From New York to New Mexico, Modest Public Investments Support Healthy Food for All

August 20, 2013 | 2:30 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

In a recent post, I wrote about the health benefits—and attendant reductions in health care spending—that could be achieved if public policies helped all Americans to eat healthy foods instead of subsidizing ingredients for junk food. While data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) consistently show that people in every state and at every income level are falling short of dietary recommendations for fruits and vegetables, low-income Americans have the steepest hill to climb.

They also have the most to gain. That’s why I was excited to learn recently about an innovative organization in New York City that is putting public and private funds to work to increase access to fresh, local fruits and vegetables for residents of some of the city’s most economically ailing neighborhoods.

Bringing Apples to More Neighborhoods in the Big Apple

Picture 257

Shoppers buy vegetables at Harvest Home’s Mt. Eden Market, which serves the nearly 14,000 residents of Central Bronx as well as patients and staff from nearby Bronx Lebanon Hospital. The Bronx is the poorest of New York City’s five boroughs, with more than 28 percent of  residents living below the poverty line in 2011.

Harvest Home Farmers Market is New York State’s largest operator of farmers markets in high-need, low-income communities. Founded in 1993 with a single market, the East Harlem-based non-profit today manages a network of 17 markets in culturally diverse neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, reaching 250,000 shoppers each July-to-November season.

It’s the brainchild of Maritza Owens, who as a Bronx resident two decades ago saw an opportunity to bring farm-fresh produce to underserved neighborhoods desperate for fresh, healthy food. At the time, people told Owens it couldn’t be done. Farmers markets were only viable in more upscale communities, they said. Moreover, farmers simply wouldn’t be willing to come to poorer, rougher neighborhoods.

But come they have. Today, 19 farmers and other vendors from around the state sell food at Harvest Home’s markets. And while the organization has been successful at bringing farmers together with inner-city shoppers, it does a lot more. The markets have become community gathering places, offering health and nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, family-style dinners, and physical activity programs for neighborhood kids. The markets also support regional agriculture and provide job opportunities six days a week during the summer season.

Harvest Home’s success can be attributed to the hard work, determination, and vision of Owens and her small staff. But credit is also due to a variety of government programs that have made shopping at these and other farmers markets easier for low-income consumers. For example, all of Harvest Home’s markets accept payment using benefits from the state of New York’s Health Bucks program and from three federal nutrition programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s  electronic benefit transfer (SNAP-EBT) cards, as well as Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program coupons and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons.

Harvest Home’s customers have also benefited from other federal investments aimed at expanding farmers markets in communities across the country. Authorized by Congress through the farm bill, the agency’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) provided more than $9 million in grants last year for local projects to improve and expand farmers markets and other direct producer-to-consumer channels. Harvest Home used such a grant in 2010 to implement a bus shelter ad campaign promoting the utilization of EBT at their markets. Surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012 reported a 30 percent increase in EBT utilization at Harvest Home farmers markets as a result.

Because of these modest taxpayer-funded investments, last year some $100,000 worth of fresh, healthy produce landed on the tables of SNAP families across the city who likely wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise. In turn, that’s $100,000 in the pockets of New York farmers who may not have made those sales otherwise. And according to a 2002 USDA study, such nutrition assistance spending can generate nearly double its value in total economic activity.

Sprouting Seeds on the Southern Border

Far from East Harlem, low-income residents of the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, are facing similar challenges and opportunities. In that mostly rural, poverty-stricken region, some families must travel 20 miles or more each way to shop at a grocery store, where the fresh produce can be unaffordable. Due in part to these factors, fewer than one in five Paso del Norte residents eats enough fruits and vegetables.

La Semilla Food Center (semilla is the Spanish word for “seed”) seeks to remedy this situation. With seven full-time staff complemented by AmeriCorps service members, this small nonprofit has been working since 2010 to foster a healthful, self-reliant, fair, and sustainable food system in the region. Through youth and school gardening projects, training for young farmers, and other programs, La Semilla is committed to increasing residents’ access to healthful and affordable food and to raising community awareness about the links between food, health, and local economies. These efforts were launched through startup funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other charitable foundations.

Like Harvest Home in New York, La Semilla’s also has farmers market promotion funding from the USDA. Its $94,000 grant is funding a series of radio, television, and online ads designed to attract more low-income residents to five local farmers markets. The funds also enable market staff to assist consumers in redeeming their nutrition-assistance benefits—via EBT machines, for example—to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Moreover, the grant facilitates communication between farmers market managers and local nutrition clinics, and even enables La Semilla to host cooking demonstrations at the markets that teach shoppers how to prepare unfamiliar vegetables.

Picture 276Food Equity: Good for Everyone

Groups like Harvest Home and La Semilla are serving constituencies that otherwise might be left out of the “good food” movement. That movement has driven a dramatic upsurge in farmers markets across the nation, but it has been skewed to more affluent areas.

It’s not that there isn’t interest in poorer neighborhoods. As Harvest Home’s Owens told The Bronx Journal in 2011:

Every market we’ve done, we’ve done in response to someone calling us and saying, “We want a market in our community,” whether it’s an individual or an organization. That’s how we’ve developed the markets that we have.

But need and interest aren’t enough. Investments are required to get new markets up and running in underserved areas, to hire staff, and to do the necessary marketing to develop a customer base. Groups like Harvest Home and La Semilla are doing amazing work on a shoestring, but there is a need for more public funding to replicate these efforts in more communities around the country.

As UCS’s recent report, The $11 Trillion Reward, shows, efforts to help Americans eat more fruits and vegetables can have a big payoff in health care dollars saved. And when those efforts are directed at low-income and elderly Americans—who receive their health care through taxpayer-funded Medicare and Medicaid programs—we all benefit. That’s why all Americans should insist that Congress pass a farm bill that directs taxpayer funds away from junk food subsidies and instead invests in healthy food for all.

It seems that increased efforts in recent years to support healthy food access and physical activity for the poorest Americans is beginning to pay off. As Sarah Kliff reported for the Washington Post last week, a new CDC report documents declining rates of early childhood obesity in 19 states. And a new study out just this week from health and behavior researchers at the University of Illinois shows how healthy eating interventions with Latino families can boost fruit and vegetable consumption. Still, there is a long way to go in many communities across the nation.

The diet-related poor health experienced in communities from East Harlem to Paso del Norte won’t be reversed overnight. But as groups like Harvest Home and La Semilla have shown, hard work and smart investments in farmers markets and healthy food programs can put us on the path to a better, more equitable food system for all.

Congress, are you listening?