NYC’s Green Cart Initiative

August 07, 2012

From the latest issue of Food, Nutrition & Science, the New York City Green Cart Initiative is one recent project taking the concept of tackling food deserts to an entirely new level.

The USDA reports that 23.5 million people live in “food deserts” – under-served areas with a lack of access to healthful foods and fresh produce. Instead, there is often easy access to fast food restaurants and more affordable, pre-packaged, higher-calorie foods. Across the nation, communities are tackling this issue in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of success. 

The New York City Green Cart Initiative is one recent project taking the concept of tackling food deserts to an entirely new level. In 2008, the Mayor of the City of New York, along with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the City Council, created a new type of street vending permit to encourage street vendors to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in designated neighborhoods where there are gaps in access to healthy foods, and the rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases are greatest. 

NYC Green Carts uses mobile vending as a strategy to reach neighborhoods where there are not enough traditional retail outlets and where the health statistics demonstrated severe need. Since street vending has long been a way of life in New York City and a way for new immigrants to create economic opportunity, the program integrated seamlessly. In the last three years, the program has created over 500 new businesses and more than 800 jobs – thanks to a public/private partnership between the City of New York and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. In addition, Karp Resources provides training to vendors, helps them get their businesses off the ground, and collaborates with community organizations.

Green Carts utilize a unique lever of micro-enterprise to address the need for more fresh food in low-income communities and simultaneously prove the demand for these healthy food items. Each cart owner is an independent business. And they fill a gap between social service programs (e.g., soup kitchens and food pantries) and traditional commerce (such as bodegas and supermarkets). The vendors are also embracing the local movement and get much of their produce at the wholesale farmers’ market where regional farmers sell cases of locally grown produce at great prices directly to small businesses.

“We have seen a number of very positive changes in the retail landscape in neighborhoods where Green Carts operate: vendors are taking leases on stores, new fruit and vegetable markets are opening on busy thoroughfares, supermarkets are upgrading their merchandise to include more fresh fruits and vegetables, and local restaurants are purchasing produce from Green Carts for their menu offerings. Rather than losing business, there is research that shows that now other retailers are increasing their number and variety of the fruits and vegetables,” says Karen Karp, the founder of Karp Resources.

To keep everything safe and traceable, street vendors – Green Carts included – have a built-in feedback loop: their customer exchanges are fast and personal, and consumption of items purchased is frequently immediate, so vendors’ visibility comes with an imbedded level of responsibility. Vendors have to go through a food safety course, and they’re subject to street-side inspections by agents who are looking for proper protocol for the safe handling and merchandizing of produce. 

Other organizations have embedded Green Carts into their initiatives as well. These include City Harvest, which does cooking demonstrations involving vendors; Montefiore Medical Center, which creates its own nutrition education programs for patients who shop at vendors near community health centers; WHEDco in the South Bronx, which integrates Green Cart recruiting and training into its job development programs and encourages new vendors near its affordable housing developments; and Vamos Unidos, which advocates on behalf of vendors and helps them address legal issues that arise.

So inspiring is the program that other cities are developing similar ones. Pilots are currently getting started in Philadelphia (Healthy Carts), Washington (DC Fresh Carts), Chicago, Los Angeles, San Jose (Fresh Carts Silicon Valley) and Madison, Wisconsin. The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund recently produced a documentary film called The Apple Pushers, which is now bringing attention to the Green Cart program and the issue of food access to audiences across the country.

“Green Carts are an exciting, entrepreneurial model that address a social problem through entrepreneurship. This type of initiative speaks directly to the foundation’s mission of increasing access and opportunity to all New Yorkers. Thousands of cases of fruits and vegetables are now being purchased and consumed by New Yorkers in low income communities each day,” says Rick Luftglass, Executive Director of The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

A conservative estimate of the number of fresh fruits and vegetables reaching New Yorkers is 7,000 cases of produce per day, which is about 140,000 pounds of produce daily – not to mention the number of economic opportunities created by the program. On average, each cart creates 1.75 jobs. But the Green Cart program is just one strategy towards finding a solution to the problem of food deserts, says Luftglass.

“Green Carts are not the only solution, but along with other New York City-wide initiatives, the program works towards combating diet-related illnesses for a large number of people in neighborhoods where healthy options are otherwise low. Green Carts have also become part of the fabric of these neighborhoods; vendors develop relationships with the neighborhood, and community organizations in turn assist vendors and incorporate Green Carts into their own initiatives,” says Luftglass. 

He adds, “The food sector is one that will only continue to grow – especially in cities as urban populations increase. It will offer more job opportunities at more levels – all along the food chain.”