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Eating well a la cart in N.Y.

Fruit and vegetable vendors soon will dot sidewalks in areas with the fewest sources of fresh produce.

June 29, 2008|Stevenson Swanson | Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — Hot dogs drowning in ketchup and relish. Huge pretzels coated with salt and slathered with mustard. Gooey breakfast rolls covered with icing.

Street vendors seem to offer a cornucopia of calorie-packed temptations on almost every corner in New York. But what if you're looking for a crisp apple? Or a juicy peach? Maybe even a crunchy carrot?

Good luck.

Now, however, in an effort to get New Yorkers to eat better, the city is preparing to issue licenses for 500 food carts that will be allowed to sell only fresh fruit and vegetables. The carts, which are expected to start appearing on the streets this summer, are restricted to low-income areas that have the fewest sources of fresh produce in the city.

Coming in the wake of the city's indoor smoking ban, a campaign to get restaurants to eliminate the use of trans-fats, and a requirement that menus list calories, the Green Carts project is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's latest public-health crusade.

"We all know that a balanced diet containing plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle," Bloomberg said in March when he signed the legislation establishing the program. "While the hot dog cart may be a cherished New York institution -- and I say that with some authority -- with this legislation, we aim to make the 'Green Cart' just as ubiquitous and loved."

Critics in the grocery business say that just because carts will offer grapes, bananas and other fresh produce, there's no guarantee anybody will buy them.

"This is like putting the supply cart before the demand horse," said Sung Soo Kim, the head of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center of New York, which provides advice and lobbying aide to Korean American businesses, including the estimated 1,200 Korean groceries in the city.

Of the estimated 4,100 street vendors in New York, city officials say that about 10% sell fresh produce, and most are limited to Midtown, where they cater to lunch-hour crowds, or relatively affluent neighborhoods.

To boost demand for fruit and vegetables, the city is launching a public-education campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of eating more produce.

Health officials hope that at least 75,000 New Yorkers will eat more apples, carrots, and other produce because of the cart program. That could potentially reduce diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and other maladies associated with poor diets.

A 2004 survey found that 90% of New Yorkers said they had eaten less than the recommended minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables on the previous day, and 14% said they had eaten none.

And the city was jolted this spring by a report that New Yorkers had packed on a combined 10 million pounds in just two years, with a 17% increase in the obesity rate.

"We have an obesity epidemic in this country, and New York is no different," said Cathy Nonas, director of physical activity and nutrition programs for the city's health department.

One way to address that problem is to make sure that more New Yorkers can find fresh produce close to where they live. Although corner groceries and bodegas are common in many parts of the city, full-service groceries are harder to find in low-income areas such as Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

Benjamin Thomases, the city's food policy coordinator, said the cart program offered a solution that was low-cost for vendors, who do not have the added overhead of rent, and familiar to New Yorkers.

"How could we change the food that people have access to?" Thomases said. "That was a high priority. This seemed like a really great and in many ways simple intervention."

The poor availability of fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods is caused by several factors. Some of those neighborhoods, such as the South Bronx, suffered severe population declines in the 1970s and '80s because they were crime-ridden. As residents fled, grocery stores and other retailers followed them out of the neighborhoods.

Now, with crime dramatically down from that era, people have started moving back, but the grocery stores have been slow to return.

Also, the number of supermarkets is down citywide in part because they do not earn the kind of return on investment that other businesses generate.

"What can you mark up a box of cereal or a can of beans, compared to a set of headphones or a stereo?" Thomases said. For electronics, "the profit margin is just much higher."

Many retailers are opposed to the Green Carts program because they fear that street vendors will set up their carts in front of grocery stores and take away customers.

"This is creating an unfair playing field," said Kim, of the Korean American small business center. "There could be confrontations between Green Cart operators and greengrocers."

City officials hope that their efforts to get New Yorkers to eat better will increase the overall market for healthy food.

"It's much easier to make things more available than it is to restrict things, and people should have the choice," Nonas, of the city's health department, said. "This is all about choice and education, and expecting and hoping that people will make the healthier choice."

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