In McKinley Square, an Unlikely Grocer

by Amanda Staab


At the Youthmarket, buyers get healthy bargains and sellers learn about the business of farming. Photo by Amanda Staab

On McKinley Square, a small, paved island in the middle of the busy intersection between Boston Road and East 169th Street, local students run an outdoor farmers’ market, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to the South Bronx.

“For the community, it’s providing access to healthy food at a reasonable price, and for the kids, it’s helping them develop all kinds of skills,” said David Saphire, the project director for Learn it, Grow it, Eat it, a summer program that teaches students about eating healthy and growing their own food. For six weeks, the kids get their hands dirty in three community gardens in Morrisania, and a portion of that harvest is sold at the outdoor market.

The market in Morrisania, open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  from July through October, is one of four Youthmarkets, which are considered satellites of the larger, more established Greenmarkets. They are organized by the New York City Council on the Environment in the Bronx, with others in Marble Hill, Tremont, and Riverdale.

“There are some neighborhoods that farmers are reluctant to dedicate a whole day to working in because they feel they wouldn’t have the sales, but yet, there is still a demand for fresh produce,” said Saphire.

The goal behind the markets is to provide healthy food to poor communities, and in its second year, the market has seen business change, as cash sales dropped and food stamp sales soared to more than half the total transactions.

Youthmarkets stand out from other farmers’ markets in New York City that don’t have the same pressure to cater to lower income crowds.

“It’s marvelous that the farmers’ market has come to the South Bronx for less fortunate people with healthy, good products that we definitely need in this community,” said Arlene Overstreet, a Morrisania resident for 31 years who recently bought all the produce for her family dinner for just $6.

The produce comes mostly from farms in upstate New York. It supplements the limited selection ordinarily available to residents in the Bronx.

“There’s a shortage of venues for buying healthy food, for buying fresh produce, and it’s even more difficult to find locally grown fresh produce,” said Saphire. He would not call Morrisania a “food desert,” a new term used to describe regions with close to no healthy food access, he said, because there are grocers in the neighborhood. “It’s just that the predominant stores are bodegas that don’t sell very much fresh fruit and vegetables.”

As an environmental scientist, Saphire researched reusable packaging for everyday products for 10 years before he joined the New York City Council on the Environment. Six years ago, he was asked to head up a high school educational program that eventually developed into Learn it, Grow it, Eat it.

A Brooklyn native who spent many summers outdoors in upstate New York, Saphire decided the best way to get urban kids to connect with the environment was through food.

“Kids related most to the environmental issues that had to do with their health, and then I thought, food would be such a good, unifying theme for that,” said Saphire. His students, he said, had a fairly good sense of what was healthy and what was not, but they hadn’t really taken the time to evaluate their own habits.

In addition to teaching them exactly how much sugar is in some of their favorite beverages and other helpful healthy tips, Saphire took his students out into the field, including  three underutilized community gardens.

Farming doesn’t thrill every student, said Saphire, but some of them really take to it. “It’s cool for them,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow.’ They just get into it.” The most enthusiastic students are invited to participate in the Youthmarket.

Stephanie De Jesus, a 19-year-old student reorganizing the tomatoes laid out on the stand, said Learn it, Grow it, Eat it changed her eating habits, as she experimented with cooking meals without the high sodium seasoning popularly used in Hispanic cooking.

“It taught me how to substitute those ingredients for healthier ones,” she said. Her time in the gardens not only inspired her cooking but also gave her a deeper appreciation for the outdoors, which has influenced her  hobby of painting.

Local shoppers often ask the kids about the food and its effect on health. “I like it,” said Qiana Nicolau, who just completed trade school for cosmetology. “It’s actually showing people new things they didn’t know.” When customers come back to the market, they often tell her how much better the fresh produce tasted compared with what’s available at local grocers.

The market also serves as a classroom for nutritionist Alicia Flynn, who works two blocks away at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, and her clients. Many times, Flynn has taken patients with hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes to the market where Saphire and his crew show them what healthy foods the land produces for them to eat.

Pointing to the bounty on the table, she said, “People can see that these are actually grown from the ground. It doesn’t come from a package.”

Her biggest obstacle, she said, is usually getting her clients over the hurdle of their own cultural foods, containing mostly just starch and protein and very little fresh produce.

“First, we have to convince the people that they want it,” said Flynn. “We got to give them ways to taste foods. You got to eat it, then believe it.”

When the market retires for the winter, she knows her clients will return to their diet of mostly rice, beans, potatoes, and meat because fresh produce just isn’t that readily available.

“Grocery stores have it,” she said, “but it’s expensive.”

Despite the struggle to find affordable, healthy food, Overstreet said she has already seen a change in the way her neighbors view fresh fruits and vegetables.

“They are buying more and they’re appreciating it,” she said.

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