Food Access Innovations from GrowNYC

Not all communities have ready access to healthy produce—a fact GrowNYC is actively working to change. GrowNYC’s ubiquitous farmers markets and innovative incentive programs bring fresh fruits and vegetables to neighborhoods throughout New York City. In this article, CfAD chats with Cheryl Huber, the Greenmarket Assistant Director at GrowNYC, to learn more about their cutting-edge work—and how farmers markets can play a vital role in supporting more equitable food access. Emerging scholarly research indicates that such place-based food strategies can significantly increase healthy food consumption, reinforce local identity, and foster civic engagement.

CfAD: Can you give us a bit of background about your role at GrowNYC, and how healthy food access became an emphasis in your work?

Cheryl: Since GrowNYC’s first Greenmarket farmers market opened in 1976, healthy food access has been central to our mission, along with helping to keep farms viable by providing markets where local farmers can sell their products. SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) acceptance has long been a key component of this work. Back in 2006, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and GrowNYC piloted the very first SNAP incentive in the country, known as Health Bucks. For every $5 spent with SNAP, the program offers an additional $2 Health Buck good for fruits and vegetables. Health Bucks can only be used at farmers markets and are an effective way to build the purchasing power of those with fewer resources. In my role as Assistant Director, I oversee our food access and education programs—which go hand-in-hand, as access is greatly enhanced by education.

CfAD: We’re interested in how food can drive positive community health impacts—including physical, mental, and social wellbeing. How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your work? Do you have a Greenmarkets success story to share?

Cheryl: Our programs are designed to impact all aspects of health. Nearly all of our 49 farmers markets are outdoors, inspiring walks and visits to nearby parks and playgrounds. We offer guided tours of the market for students, active older adults, and nonprofits working with adult communities. We’ve given tours to formerly incarcerated women, blind and visually impaired adults, grandparents serving as caregivers, food pantry members, and many, many others. Through these programs, we deliver a message that the farmers market is for everyone. It’s a place for friends to gather, to share recipes and talk about health, and to better understand where their food comes from through conversations with farmers.

Our senior tours are particularly sought after because we offer a social outing that connects people to their childhood—whether they grew up on farms in Asia, had backyard fruit trees in Latin America or the Caribbean, or enjoyed home-cooked meals made from fresh ingredients in the American South. We are proud to bridge all sorts of divides, including rural-urban, which has grown increasingly critical in these contentious times.

Our data shows that New Yorkers really value this experience. In 2016, the City conducted a survey of 200 customers spending SNAP at GrowNYC’s Union Square Greenmarket, discovering that respondents came from 92 individual zip codes! With more than $1 million in SNAP sales each year since 2016, GrowNYC processes one third of those sales at our flagship market in Union Square. This demonstrates the value that people of all income levels place on a transparent food system with quality products. Every one of those dollars, along with the $400,000 in Health Bucks that we distribute each year, is additional revenue that helps to sustain small farms.

CfAD: How does GrowNYC address the city’s food equity concerns? What are the latest innovations that are making a difference in enhancing fruit and vegetable access for all residents?

Cheryl: We work to provide a variety of ways for New Yorkers to access healthy food and come together around cooking and nutrition. Beyond Greenmarkets, we offer Youthmarket farmstands that are operated by neighborhood youth, as well as the Fresh Food Box, a cooperative buying program offering very affordable produce on a weekly basis. With three retail models to draw from, we have a program that can fit the diverse needs of communities across New York City. In spring 2020, we will break ground on a new food hub in the Bronx known as the NYS Greenmarket Regional Food Hub. This new space, operated by our regional wholesale distribution service, Greenmarket Co., will quadruple our aggregation and distribution square footage, exponentially increasing GrowNYC’s capacity to serve more communities—particularly institutional buyers like hospitals and schools.

CfAD: Anything else you’d like to share?

Cheryl: We’re also very proud of “Pharmacy to Farm,” the prescription program we operate in partnership with NYC DOHMH, and New York-Presbyterian’s FVRx. Through these programs, health professionals provide prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, directly addressing diet as a major component of good health. These programs have introduced hundreds of new customers to Greenmarkets, showing them that it’s the best place to purchase fresh healthy food.

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    Union Square Greenmarket. New York, NY. Photo courtesy of GrowNYC
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    Vendors and pedestrians at the Union Square Greenmarket. New York, NY. Photo courtesy of GrowNYC
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    “Union Square Greenmarket,” by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0