If you live in Brooklyn, or any outer-borough really, I’m sure you’ve seen it before: the requisite post-work grocery bag getting lugged home on the train. Often it’s the ubiquitous Whole Foods and Trader Joe bags bouncing along the platform awaiting voyages across the East River.
Recently, the City Council passed a bill – despite intense lobbying against it by food retailers – to issue street vending permits for vegetable stands in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. It’s clear to anyone living in the areas included in the measure – like my neighbors in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant – that fresh, decent produce is not as readily available as it is in much of Manhattan. Cue that long trip home from Whole Foods.
One of the first things I did when scouting out a place to live was to take note of the nearby grocers and bodegas. After disembarking from the Q train on my way home to Prospect Heights I have three options. On Flatbush Avenue the Natural Foods Market is the best, and most expensive option. The aisles are cluttered but clean, like in the next option, the Met on Vanderbilt Avenue. Both of these stores sell a decent selection of fresh fruit and vegetables and the prices are pretty average for the city (that is to say, pricey).
The last, and sadly most convenient, option is the C-Town on Washington Avenue. Upon visiting the C-Town for the first time, my eyes immediately locked on a white plastic bin labeled pig snouts. Now, I’ll admit, being vegetarian, this especially doesn’t sit well with me. The bin sat in the center of the produce aisle where green peppers were turning black, the lettuce was on the verge of extinction, and even the apples looked a little bit sour. The store itself is in shambles, clearly not updated in many moons, but the staff does what they can to make it as hospitable as possible. I suspect that the appearance of the store contributes to the excellent two-for-one deals they have on anything from English muffins to Tropicana orange juice. Though, upon purchasing chocolate soymilk recently, I returned home to find that someone had already taken a swill of it.
For those too lazy to consider lugging groceries home from Manhattan, there is also Fresh Direct. Though an order from the online grocer always seems to add up to more than you expected to pay, it’s convenient and easier to buy in bulk should you not have a car (or a Zip Car!) for an occasional trip to an acres-long suburban retail grocer. I have a theory that Fresh Direct aids (on some psychological level) in quickening the gentrification process, as despite the cheap rent, one major deterrent from living in a low-income neighborhood is the lack of amenities like a decent grocer.
However, shopping at Whole Foods or Fresh Direct is all well and good – if you can afford it. By relying on these options to provide fresh food, we mask the fact that New Yorkers who can’t afford either of these retailers are left with rotting produce or none at all. In Greenpoint, where I used to live, there was a plethora of small vegetable markets dotting Manhattan Avenue selling produce just off the truck at a very reasonable price. They even accepted food stamps for payment. This option does not exist in Prospect Heights.
I applaud the City Council for doing something approaching goodness by passing the produce measure, but also am saddened by the fact that even with an issue that most people should be able to agree upon – more produce vendors! – there was such a heated argument against it. I understand the weariness of small grocers who already provide fresh produce to neighborhoods covered in the council measure, but surely they’ll be able to work out a system where everybody in New York City has access to fresh, healthy food.
In that case, I might feel less compelled to schlep an extra 20 pounds home from work.