It’s been years since La Marqueta, the once famous street market at Park Ave. and 116th St., was the bustling and lively commercial center of East Harlem. Today it has shrunk into a simple, quiet grocery store under the bridge. People are no longer coming here from all over, and it’s now serving only residents of Spanish Harlem (El Barrio). That may change, however. Two New York State farms, regulars at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, have now set up stands at La Marqueta. Every Saturday the Holton Farms offers greens and veggies, while the Breezy Hill Orchard is mostly dealing with fresh fruit.On a recent Saturday, from early morning Denzin Shedon, 21 was selling McIntosh and Empire Golden Delicious apples to the local customers, many of whom were paying with their food stamps or special State approved coupons. El Barrio is thought to be one of the poorest and hungriest parts of Manhattan. According to the 2005 report by the Coalition Against Hunger, East Harlem has been historically showing the highest rates of unemployment in the city. In 2001 alone more than
78 percent of children here were born into poverty. At the same time 62 percent of El Barrio’s residents are either obese or overweight, and the death rate from diabetes has grown there more than 230 percent in the last decade, which is twice the city average.
In contrast to conventional wisdom, obesity is not necessarily an antithesis to starvation. According to Makeba Lloyd, a spokeswoman for Harlem4 Center for Change, non-profit organization trying to educate people about the costs of unhealthy diet, obesity in this part of Manhattan is directly tied to the arrival of cheap processed food in the 90s. “Even if you take a look at the pictures of protests in
Harlem in the 70s or 80s, things were not that bad then, though the poverty rate did not change much,” explained Ms. Lloyd. The reason – residents of Harlem almost stopped cooking meals for themselves. Fast food chains selling the so called “cheap fat food” literally pushed that tradition out of Harlem. So the problem is not the absence of food, but the lack of healthy food, which in many cases means green.
“Such areas exist in many cities, and are often called food deserts,” explained Amy Barone from Health Corps, an organization started by surgeon Mehmet Oz to fight the obesity epidemic. “Food desert is the place where it is difficult to find supermarkets, that offer a wide range of fresh foods and nutritional food choices.”
This is strikingly true in El Barrio which is a sharp contrast to the luxurious, healthy and fit Upper East Side, just a short walk away. Although the neighborhood recently welcomed the opening of Costco on
117th street, a lack of access to transportation still forces many residents to rely on the bodegas, or small shops, that dot almost every block in El Barrio offering a limited and often more expensive
selection that is heavy on chips and soda and void of fresh produce like the Shedon’s McIntosh apples at La Marqueta.
According to Shedon, it was ‘too early to say,” whether or not the farmer’s stands at La Marqueta would be a success. “Last Saturday we had lots of people. Not like today,” Shedon said. Amy Baron from Health Corps assumed it’s more about knowledge: “Education and habit is the problem. Many people are unaware of the poor nutritional value of the foods they eat. They eat what is easy
to find and what costs little.”
Makeba Lloyd disagreed with that logic. In a community so hardly hit by recession, people are often forced to look for additional jobs or work overnight, so when they come home, they don’t really care what they eat, they simply want to feed their family fast, she said. Food stamps present them with the similar choice: get a tiny bundle of veggies or a giant pack of macaroni & cheese.
“We can’t say our people are not educated about what a vegetable or fruit is, but on the day to day basis if you don’t see that food made affordable to you, then you forget about it and your diet becomes what it is,” she said. “If you get used to buying fried chicken every day, you will be buying fried chicken every day.” A dozen eggs, tomatoes, onions, green pepper, spinach, green beans, turkey meatballs in the freezer and a small can of salmon or sardines – no processed food. That’s what she keeps in her refrigerator all the time.
Harlem4 activists are holding regular community meetings not just to tell people about the threats of junk food, but to teach them how to cook and live green. One of the big events – Harlem Harvest Festival Fresh Food Summit is scheduled for October, 9. It’s also seen as the way to promote yet another initiative – people are encouraged to revitalize abandoned parks in their neighborhoods or simply raise some greens at home. That kind of grow-it-yourself movement or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is new, but getting popularity fast, said Lloyd.
Still with the NGO resources so scarce, and with almost no support from the authorities it may take years to get residents of Harlem really involved. That means food desert is not turning into an oasis