Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Money

In Marble Hill, an Oasis Amid a Food Desert

by Connor Boals

Sarah Shaikh, community outreach organizer for Schervier Nursing Care Facility, isn’t pleased with the healthy options for the residents of the West Bronx neighborhood of Marble Hill.

“The Bronx is physically stuck and can’t grow,” she said. “If a tree falls in Marble Hill housing, does anyone hear it?”

The hope is that a few more people will hear, thanks to the Marble Hill Youthmarket, a farmer’s market operated by three neighborhood high school students at the busy intersection of West 225th Street and Broadway, which has been a huge hit since its opening this July.

“In our first week we did a soft opening and we sold out in three hours,” Shaikh said.

The Marble Hill Youthmarket is one of seven specialty farmers’ markets run by the New York City Council on the Environment. The stand sells fresh fruit and vegetables from upstate New York farms every Thursday from 2 to 6 p.m..

On a recent Thursday, about 50 customers, many of them elderly residents from Marble Hill Senior Center, kept the three  high-school interns running the stand busy as they came to browse a selection that included carrots, cabbage, peppers, onions and peaches.

Shaikh said the market’s location in front of Marble Hill Houses, a New York Housing Authority building, was chosen because of its proximity to the underserved population in the houses.

Shaikh said that this particular area is considered a food desert, a geographic area with little to no access to affordable, healthy food. Food deserts usually have a lot of fast food restaurants. Across Broadway from the stand, there is a KFC, a Subway and a McDonald’s.

Marble Hill is one of 12 community districts that fall below the city average ratio of 15,000 square feet of grocers per 10,000 people in the neighborhood, according to “Going to Market: New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage,” a 2008 study by the Department of Planning. And the situation has deteriorated in the recession, the study’s authors say.

The Youthmarket is funded through its own revenues, as well as support through several community organizations including tenants organizations and the local Bronx Community Board 8.

On this particular Thursday, the cash box was overflowing by 4:30 p.m., with the familiar green of cash as well as a rainbow of coupons and subsidies.

“Not only are we cheaper, but we accept all subsidies,” Shaikh said.

With onions and potatoes going for 80 cents a pound compared to $1.49 a pound just up Broadway at the Garden Gourmet supermarket, and the market accepting everything from federal food stamps to local New York City Health Bucks, business is good. That’s where the kids come in.

The high school interns who work the stand are the recipients of the other goal of the Youthmarket: to teach small business skills and give students a chance to make some money. Shaikh said that the Riverdale Neighborhood House, a local non-profit group, gives the interns $10 an hour  although the revenues from the market more than cover their wages.

“None of our interns have had formal work opportunities,” Shaikh said. “We want them to know there are possibilities out there.”

The interns at the markets are involved in all sides of the business, from ordering produce to improving customer service. On the weekends, they receive training in workshops on job readiness and how to build a resume at Riverdale Neighborhood House classes.

Along with job skills, the interns pick up a few tips on how to help keep themselves healthy as well.

“People don’t eat healthy,” said Elizabeth Camejo,  17, one of the market’s high-school interns.  “People don’t think fast food will kill you. I’d rather live for a long time.”

Camejo is a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx and said she plans to become a chef or join the Marines. She said she jumped at the opportunity to become an intern her junior year when her health teacher first mentioned it.

Besides fresh food, the market also provides free recipes and cooking demonstrations on how to prepare the vegetables without salt, which can lead to high blood pressure.

“A lot of people really like to eat vegetables but they don’t know what to do with them,” said Olivia Branchflower, Youthmarket operations coordinator, as she chopped vegetables for the day’s recipe: summer stew prepared on a hotplate  on one of the three folding tables set up as a storefront under the white tent..

Customers are also given free blood pressure checks from Sharon McDonald, a home care nurse with Schervier, who sets up shop every other week. So far, she said she’s had six return customers who she has been able to send along to clinics that accept Medicare, or speak Spanish, and were able to meet the patient’s unaddressed needs.

The customers are predominately seniors, which can try the interns’ patience. When asked about prices, Jesse Rabinowitz, a shy 16-year-old homeschooled student, struggled to project loud enough so that two of his elderly customers could understand him. As the women leaned in with scrunched up faces and cupped their ears, they finally deemed the prices satisfactory. Even in the food deserts of the Bronx, they are still shrewd shoppers.

“They need string beans,” said Christine Wright, a grandmother who has been living in the neighborhood for 30 years. She was buying corn, onions and peaches for herself, he daughter and her granddaughter.

Although mainly elderly shoppers stop through to pick out a few choice items, the booth sees a diverse share of clientele. Eddie Adams, a construction worker for Qualcomm, has been purchasing broccoli rabe from the booth since the summer. He cooks it with sausage and makes sandwiches for his crew doing maintenance on 225th Street.

Patrick Duffy, a Local One stagehand, said he was used to the sprawling selection of the Union Square farmers’ market in Manhattan, but was impressed with the market’s selection on his first visit He said he didn’t see why the Bronx couldn’t have just as much great food as Manhattan.

“Why can’t they send a truck up here and cut these people a break?” he said. “I would be here three days a week if it was here.”