Bodega Fresh! Jamaica’s Availability To Fresh Produce Limited

Access to fresh fruits and vegetables in Jamaica is increasingly scarce as corner bodegas become the neighborhood’s primary source for food in an area that many consider to be a kind of urban food desert.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been reluctant to label any portion of the five boroughs as “food deserts,” a term they give to areas that do not have accessible supermarkets selling fresh produce within a mile’s distance.

And Jamaica is no different. There are only four large supermarkets within the entire neighborhood, and most of them outline the Northern border — a good eight blocks in some cases for people who live anywhere south of the York College campus.

“Even if you think about it, a mile is a long way for people in New York City,” said Michelle Friedman, communications director for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH). “It puts a huge burden on people who already have limited access to a supermarket.”

The USDA definition of a food desert is too narrow and doesn’t make sense for urban areas like Queens or in the Bronx, where the problem of finding even simple markets with vegetables is becoming an epic issue, Friedman said.

“A mile might not be a significant distance in a suburban area where people have a car to get around, versus in New York City” where supermarkets may not be accessible within even half a mile, Friedman said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Green Cart Initiative, the roll-around produce carts that aim to get fresh fruits and vegetables into low-income areas that have limited access to fresh food, is visible throughout Jamaica and the rest of Southeast Queens stretching as far as the Rockaways.

But these subsidized produce carts are the government’s reaction to what many see as a problem with the lack of Farmer’s markets in the area.

Every Friday, sponsored by the neighborhood non-profit giant Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, Jamaica hosts a small farmer’s market on 160th Street just north of Jamaica Avenue. But the three farms involved in bringing their produce into Jamaica’s market have issues of competing against more profitable markets in more affluent neighborhoods that utilize farmers markets more as a social tool than an economic necessity.

“Farms usually rely on community representatives in low-income areas,” said Diane Eggert executive director of the Farmer’s Market Federation of New York. “They have to use methods to get people into the market by getting farmers to accept SNAP benefits.”

But despite a 136 percent increase of farmers markets borough-wide in Queens over the past five years, there remain only two farmers markets available in all of Southeast Queens and only 56 percent of all Queens farmers markets accept EBT cards, including the market in Jamaica, according to data compiled from the USDA.

A new initiative by the NYCCAH includes creating Community Supported Agricultures (CSA’s), which allow members within a community or neighborhood to buy shares of a farmer’s crop which, in turn, will deliver fresh produce to them.

“Normally CSA’s have been beneficial to middle-income families,” said Friedman, but NYCCAH’s program is subsidized for those in lower-income brackets to pay for shares using their EBT cards.

“If you make healthy produce physically available and economically affordable, struggling families will flock to access it,” said Joel Berg, the executive director of NYCCAH.

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