BY HEATHER DUBIN | Seasonal produce from local farms is now more accessible to seniors living in affordable housing on the Lower East Side, thanks to the Veggie Van.
Two Bridges Neigh-borhood Council, a community organization, which runs the 307 senior apartments at 80 and 82 Rutgers Slip, has joined forces with the Office of Borough President Scott Stringer and the nonprofit GrowNYC to bring fresh vegetables and fruit to residents.
Kerri Culhane, Two Bridges associate director of planning, noted that a Pathmark grocery store, where people had shopped for the past 30 years, closed last December, leaving a veggie vacuum.
“They announced in September they were going to close, and it limped along from November to December after Hurricane Sandy,” she said. Culhane claimed Pathmark’s departure “wasn’t motivated by Sandy, but it wasn’t feeling profitable there.”
The Pathmark’s closing has left the neighborhood without a supermarket, and many seniors are unable to walk to the Lower East Side Youthmarket on Grand St. for healthy food choices.
GrowNYC — the parent organization of Greenmarket — has an existing Fresh Food Box Program in place, where underserved communities can buy 10 to 12 pounds of regional produce weekly for $10 from July until the week before Thanksgiving. To better service those in need, Borough President Scott Stringer’s Office purchased a 15-foot-long-by-8-foot-high refrigerated truck, dubbed the “Veggie Van,” for $87,000, to help GrowNYC distribute the produce. For its inaugural year, the Doris Duke Foundation has donated funds to foot the gas bill.
The Veggie Van’s official launch was July 11 at Two Bridges, where more than 70 seniors signed up for a food box the first week. Culhane said the purchase of the Veggie Van “made it possible” for GrowNYC to make deliveries in the Two Bridges area.
Greenmarket, which started in 1976, operates more than 50 farmers’ markets around the city, and started a Greenmarket Co. two years ago to sell food wholesale from warehouses in Long Island City.
“The idea was to move a larger quantity to institutional buyers, and increase food access around the city for people who don’t live near a market,” said Jeanne Hodesh, a Greenmarket spokesperson.
About 18 farms supply produce to the GrowNYC Fresh Food Box Program, which includes 10 drop-off sites in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, as well as restaurants, retailers and institutions.
The Veggie Van will transport about 10,000 pounds of produce per week — enabling farmers to rely on a steady income.
“They move a lot [of produce] at the markets, but they have to pack trucks, and get set up at the market,” Hodesh said of the farmers’ sales. “This is additional revenue for them, but we’re moving the product, which is less work for them.”
The Veggie Van is projected to deliver 300,000 pounds of fresh produce in its first year.
“The key piece of infrastructure missing was the van,” Hodesh said. “Now we’re on the road, and the program will only grow from here — hopefully, with more neighborhood partners.”
The participation in the pilot program at Two Bridges has fluctuated with each drop-off the past three weeks. Seniors put in an order one week in advance with program associate Michael Tsang, who is running the van operation. After the Veggie Van makes its drop, Tsang and Shakirah Ibrahim, an intern, package each individual box for the recipients. Last week’s bounty included peaches, romaine lettuce, sweet corn, garlic, celery, carrots and cucumbers.
“We’re starting to get booked up,” said Tsang.
Unlike a Community Supported Agriculture, a.k.a. C.S.A., share, the box program does not require participants to pay for an entire season’s food upfront, instead allowing them to pay as they go.
“It’s not a binding contract,” Tsang said. “If you want a bag, come to me and pay cash, credit card or E.B.T. [food stamps].”
“We’re doing this because it’s important,” Culhane said. “But we don’t have outside funds to allow us to make it a huge production. We have Michael, who is a staff person. It’s wonderful, and has been delightful,” she said of the program.
Two Bridges’ Culhane would like to see multiple van drop sites on the Lower East Side, and perhaps year-round deliveries, if GrowNYC determines it has the capacity.