As the mayoral election made clear, race and economic inequality are turbulent topics across the city. Its manifestations are not confined to policing or education. Spare a moment this holiday season to consider food inequality and injustice.
This winter, only the richest New Yorkers can give thanks for a nearby outdoor farmers market — because all in Harlem, central Brooklyn and the Bronx have shuttered for the season.
Yes, that’s right: Neighborhoods that need farmers markets the most — where children and adults are most likely to struggle with obesity, hunger, diabetes and other ills tied to poor nutrition — won’t have them through the cold winter months.
Yet wealthier areas, where Whole Foods and other outlets already make fresh, green produce plentiful, will continue to enjoy open-air markets.
Someone needs to right this wrong.
Americans spend an estimated $147 billion a year in medical care for obesity-related diseases. Adult obesity now afflicts 39% of African-Americans. One out of every five city children lives in a home that can’t afford food regularly, especially fresh produce.
Nearby farmers markets are one effective tool to fight this public-health crisis.
June to November, about 140 city farmers markets populate the five boroughs. These colorful oases provide cheerful community destinations and business for local growers. And, most importantly, they offer healthy food close to low-income homes.
Poorer residents are attracted by government incentives that make fruits and vegetables affordable — a key to reducing obesity. Food-stamp recipients get $2 in city Health Bucks for every $5 spent on fresh produce — racking up $2.2 million in sales this season.
State Fresh Connect checks and federal Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons also lure the needy elderly, moms and babies.
But come November, these incentives vanish — nixing the buying power of the most vulnerable at the coldest time of year. Farmers can’t come if there’s no business.
On top of that, bureaucratic hassles, red tape and fees cripple the small community groups that run markets for the neediest, preventing them from operating year-round. They manage on shoestrings and struggle with city laws and permits. Most depend on vendor fees, fund-raisers, donations and grants.
Not all of market operators have those headaches. GrowNYC, a nonprofit, gets government, vendor and private funds to run 54 markets, plus youth farmstands, environmental and food access programs.
Yet only a fraction of these are in high-need food deserts.
And unlike GrowNYC, which has had a city contract since 2004 to operate year-round, all other farmers markets must exit public parks by Nov. 15.
That leaves about 25 outdoor markets open year-round citywide — 23 run by GrowNYC in upper-income Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods.
Not one is in the Bronx — rated the state’s most destitute county.
Don’t our city’s unhealthiest deserve fresh vegetables and fruits in winter too?
Laudable public efforts are making produce easy and affordable for the poor. But lack of year-round cash incentives and frustration among groups trying to run markets in the city’s unhealthiest zones leaves residents swamped with convenience stores and fast-food outlets.
Take central Brooklyn. Just before Thanksgiving, a permit issue barred a farmer from Seeds in the Middle — a group I co-founded — from selling vegetables in Crown Heights parks. Our permit expired Nov. 15.
Maritza Owens is CEO of Harvest Home Farmers Markets, which runs 16 markets in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. She co-authored a 2011 report by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, which cited the city for entangling community-based groups in red tape, excessive fees and costly parking tickets for farmers.
Harvest Home also cannot stay open year-round because less abundant produce in winter means higher prices. With no cash incentives, her customers can’t afford to buy.
Meantime, Washington could make matters even worse. Congress is considering yet another drastic cut in food stamps.
Why not offer year-round what works against malnutrition and obesity — food stamps, Health Bucks, Fresh Connect checks and federal coupons?
I see some green shoots. Sources recently told me that, for the first time, offering year-round park permits to more markets “is being explored.”
Let’s press the city to issue permits, even through the winter, to have farmers markets in far more parks and on busy street corners. Everyone in the Big Apple deserves an apple all the time.
Katz, a former Daily News staffer, is an investigative journalist and co-founder of Seeds in the Middle, a nonprofit that works to empower students and schools to get healthy.