Tag Archive | "produce"

A Rare Breed At The Hunts Point Fruit Market

The Hunts Point peninsula sticks out of the South Bronx mainland like a thumb. Defined by the East River to the south and the Bronx River to the north, this maze of scrap yards and warehouses is severed from the rest of the Bronx by the Bruckner Expressway.

However, hidden among the twisted metal and industrial rubble, behind a long concrete wall, is the largest food market in the world. Entry is $3 and all are welcome, but few apart from the industrious obsessives who run the market ever come. Even they are increasingly rare.

Mike Karan arrived at 6 p.m., four hours before the market officially opened. He followed his nightly ritual, weaving through the market’s 1 million square feet of warehouses, loading docks, and sales rooms, inspecting each seller’s inventory. A 30-year veteran buyer, Karan moved fast for a man pushing 50.

“There is no walking,” Karan shouted between breaths. “No eating. No sleeping. No rest.”

The market is organized into four long parallel rows of warehouses. Inside, tidy towers of produce line the walls. Boxes of Ecuadorian plantains from Ecuador sit across from bins of Texas watermelons from Texas. Over $2 billion worth of fruits and vegetables pass through the gates every year, according to the market’s website, feeding over 22 million people in a 50-mile radius around the market.1 However, all of the action happens in the middle of the night.

At midnight, Karan crouched in a frigid box car, examining blackberries. He investigated each row of boxes, peering into each plastic container with his iPhone flashlight, and tasting as he went. The plump berries were still reddish and tart. Some were touched by mold (a “gift” in market lingo). “The best are $32 a box, these are $12,” he explained, and at that price, a deal too good to pass up. Karan scribbled “SOLD” on a paper attached to the boxes and hurried on.

As Karan snaked through the warehouse, squeezing, peeling, smelling, tasting every item along the way, he created a mental inventory of the night’s offerings. Plump sweet-O pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid) from California with speckled yellow skin looked delicious but were too sour. Mandarin oranges from Peru peeled easily, but didn’t have a sticker. “Customers want to see a sticker,” Karan said.

Outside on the loading docks, the hot air carried the sour smell of composting produce. Errant tomatoes and apples, the casualties of hurried transport, lay crushed into the concrete. Workers in reflective vests, hauling pallets stacked with onions and cucumbers, weaved between one another on the narrow walkway. A novice might stay pressed up against the wall for fear of joining the tomatoes crushed underfoot. Karan walked down the middle of the dock, allowing the traffic to make way for him.

After making his selection from each seller, Karan headed for the sales office to complete his purchase. The entire process generally takes around eight hours, often keeping Karan at the market past 2 a.m.

Each of the market’s 35 sellers has at least one glass-enclosed sales office stationed along the loading dock. Rows of salesmen (they are all men) sit behind raised counters, punching orders into the computers in front of them and cracking wise to anyone within earshot.

“This is what I call jack-off hour,” a salesman named Joey Mush grinned through his walrus mustache. “Because all the customers are jack-offs.” A menagerie of gold charms, jumbled together on a single chain around his neck, jangled as he laughed at his own joke.

Mush is not his real last name. He doesn’t like people to know his real last name. And he’s particular about the pronunciation: “Not ‘moosh,’” he instructed, “mush, like mushroom.” The pronunciation make sense since Mush is the resident mushroom specialist at A&J Produce, one of the largest sellers in the market.

Mush has been at the market for over 40 years, first working with his father, then running his own business, before coming to work at A&J Produce. Like Karan, Mush is a total obsessive. His mind is constantly churning through data. Recently, Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports had caused a shortage of peeled garlic. This week, the price of broccoli had spiked during the gap between the Canadian and Californian growing season.

The camaraderie and teasing between salesmen and buyers like Mush and Karan belies the gravity of their relationships. A single transaction can total thousands of dollars.Trust and reputation mean everything to these men.

But, just as necessary as characters like Mush and Karan are, they are also quickly becoming an anachronism.

These days, over 60% of orders that A&J Produce receives are placed over the phone for delivery, according to co-owner John Tramutola, Jr. These tele-buyers rely on Tramutola and his team to ensure quality, instead of visiting the market to inspect the goods in person. “Those days are over,” Tramutola said. “Nowadays everyone wants to stay in bed.”

And as the current salesmen age out of the industry, it isn’t clear who will replace them. “This isn’t a job for the young,” said Anthony G, a salesman at AJ Trucco, another larger seller in the market. “What young person is going to spend all night here?”


Whoever comes next, they will have to be just as obsessed and just as tough. “This is my life,” Mush said, reflecting on his career, before adding with a chuckle, “and I lament every night.”

Posted in Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

Bringing the farm to the Grand Concourse

Nearly 40 people gathered Tuesday, Oct. 3 in a church on the Grand Concourse over a bounty that included arroz con gandules, pico de gallo, green plantains with cheese and three types of tacos. The meal was notable not for its Latino roots, but for its use of fresh, pesticide-free vegetables in an area of the South Bronx where it’s often hard to find healthy food.

