Getting Fresh Fruit and Vegetables to New York Neighborhoods: Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and the City of New York

Like many cities across the country, New York struggles to find ways to get fresh fruit and vegetables to residents living in neighborhoods where quality produce is scarce. One promising idea that has emerged in recent years is locating portable fruit and vegetable carts in those communities so that residents have easier access to high-quality food at affordable prices. The idea caught the attention of New York City Health Department officials and child advocates, who joined forces with local nonprofits, food advocates, and community health centers to make it happen.

Through a partnership between the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and the City of New York, the New York City Green Carts Initiative is putting 1,000 street vendor carts in neighborhoods with high concentrations of diet-related illness and few retail outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables. “As a foundation, we weren’t in a position to site healthy food retail outlets in neighborhoods that need them, but we wanted to increase acccess to healthy food and job opportunities,” said Gail Nayowith, executive director of the foundation. “The Health Department has to issue permits and license food vendors to operate on the street.” The Green Carts Initiative also needed to work with the Mayor’s Office and City Council to lift the cap on mobile food vendor licenses and create a new class of licenses specifically for vendors who would sell only fresh fruit and vegetables in designated neighborhoods.

The foundation stepped in to help the new small businesses get off the ground through a $1.5 million grant to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, a nonprofit, government linked entity that raises private money to support public purposes. “Typically, foundations don’t fund government programs directly,” Nayowith explained, “so there had to be an apparatus to receive, track, and be accountable for operations and revenue.” The grant funds covered a contract between the city and a nonprofit microcredit organization to make startup loans, as well as a contract with a business development firm to help vendors learn the ropes.

“They needed more than a permit and license,” she said. “They needed business development and assistance around location, purchasing wholesale, stocking and displaying produce, and building a loyal customer base. ”

Foundation funds also enabled the Health Department to develop education and marketing materials, including nutrition outreach, a recognizable umbrella for the carts, and reusable bags, brochures, and recipe cards. This partnership attracted the interest of yet another public-private collaboration (involving the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Green Market Consortium), which together helped develop a pilot program to equip 15 NYC Green Carts with machines that can take food stamps.

Now, the challenge is to make sure that NYC Green Carts become embedded in neighborhoods and, more important, become part of residents’ regular shopping routine for healthier food. “How does a foundation or city government accomplish this alone?” Nayowith asked. “After all, government can only go so far and foundations don’t underwrite initiatives forever. Our goal is to use the capacities of both to build something that has legs and can stand on its own.”

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