New York rolls veggie carts into food deserts; can other cities follow?

New York City has rolled 350 carts loaded with fresh, local vegetables into its food deserts–those distraught urban areas where grocers hesitate to tread, and where, therefore, people have little alternative to processsed foods.
Another 650 vendors are expected to hit the outer boroughs once they wend through the city’s licensing, training, and permitting process.
New York officials say it’s too early to determine whether the program is a success, with success likely to be measured by the profit of individual vendors and monitored by other cities.
“We know right now in the city we have thousands of people who want to be mobile food vendors,” said Sabrina Baronberg, Deputy Director of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program.
“The majority who get permits are in certain areas,” Baronberg said. “We know these mobile food vendors, especially the ones who sell fruit and vegetables, are not in the areas of the city where we need them most.”
In 2008, New York City created 1,000 new permits for mobile vendors, who may only operate in neighborhoods with the lowest consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Baronberg explained the program to dozens of Chicagoans at a local-food financing conferencetaking place today at the University of Illinois, Chicago’s Forum.
The Green Cart program is part of a city strategy that includes financial enticements for urban grocers and an initiative to bring healthy food into bodegas. The Green Carts put fresh local fruits and vegetables on street corners, within reach of the estimated 750,000 New Yorkers who live in food deserts, where they are more likely to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
In that sense it puts New York ahead of other American cities with the same problem. In Chicago, for example, an estimated 600,000 people live in food deserts. The city has had fostered gardens in schools and vacant lots, and has encouraged stores like Walgreens to carry more fruit and vegetables, but Chicago’s delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables lags behind.
“When I go to New York next month, I’m really going to search out a few Green Carts,” said Patsy Benveniste of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where she heads up youth, school, community gardening, and horticultural therapy programs.
Orrin Williams of Growing Home, which operates an urban garden in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, asked who builds the carts. New York contracts with a manufacturer, Baronberg said, and carts cost about $1,500. New York City offers financing assistance. Permit fees add another $225.
The start-up cost for a vendor can total $3,500 to $5,500 said Karen Karp of Karp Resources, which contracts with New York City to provide business support to Green Cart vendors. Karp explained other hurdles. The carts have to be stored overnight, and the storage garages have to pass Health Department inspections.
Another Chicagoan asked about the political climate for launching such a program in Chicago.
“Superficially it’s very open,” said Erika Allen of Growing Power, a group that strives to develop local food systems in Chicago. But practically, Allen added, it can be very difficult.
“It’s a balance between policy and the rubber hitting the road. And that lag time is really frustrating.”
She noted that several Chicago city officials were sitting in the audience.
Baronberg cautioned that the process was also slow in New York. “It took us many years,” she said.
“How many years?” Allen asked.
“Three years.”
Many in the audience laughed. “Three years is nothing,” one Chicagoan shouted.

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