The diners were all members of the Farm Fresh Project, a group of  50 Bronx residents who have signed up to receive weekly supplies of produce from an upstate farm. But the project has reached its membership limit so now organizers are hoping to spread the healthy eating message in other ways, such as the potluck supper, which was  made by members using their recent supply of produce.

“It’s a way to build community,” said Jackie Goulet, an Americorps member who coordinates Bronx CSA, a farm project for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “It’s a way to learn about new ideas and good recipes.”

The project is the first of its kind in the South Bronx and is a small step toward addressing a perennial problem in the neighborhood, which faces both a lack of fresh food supply and an obesity problem. Nearby Highbridge has only two supermarkets to serve 34,000 people, causing many local residents to shop at bodegas, most of which have meager and expensive produce offerings, according to Healthy Highbridge Coordinator Juan Rios. According to a 2008 city study called “New York City Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage,” most of the districts in the South Bronx have too few places to buy fresh food. At the same time, a 2006 New York City Department of Health and Hygiene report shows four in 10 children and two out of three adults in the South Bronx are overweight or obese.

Community supported agriculture projects bring together a group of people who pay in advance for a season’s worth of goods from a nearby farm. This particular program offers food from Fresh Radish Farm, located 60 miles away in Goshen, NY. Area residents pick up vegetables, such as zucchini, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and greens weekly or biweekly. Whatever is left over is donated to the food pantry at Seventh Day Adventist Church at which the market is located.

Unlike traditional farm shares, this one is subsidized by a one-time $30,000 Legacy Project Grant from the Bronx Health Reach, a community-based healthcare initiative. Residents must sign a contract ahead of time, but can pay each week with a sliding scale based on income. A family making over $50,000 would pay $485, but a family on food stamps pays only $120 for the whole season, which lasts from June to November.

A bag of assorted produce estimated to feed a family of four costs $5.45 a week for families who receive food stamps.

Americorps worker and food share organizer Jackie Goulet says most of the farm share members pay in food stamps.(Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

An overwhelming majority of Bronx farm share members gets food stamps, Goulet said. Food stamp eligibility involves a number of factors, such as family size and income, but generally a family cannot have more than $2,000 in resources, according to the government’s food stamp fact sheet.

Concourse resident Maria Hernandez, 28, heard about the market from a friend. She said that since the farm share began, she’s been able to afford to make her young daughter more vegetable dishes.

“If you have them, you see what you can do with them,” she said of the vegetables, which she pays for with her food stamp card. “If you have to buy them, you can think of something else to make”—something else quicker and without produce.

Most of the members are also Spanish speakers, so Goulet canvassed since winter distributing pamphlets in both English and Spanish.

“It took a really long time to get 50 people to sign up,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s a weird concept people haven’t heard of: asking people for money for something they haven’t even seen yet.”

Goulet writes a newsletter each week that includes nutrition facts, information about the farm, as well as “quick, easy and affordable” recipes geared at the produce—necessary as new products are introduced to the population.

One recipe, “Grilled Cheese with a Twist,” suggests adding red onion, garlic, spinach and tomato to the quick staple. “Chunky Vegetable Soup” addresses the changing offerings of a farm share by suggesting “soft vegetables like zucchini, green beans, summer squash, or leafy greens such as kale, spinach or collard greens.”

Grand Concourse residents load up on fresh produce. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

As a handful of people arrived before the 5 p.m. weekly market start time, Goulet told some perplexed produce shoppers they could use the strange and soft pumpkin greens for soup. The farm share also offers more recognizable produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce.

Eva Sanchez, 33, a mother of three whose young son would occasionally help translate for her, enjoys the offerings.

“It’s economical and the vegetables are good,” she said. Sanchez, who lives on the Grand Concourse,  prefers vegetables to meat but said choosing produce was harder before the farm share came to her neighborhood.

“It’s not difficult; it’s expensive,” said Sanchez, who heard about the project from a friend.

Sanchez also volunteers at the farm share, helping other people with their groceries. This is a step in the right direction, according to Goulet, who said normally farm shares are run by their members.

“It’s starting to take off on its own,” said Goulet, who commutes from her family’s home in Long Island. “That’s something I hoped would happen.”

Goulet ends her Americorps work in December but says she believes the project will go forward, adding that next year the farm share could carry fruit in addition to vegetables. This year a scheduling conflict prohibited the small organization from receiving fruit deliveries.

According to New York City Coalition Against Hunger spokeswoman Theresa Hassler, “It’s the first year, so of course we plan on growing. We definitely plan on expanding and growing in coming years as participation and interest grow.”

