Sprouting Roots in the Swamp

Food deserts have been the talk of the town for a while. A food desert is an area which has very limited access to food, but that does not necessarily apply to many neighborhoods in New York City. However, there is a clear problem with the quality of food available. So if technically many communities in the city don’t live in an actual food desert, what causes many of the health issues in some of New York City’s most underserved communities? A more fitting term for the situation neighborhoods such as Harlem, the Bronx and Washington Heights are facing is that of a “food swamp”, an area which has far easier access to unhealthy food options than to healthy ones.

In Central Harlem, access to food is abundant, but the options available put residents at high risk for obesity and diabetes. Noticing the high rates of especially juvenile diabetes in her neighborhood, Sonya Simmons set out to found the first farmer’s market above 125th Street, 12 years ago.

Every Tuesday and Saturday, Simmons gets up at 4 a.m. to drive upstate and pick up fresh produce for her stand. Loading everything into her small car, she heads back to Harlem, flowers on the co-driver’s seat, cabbage in the trunk.

Simmons transports all the produce from the car to her stand using a small trolley. Today an unexpected construction site is making the walk a lot longer than expected. Having no reserved parking spots, all of the vendors face parking problems regularly.

Before she had a chance to completely unpack, her first customer arrives. “She comes here every morning, to get her flowers. Every Tuesday and Saturday”, Simmons says.

Simmons prefers to set up the tent by herself, after 12 years, she has the steps down to a choreographed routine.

The cabbage is the only thing she will accept help with. It’s just too heavy!

Simmons takes great care in arranging all items to form a beautiful palette of healthy food to draw in potential new customers and get them excited about fresh fruits and veggies.

Some of the greens can’t deal with the glistening sun and have to be kept in the shadow of their boxes to remain crisp and fresh. Only one bunch of cilantro is placed on top of the box for presentation.

Her stand set up, Sonya is giving directions to the team setting up for nutritional classes next door, sponsored by the New York Health Department.

The stands work closely together and Simmons provides some of the produce the food workshop will be working with later on. Essie and Claudia, the two educators holding today’s classes are weighing out the tent against the slanted sidewalk.

The day is about to start and some finishing arrangements are made before the first customers and classes arrive.

The Grassroots Farmers’ Market, started 12 years ago in the northern part of Central Harlem, is also a place where Harlem residents can learn more about healthy nutrition. The ‘Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables’ program by the New York City Health Department has been offering lessons on healthy nutrition to underserved communities. We spoke to one of the initiatives educators to find out more about the impact they see in the community.

The recipe of this class, as well as many other healthy options for all seasons can be found on the program’s website.