When I found out that a farmers’ market was set to open in front of my workplace, I got excited. I imagined cascading greenery, jewel-like carrots and beets, and a treasure trove of heirloom tomatoes. Mind you, I work in an area where there is a produce market on practically every block, but the introduction of a Greenmarket to the neighborhood heralded a new day for the locals, and a new way to shop for produce.
Those of us who are foodies and conscious of health and nutrition have loved farmers’ markets for years. You may have noticed, though, that more and more markets have been popping up all over the five boroughs of New York City. And you might be thinking that New Yorkers are finally getting savvy about local/fresh/nutritious food. Well, yes and no.
The upsurge in markets is not about tapping the growing market of food-savvy, health-conscious New Yorkers; rather, it’s about making more New Yorkers food-savvy and health-conscious. It’s about spreading the heart-healthy love. The reality is that many New Yorkers are unhealthy, and the stats are really scary. Take a look:
- Obesity rates in NYC have increased by more than 70% since 1994.
- More than 1.1 million New Yorkers are obese; 2 million are overweight.
- Diabetes prevalence has more than doubled in NYC over the past 10 years.
A lot of this is because many New Yorkers lack access to fresh produce. And, yep, there’s proof. The Department of Health has done studies over the last few years that show neighborhoods with limited or no access to fresh produce—so-called “food deserts”—had the highest rates of illness and obesity. For example, only 3% of corner stores in Harlem sell leafy green vegetables compared to 20% on the Upper East Side. Sixteen percent of restaurants in East and Central Harlem are fast-food restaurants compared to 4% on the Upper East Side.
AND… Harlem residents are three to four times more likely than Upper East Siders to be obese or have diabetes. Furthermore, poor diet is directly related to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and some cancers.
About 40 years ago, GrowNYC began setting up Greenmarkets throughout NYC with the goal of providing access to healthy, fresh, local food. Problem was, not everyone could afford it. For people who rely on EBT cards or food stamps—even with a Greenmarket on their corner—fresh food was still out of reach.
The City Council then started an initiative to equip Greenmarkets with EBT machines. Only three markets could accept EBT/food stamps in 2005. As of 2010, card readers are available at 40 markets citywide. The result:
From 2008 to 2009, food stamp purchases at Greenmarkets have more than doubled, and doubled again from 2009 to 2010, and more than 80% of all food stamp dollars spent were used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
“The success of our program is proof that all New Yorkers will purchase healthy and nutritious foods when given the opportunity,” said City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. In other words, communities want farmers’ markets. In fact, Jeanne Hodesh, Publicity Coordinator of GrowNYC, says that, “Sometimes new markets are requested by community members, other times by organizations and community partners, such as a hospital or a museum.” Unfortunately, I can’t give you any stats regarding the positive impact of increased fruit and vegetable consumption on specific New York communities because those studies take years, but there are studies that show that eating fresh fruits and vegetables at least three times a day results in a 27% lower risk of having a stroke and 24% lower risk of dying from heart disease.
More than selling goes on at Greenmarkets, though. Participants donate about 500,000 pounds of food to City Harvest and other hunger relief organizations each year. They also launched a composting pilot program on March 5, 2011. Since then (and that was not very long ago), they have already collected over 40,000 tons of kitchen scraps. (Keep in mind that there are also local farmers’ markets that aren’t part of the GrowNYC network, so support those, too.)
New and Fabulous Foods
Another incentive to try a Greenmarket is that if you are lured by the bright colors and fresh aromas at the markets but are new to many of the items, you can get an introduction right there to the products and lessons on how to cook with them. Hodesh says, “Community groups and chefs come to market to volunteer and lead cooking demonstrations, and market managers dispense recipe cards and teach about the nutritional value of ingredients that are grown in the region.” To that end, Natural Gourmet Institute does cooking demonstrations every Saturday at Union Square Greenmarket.
When a Greenmarket opened on the grounds of Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, the impact was immediate. I personally witnessed, from the first Tuesday that it was there and every Tuesday thereafter, the throngs of people clamoring to get fresh vegetables. City Councilmember Danny Dromm was there for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and he remarked, “Just walking up the street on the way over here I could smell the fresh vegetables and I think that’s wonderful.”
I smelled it, too. And saw it. The colors were wildly vibrant—from the wine-red beets and deep orange carrots to the verdant cilantro and parsley. I have to say, it was beautiful. “Our Greenmarket EBT funding is a win-win,” said Quinn, “because it provides nutritious foods to the New Yorkers who need it most and keeps those food dollars in the hands of local farmers.”
For us foodies and chefs, there’s an added bonus: the dazzling variety of produce that you just don’t get in your local supermarket. At last count, Greenmarket farmers grow:
- 47 varieties of peas and beans
- 120 varieties of apples
- 170 varieties of tomatoes
- 350 varieties of peppers
That just sends shivers of glee up my spine.
So, to start off your summer market indulgence, here’s a recipe for Sunchoke Salad with Brussels Sprout Confetti from Epicurious.com, which has partnered with GrowNYC. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are actually from the sunflower family.
Sunchoke Salad With Brussels Sprout Confetti
For the Salad:
2 cups sunchokes, peeled and boiled until tender (about 4-5 large pieces)
1 cup sunchokes, peeled and rinsed
3-4 Brussels sprouts
½ shallot, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds, lightly toasted
For the Vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider or white wine vinegar
Juice of ½ lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper (white pepper is best, if you have it)
Make the vinaigrette by whisking together the mustard, vinegar, and lemon juice. Season with salt, and then slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking all the time. Season to taste.
Meanwhile, boil the two cups of peeled sunchokes until just tender, about 10 minutes.
Drain and slice in thin rounds. Slice the remaining 1 cup of raw sunchokes in the same way. Immediately mix with the dressing. Add the shallots and seeds.
Peel the outer leaves off the Brussels sprouts, then grate or thinly slice, to create the “confetti” shreds. Add to the salad and toss.
Makes a side for 4 people.