How Mike Bloomberg Got New York to Eat Its Veggies

First seen in Politico Magazine / photo Michael Loccisano/ Getty Images for HBO

Columbia University study published in 2014, found that Green Carts provided high quality fresh produce to neighborhoods with low consumption and availability and created an “economically viable and sustainable program.”

Ester Fuchs, a professor of international and public affairs and political science who co-authored the study, concluded that the carts were penetrating the targeted population—it was serving low-income people for a lower cost, and they were eating more fresh produce. A subsequent 2015 city study found that the number of adults who reported not eating fruits or vegetables the previous day had decreased from 2002 to 2012, which “may be in part to due to the Green Carts.” It also found that fresh produce sold in all establishments like bodegas increased by almost 20 percent, which refuted fears that the carts would take away business from brick-and-mortar stores.

When the program first began, the mayor’s office, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund partnered to launch it. The Illumination Fund provided support to train mostly immigrant men who spoke little English how to purchase, sell and market fresh produce. It also provided technical assistance in navigating the permit process. Studies were funded, a documentary included the Green Cart vendors, a photo exhibition displayed the entrepreneurs, recipes for fresh produce were distributed and the program gave vendors free tote bags to hand out.

Chicago and San Jose soon implemented their own versions of the program. Sabrina Baronberg, part of New York’s team developing strategies to address healthy eating in 2008, presented the city’s solution at multiple conferences.

A decade later—and six years after the departure of its crusading implementer—the program seems to have plateaued.
“I think it’s still difficult and it’s still a complicated field to go into selling produce and it’s complicated to be a street vendor,” Baronberg said, not like selling T-shirts or bagels. Baronberg, now a private consultant, emphasized that the Green Carts played only one part in a multifaceted solution. Street vendors were flexible in price, location, hours and type of produce which allowed them to cater to their specific location. Though Baronberg thinks the program is a “win-win” by providing business opportunity and more produce options, “you can’t just be a permit,” she said.

“[The] technical support was really important. And without it, I think we weren’t providing good enough service,” she said. The same assistance that Baronberg believed was “essential” to support the vendors is no longer being offered.

“There are things that the city has done to help support vendors. Like, for example, creating a plain language list of vending rules and different resources that are currently available, but there is not ongoing technical assistance,” Kim Kessler, assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention, said.

Kessler said there are 250 active Green Cart permits out of the 1,000 available, which is half the number of active permits a 2104 Columbia University study found. A 2010 city report mentioned a Facebook page that tracked cart locations, but the link is now broken.

Without outside assistance, Fuchs said the program is viable but not as effective as it could be. “[It] seems to me a reasonable investment because not only are you getting fresh fruit and vegetables to high-need communities who are also helping immigrants start businesses, which we provide support all kinds of support for starting small businesses in this city. So why not continue to do it in this context?” Fuchs asked.