How difficult is it for you to pick up a tomato for tonight’s dinner or some apples for the week? Unfortunately, for over 23 million people in the United States it is extremely tough. They live in food deserts—urban and rural neighborhoods where fresh, healthy, and affordable foods are out of reach. Americans living in food deserts—half of whom belong to low-income households according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are more susceptible to obesity, heart problems, diabetes, and other serious diet-related diseases.
Even bustling New York City, known for its world-class transit and walkability, struggles with healthy food access. In 2008, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn initiated the Green Carts initiative. Part of a larger strategy to fight food deserts, the policy created a new vending permit class for the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables. It established 1,000 new Green Cart licenses available for use in low food access neighborhoods across the five Burroughs (350 for Brooklyn, 350 for the Bronx, 150 for Manhattan, 100 for Queens, and 50 for Staten Island).
Green Carts is supported by a $1.5 million grant from the Illumination Foundation, which has made marketing and resources like training and business assistance to vendors possible. Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs released a study last year titled “Innovative Partnership for Public Health: An Evaluation of the New York City Green Cart Initiative to Expand Access to Healthy Produce in Low-Income Neighborhoods.” The report found 500 permits have been issued and 166 Green Carts are in operation. Nearly half of the customers (44%) are from very low-income households earning less than $25,000 per year, and the majority (71%) of all customers report increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Most vendors find their Green Cart business profitable (80%) and a potential pathway to a larger future business (75%).
The program is seen as a success. Green Cart vendors are able to bring fresh food to the residents who are most in need, and other places have follow suit, including Chicago, IL, and Santa Clara County, CA. Chicago launched Neighbor Carts in 2012, which enables independent vendors to sell uncut fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The Fresh Carts Silicon Valley initiative in Santa Clara County is part of the “Good. To Go” campaign to promote healthier eating, with six carts are in operation.
These programs are helping bridge the food gap and increase health in low income neighborhoods. More information on the programs along with their ordinance language can be found on the Local Leaders Council Model Policies page. The model policies are used to provide examples of thoroughly vetted policies that leaders can use as templates for legislation in their own towns.
Neha Bhatt contributed to this article.