more servings a day increased 1 percent.

Green Carts’ contribution might be magnified, advocates say, with simple reforms to the program.

Solutions start, advocates say, with increasing the neighborhoods where vendors can sell. After all, over 85 percent of New Yorkers in non-Green Cart areas do not consume the daily recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. Reformed legislation might consider identifying indoor vending locations such as community centers and hospitals for vendors to sell produce to the public while remaining sheltered from the rain, snow, and cold.

Advocates add that the City could consider creating produce terminals in all five boroughs, or developing an affordable delivery system that makes available fresher produce to all vendors. Another proposed solution would be to provide refrigeration in vendor storage commissaries so that vendors’ produce stays fresher longer, thereby reducing the frequency of trips needed to produce terminals. Allowing vendors to sell a wider variety of items that spoil less quickly—such as nuts and dried fruit—could provide a higher profit margin.

To solve the problem of storing vendor carts, some suggest that the city consider increasing the number of sanctioned commissaries to make them more convenient to vendors, perhaps providing subsidies to commissaries that provide storage for vendors, or incentivizing affordable vendor cart transportation services.

According to the Department of Health Press Office, efforts are underway to improve storage of Green Carts. One example they cite is the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation Bronx, which will provide an alternative storage facility for Green Carts in the Crotona East section. The construction is expected to be complete in January 2012 and will accommodate four Green Carts.

Advocates and vendors cite this as an important first step to scaling out more storage solutions city-wide. According to public health advocate and vendor supporter Dr. Bill Jordan, “As I see it, the biggest challenge for the Green Cart Program is the narrow profit margin of selling fresh produce. Established carts can do well, but the initial start-up period for new vendors may benefit from more aggressive marketing and assistance in establishing affordable distribution and storage.”

Jordan is pilot-testing an initiative wherein patients of a Harlem-based hospital would be given vouchers to purchase healthy,fresh produce from Green Carts located nearby.

Meanwhile, advocates say current vendor laws are so labyrinthine that many police and private security guards are unable to correctly apply them. Clarifying the law and mandating training for cops and guards would help dispel incorrect interpretations of the law and undue harassment to vendors, says Sean Basinski, Director of Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center. A majority of City Councilmembers have signed on as sponsors of two bills to change the penalty fees for vendors, and a hearing is likely in early 2012.

Correction: The original version of this article reported that the Tisch Illumination Fund was planning to roll out Green Cart programs in other cities. A consultant working with the Fund in New York expressed a personal interest in working with other municipalities, but the Fund says it has no plans to work elsewhere. We regret the error. Clarifications: The Tisch Fund has authorized us to acknowledge that the organization did supply information on background. Information about the number of new Green Cart permits and about the assumptions underlying our vendor income survey was added to provide clarity.