Harlem’s Best Block Party

by Rose Pierre-Louis

As Manhattan Deputy Borough President from 2005 until 2013 under Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, I was honored to lead the Go Green Initiative which was truly community led and dedicated to addressing health disparities and food access. Collectively, our mission was to eliminate food deserts in neighborhoods that were most impacted by environmental and health disparities.

We created the Go Green Cookbook, the first bi-lingual cookbook of its kind, which showcased healthy eating recipes from community residents and some of the region’s best restaurants. We convened citywide summits on food reform outlining a blueprint to create a five borough sustainable food system. Go Green also built an asthma center and planted thousands of trees to create a tree canopy in order to reduce Manhattan’s heat island effect.

I am so proud of the many innovative programs we created in the Go Green initiative to improve food access including: the creation of the YouthBucks program, which enabled 21,000 children from Manhattan’s most vulnerable neighborhoods to take field trips to local farmers markets and learn the value of locally grown produce and instilling healthy eating habits; and creating the Veggie Van, which is operated by Greenmarket and supports over 20 sites and serves 1.4 million pounds of food to underserved communities annually.

But one day we dared to dream even bigger by creating New York City’s first night time farmers market in partnership with the Frederick Douglas Boulevard Alliance (FDBA). We wanted this farmers market to be like none other — to be something extraordinary — a community happening!

It was a glorious evening in 2012 when the residents and local businesses in Harlem came together under the beautiful canopy of a crisp October sky. On the corner of West 117th Street a vacant and fenced-in lot was transformed into the most a wonderful communal space and food experience. Farmers from upstate New York sold their farm-fresh fruits and vegetables next to neighbors dancing to a live band while sipping on organic wines and sampling artisanal cheeses. For the kids, there was a pumpkin patch and face painting plus free healthy eating cooking demonstrations by the creative young chefs from Harlem Seeds. This nightmarket also showcased the culinary delights of restaurants on Frederick Douglass Boulevard — Harlem’s Restaurant Row.

In all 4,000 people came out that evening, demonstrating the power of the Greenmarket as a bridge to communities and to delicious fresh produce and healthy food. Without a doubt we threw the best block party of 2012! Greenmarket has gone on to throw nightmarkets in New York City every year since.

During my time as Manhattan Deputy Borough President I never imagined that I would become so deeply passionate about food justice. I am grateful to GrowNYC‘s Greenmarket for igniting this passion and my commitment to food justice has extended well beyond my time in government. Going green has extended to every aspect of my life — at home and in my eating habits, which is ironic given that for most of my adult life, until then, I did not eat vegetables.