Food deserts are neighbourhoods without ready access to nutritious, affordable food. Six years ago, buying fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income areas of New York City was a challenge. Often without easy access to public transit, and no neighbourhood grocery stores, area residents relied on bodegas — or local convenience stores.
"Bodegas, which notoriously stock soda and chips and beer and not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables were the mainstays of these neighbourhoods. And neighbourhoods were chosen on the basis of availability."
Ester Fuchs is a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University, where she runs the urban policy program. The university was hired by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund to evaluate the green carts program, to make sure the $1.5 million US the Fund invested was paying off.
"Green carts … look like push carts that you might have seen in densely populated cities like Toronto and New York, probably at the turn of the 20th century," Fuchs explained.
The green carts program launched in 2008 as part of a larger policy the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration put in place to improve access to healthy food for low-income populations.
They typically set up in high traffic areas within designated neighbourhoods, near public transportation or in shopping districts.
Because the stock comes from the same market that supplies grocery stores, the produce sold at green carts is what’s in season, but it costs less. Fuchs said that’s an important factor when trying to encourage a behaviour change.
"The folks who buy from the green carts are primarily low income," she said. "We also found that the green carts are changing peoples’ behaviour. Seventy-one per cent of customers reported increased consumption of fruits and vegetables since shopping at the green carts."
As a side benefit, Fuchs said the carts are owned primarily by immigrants, with 88 per cent of foreign-born owners now operating economically viable businesses.
Because the green carts stock what their customers want, what’s in each green cart varies depending on the neighbourhood.
"And the green cart operators are very sensitive to their ethnic populations," Fuchs said. "So you may find, in Caribbean areas, more mangoes and papayas that Caribbean population prefers. But you always find bananas … What you find now are peaches and strawberries and blueberries and in the ones that are carrying the vegetables, they do a variety, cucumbers, tomatoes, greens."
Fuchs says in neighbourhoods where the green carts have located, bodega owners are now carrying fresh produce, too.
"There is a market for fresh produce. It wasn’t there, the green carts opened up this market. And the bodega owners who see an opportunity to make money for fresh produce are starting to carry them as well."
The success of the green carts program is being measured in a range of ways:
- Does it reach a low-income population?
- Are people buying more fruits and veggies?
- Do vendors make a profit and learn business skills?
There will also be a broader, long-term study done by the health department to assess the impact on health outcomes.
"I think this is a great model for cities in Canada and the United States," Fuchs said. "We believe it could increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in other high-density cities across the globe in a relatively inexpensive way."
For Fuchs, this project also points to a new way of approaching public health initiatives, showing cities can partner with philanthropy to test creative solutions, while keeping costs down.