With that, farm share employees hope the community will grow healthier too.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Culture, Food, HealthComments (1)

Fordham U. law student forced to give up farm-share program, New York Times

Farm to Fordham, a farm-share program at Fordham University for the last year and a half, ended last week after a battle with security personnel at the school, New York Times.

The program has been struggling since April when security refused to open gates for vegetable delivery, the Times reports.

The program’s founder, Michael Zimmerman, a law student, tried to work with the system to reopen, but instead received notice from the university’s lawyers saying that the program couldn’t continue.

 

Posted in NewswireComments (0)

Tough Choices at the Market in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

For the past six months, Harrilal Ramlakhan has managed to avoid buying most of his food from local supermarkets. He is a community gardener who plants and sells his own fruits, vegetables and spices. But when the seasons turn and the cold settles in, he will have to switch his gardening tools for a shopping cart, and the idea depresses him.

“All the stuff that they have in the grocery stores is mass production, heavy with chemical and fertilizer so that it can remain on the shelves,” he said.  “But when it comes to food value, you don’t have that.  They will advertise and tell you it’s the best it’s the best but there’s nothing in it. “

With Ramlakhan and other farmers coming to the end of their season, residents of the Bronx’s East Tremont watch hopelessly as their strongest source of health food, the farmer’s market shuts, down.   Now they have to turn to bodegas, small markets, or supermarket bargain shopping, where price takes precedence over nutrition.

Most shoppers go to the largest supermarket in the area, Western Beef. The massive warehouse-like structure on Prospect Avenue is part of a chain of 21 full service supermarkets.  The company’s marketing strategy is to get full service markets in areas that have been shunned by other large corporations.

Western Beef, Inc. claims to offer service tailored to the ethnic needs of the community while taking income levels into consideration.  They offer products from the Goya line for the growing Latino population in the Bronx, along with exotic fruits such as yampi, a type of yam, and ajicito, a small pepper from the Dominican Republic, for a reasonable price.

Most customers arrive at the store with bargain flyers highlighting this week’s specials instead of grocery lists.   Ahdreanna Astudello, 49, says she only buys what is on the flyer.   She’s unemployed at the moment and says she has no choice.

Bargain shopping is a necessity for many residents in the Bronx.  For the borough with the highest unemployment rate, economics takes precedence over health, and it’s showing.    According to the New York Department of Health, 31 percent of South Bronx residents are obese, the highest rate in the city.  They attribute this to physical inactivity and lack of nutrition because of poor food choices.

Astudello is forced to stretch her dollars as thin as possible, and that affects her grocery shopping.

“Instead of milk, I drink Diet Coke,” said Astudello.  “It’s cheaper.”

Milk costs $2.99 a gallon at Western Beef, while a two-liter of Pepsi Diet Coke, is only sale for $1.99 cents.    The mother of two doesn’t have many healthy choices in her hand.  She considers taking advantage of the two for $5 deal on Florida’s Natural Orange Juice, but decides against it.

Most of the foods in the bargain flyer have little nutritional value, and are high in carbs, calories and fats.  Little Debbie is a popular product on the list, with their cupcakes, oatmeal creme pies and honey buns on sale.  At four for $5, the honey buns are a steal to Astudello.  She pays little notice to the nutrition facts, and isn’t concerned with the 12 grams of fat per bun.

Passion Bryant, 22, supplements fresh fruits and vegetables with canned foods. “The vegetables they have aren’t that fresh anyway, “ she said.  “I might as well buy it in a can.  It lasts longer and is cheaper.”

Bryant visits the farmer’s market when they are in season.  Although she was disappointed with the size of the market and the quality of food, she knows it’s better for her than the can of Libby’s fruits that’s on sale for 50 cents each.

Next Bryant heads for the cereal isle.  She doesn’t even glance at the healthier choices offered by Post, and priced at about $4.50.  Instead she heads straight for the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and gets two for $5.

Unhealthy choices in the bargain flyer are not unique to Western Beef.  Supermarkets all over the South Bronx neighborhood are offering discounts on ice cream, frozen pizza and cakes, with few healthy alternatives.

Fine Fare, the second largest supermarket in the area, has a Snack-Tacular Savings section which entices customers with selections such as Lays XXL Potato Chips at two for $6 and two Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats or Cinnabon Carmel Bars for $5.

Sonya Santiago says the choice is hers, and she chooses to feed her four grandchildren vegetable and produce.   They go through about a gallon of milk a day, and if the children want a snack,  she tries to be healthy by giving them Apple Jacks, fruit or apple sauce.

“Junk food is not allowed in my house,” she said.  “If I am going to spend my money it will be on something that is worth it.”

Santiago feels that although the quality of the produce in larger markets isn’t perfect, it’s a better in the long run.  She sees it as an investment in her family’s health. Besides, she argued, the produce is often on sale too.  Although prices don’t dip as low as the farmer’s market, with a little budgeting she is able to satisfy her family’s appetite without the health risk.

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