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Bringing fresh, affordable produce to ‘food deserts’ in the Bronx

Many neighborhoods in the South Bronx are considered “food deserts:” areas with too few options for fresh produce and groceries given their populations. Residents here are disproportionately suffering from obesity, heart disease and diabetes — a fact experts contend can be the result of a community landscape devoid of healthy options.

This week Need to Know sat down with healthy eating advocate Kerry McLean, who serves as the community director at WHEDco, a local women’s housing and economic development nonprofit organization. Since 2009, McLean and others at WHEDco have provided technical assistance to Bronx residents who express interest in starting a Green Cart, an entrepreneurial possibility with relatively few start-up barriers.

“Anyone can start a Green Cart — that’s the beauty of the program,” McLean said. “You don’t have to speak English, you don’t have to be a citizen of this country, you can have a criminal background… If you are motivated enough, you can start a Green Cart.”

Kerry McLean speaks about WHEDco’s work helping residents start their own Green Carts. Video edited by Elisabeth Ponsot.

The New York City Department of Health pioneered the Green Cart program in 2008 with the idea that these portable carts could be one avenue to improving access to fruits and vegetables across the five boroughs.

According to McLean, nearly 2/3 of people living in the South Bronx rely on Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT — formerly called “food stamp” assistance — to buy groceries. Integrating EBT use with Green Carts is therefore seen as a vital component to the program’s future success.

“What we found is that Green Cart vendors who have EBT machines are processing $15-20,000 dollars each year from EBT payments,” she said. “So there is a real demand from people using EBT to buy fruits and vegetables at these carts.”

WHEDco serves low-income, diverse Bronx neighborhoods whose residents are struggling with the health complications that result from widespread obesity and lack of exercise. By providing start-up assistance to aspiring Green Cart vendors, McLean hopes to improve the area’s access to the kind of healthy, convenient and affordable options its residents so desperately need.

“I do what I do because I love to see neighborhoods that are responding to people’s needs,” she said. “At the end of the day that is the goal. If I can walk a block, two blocks, maybe four blocks to get to what can really respond to my needs and the needs of the people I serve, that’s a wonderful day for me.”