Reporting From FamilyFarmed: Meals on Wheels | Bleader

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reporting From FamilyFarmed: Meals on Wheels

Posted By on 03.11.10 at 02:31 PM

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Made it to the Financing Farm to Fork Conference this morning just in time to squeeze into the breakout session on "Building Food Access." And I have just two words: Green Carts.

Not to take anything away from Erika Allen, Patsy Benveniste, and Michel Nischan, each of whom had 12 minutes to race through their presentations on, respectively, Growing Power, the Chicago Botanic Garden's Green Youth Farms, and Wholesome Wave, but Karen Karp and Sabrina Baronberg OWNED this panel.

Baronberg and Karp are in town from New York to represent the public-private partnership driving New York City's innovative Green Carts program, an awesomely elegant example of the creative marriage of supply and demand. Here's how it works.

New York's always been more friendly to mobile food vendors than Chicago, but even the five boroughs can only handle so many hot dog carts: currently there are more than 10,000 people on the waiting list for permits.

Meanwhile, existing NYC food carts tend to set up shop in affluent, high-traffic areas. Times Square. Herald Square. The upper West Side.

The Green Carts program saves aspiring mobile food vendors from the purgatory of a waiting list that's "not going to open up any time soon" and gets them into business, as long as they sign on to two conditions: they can only sell fresh fruits and vegetables, and they have to transact those sales in a neighborhood with limited fresh food options.

As a small business venture it's eminently accessible: start-up costs (paperwork, carts, inventory, etc) run less than $5,000. Said Baronberg, "They may be more interested in selling hot dogs, but because they know there's no way to get a hot dog permit they decide, OK, well, maybe I'll try this fruit and vegetable thing."

The program launched in the summer of 2008, and so far there are about 350 of a possible 1,000 carts on the street — but another 5,000 vendors have applied, and available permits for Manhattan and Queens are almost gone.

At an informal lunchtime session hastily scheduled to capitalize on the curiosity sparked by Green Carts presentation, president Jim Slama lauded the New Yorkers for coming up with what's so far a wildly successful market-driven solution to both creating jobs and eliminating food deserts.

The only complaints, so far, come from the occasional fast-food vendor miffed that the cart is cutting into business. To such complaints Baronberg says she replies, "Well, if you're upset that people are buying apples across the street rather than french fries from you, maybe you should start selling apples."

While a city-run program, the NYC Green Carts Initiative is currently funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. Baronberg runs it on the municipal side of things, while Karp's consulting firm helps vendors get up and running, provides field support and community outreach.

It's so simple, could it possibly work here? Several people with City Hall addresses snuck into the lunchtime follow-up (as did USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who sat right behind me). Given the city's track record with elote vendors, it seems a stretch — but stranger things have happened.

Martha Bayne is also tweeting the expo @soupandbread.

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