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Friday, July 21, 2006

What next for Greenmarkets?

Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Can a Greenmarket be a nutritional beacon in some
neighborhoods and a fancy-food mecca in others?
As the markets move into diverse neighborhoods,
the message is about health and affordability in the
Bronx and Harlem, but expensive cheese and perfect
fruit at City Hall, above.

Greenmarket at 30, Searching for Itself

Published: July 19, 2006

A DOZEN precious heads of green leaf lettuce that Claudio Gonzalez had coaxed from his six acres of farmland in Orange County were wilting fast in the Harlem sun.

At the rate customers were ambling by his stand that recent afternoon, Mr. Gonzalez was worried. One of just three farmers who comprised the new little Greenmarket in Harlem, he might not even take in $300 for the day. And instead of Union Square’s celebrity chefs and street musicians for company Mr. Gonzalez had a nutritionist and someone encouraging people to trade their food stamps for vegetables.

The market, one of 10 new theaters for local produce opened in New York this summer under the Greenmarket banner, was about as far from the experience most New Yorkers associate with a Greenmarket as a bowl of Apple Jacks is from a locally grown apple.

From Borough Hall in the Bronx to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, the new Greenmarkets are disappointing some shoppers and stretching thin both staff and farmers. Many of the new markets, three of which are in front of hospitals, are more about public health than perfect produce.

People both inside and outside the organization are wondering whether, after 30 years, the Greenmarkets are expanding too quickly. Although Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in June praised the vegetable-laden markets as a way to help combat obesity and diabetes, lovers of the Greenmarkets are debating whether they can be a premier urban outlet for heirloom tomatoes and pork fat while at the same time helping to save the city from its nutritional ills.

“We need to figure out just what the answer is,” said Marcel Van Ooyen, a former environmental lawyer and City Hall veteran who in January took over as executive director of the Council on the Environment of New York City, the Greenmarkets’ parent organization in the mayor’s office.

The Greenmarket system operates under the auspices of the council, which essentially adopted it when it was born 30 years ago. The name is a registered service mark, and the Greenmarkets operate on an annual budget of about $1.5 million. (More information on Greenmarkets is at

Ten new markets in one season is a record for the organization, which now has 45 in the five boroughs. The rock star is the market at Union Square on Saturdays, when more than 70 vendors show up. Some new markets are displaying star potential, like the one on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side and the one on East 82nd Street, where the line for fruit at the Samascott Orchards stand was more than 20 people long for over an hour on opening day, July 8.

But others appear to be duds. When the Greenmarket at 43rd Street in Clinton opened on July 1, its four vendors attracted a crowd so small that Gabrielle Langholtz, the usually enthusiastic spokeswoman for the Greenmarkets, described it as depressing.

“The issues have been around for a long, long, long time,” he said. “What’s changed is the relevance of local and organic produce. It is no longer an elitist thing.” Mr. Lewis is now the chief marketing officer for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Finding permanent locations is the broader issue for the Greenmarkets, he said. That way, markets won’t be kicked out by development or killed by waning neighborhood interest. Each year the Greenmarket closes some locations, often because they are not doing well or because they have been evicted for construction.

“Part of city planning’s job is to locate public facilities,” Mr. Lewis said. “What you have now is a new relevance of the market and a need for security of sites.”

To try to connect poor people with local farmers, Mr. Van Ooyen persuaded the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, to spend $81,000 to help more people use electronic benefit transfer, or E.B.T., cards — the electronic version of food stamps — at Greenmarkets. Food stamps can be used at eight markets, and some individual farmers at other markets also accept them.

Farmers’ markets nationwide have been struggling to find a way to outfit farmers with hand-held terminals since many states, including New York, began replacing paper coupons with debit cards in the late 1990’s.

The Greenmarket is experimenting with two methods. One provides farmers with wireless terminals at their stands. The other lets people exchange a swipe of the card at a central terminal for wooden tokens, which the farmer can then collect.

Both methods have their problems. The individual terminals are expensive and technologically challenging, especially in bad weather. The $1 wooden tokens are an unusual way to shop; the tokens are good only at the market where they’re purchased and can’t be returned if they’re not used.

But making Greenmarkets work in some neighborhoods takes more than a food stamp program.

“We talk about food access and food security and the need, but there’s not always an existing demand,” Ms. Langholtz said. “Maybe their grandparents cooked collards, but they don’t.”

“Everybody wants to be at Union Square, but we were told the waiting list was five years,” said Charlie Burd, who was having a good day selling cheese for Consider Bardwell Farm in Vermont at the new Greenmarket near City Hall on opening day, July 7. Ms. Langholtz said no such list exists, but agrees that there are very few slots for new purveyors at Union Square. If Union Square is already inundated with purveyors of goat cheese, for example, a new goat cheese vendor will be asked to try another location.

Even so, $20-a-pound raw milk cheese might not sell so well at the Harlem market.

“Matching the farmer and the market is part art and part science,” Ms. Langholtz said. The Greenmarkets won’t send pork producers to Borough Park in Brooklyn, for instance, or expensive maple syrup vendors to Washington Heights. But expensive honey is selling well at the Inwood market, she said.

The mix of farmers in the Greenmarkets is constantly changing. In the past five years, 62 farmers have left the system. One is David Haughton, who grew up farming in Jamaica and now grows stone fruit along with cucumbers, peppers and squash on 30 acres near New Paltz, N.Y. He spent four years in the Greenmarket system before leaving in 2001. This year he joined with a few other African-American farmers and opened a market in the northeast Bronx.


Although business is picking up, his first outing in Brooklyn put less than $150 in his pocket, barely enough to cover what it cost to get into town from Middletown.

“The people there maybe don’t have the money to spend with me,” he said of the Bedford-Stuyvesant market. And he’s trying to figure out what sells in Harlem. He ended up having to toss out his lettuce and cilantro on opening day, July 6, but he sold out of green tomatoes.

Even when a Greenmarket lands in a neighborhood, not everyone is charmed by produce grown no more than a half-day’s drive away.

“The prices are so much better from the pushcarts,” said Sylvia Egelberg, who lives near the 92nd Street market. “Why should I care where the stuff is grown? I care if it looks good and if it tastes good.

What isn't being done is surveying what kind of stuff sells in the existing markets. The reason Union Square blossomed was that the neighborhood changed in the mid-80's and restaurants exploded.

Putting a greenmarket next to store rich 9th Avenue is much riskier. There are all kinds of places to eat there, and all kinds of stores.

East 82nd is store barren. Eli's makes Zabar look like a food warehouse, and most people either drive to the burbs, go to Pathmark on 125th St or go to Fairway for fresh fruit. They need to pick those locations which serve a community without other options for nutrious food.

People won't buy Green leaf lettuce because it doesn't look like lettuce to them. They won't buy collards because every decent sized supermarket has them.

posted by Steve @ 12:22:00 AM

12:22:00 AM

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