NYC Food Deserts Can Be Solved With Community Gardens

To give all New Yorkers equal access to healthy, affordable food, all New York City residents should have an agricultural community garden within a 1-mile radius of their home where they may purchase low cost fruits and vegetables with cash, credit or EBT cards.

Community gardens have been a facet of city life since the early 1970s. As of 2009, there were 490 community gardens across the five boroughs of New York City. These gardens beautify the neighborhoods but also provide residents with a space where they may grow fruits and vegetables. A reported 80 percent of community gardens grow edible produce, but the producer consumes the majority of the products. Therefore, community gardens have done little to combat the problem of food deserts, which the 2008 Farm Bill defined as “area[s] in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.” (Title VI, Sec. 7527) Large areas of New York City are considered food deserts. Many people in these areas of high need get their food from convenience stores or bodegas that are not adequate sources of nutritious foods. Additionally, many of these areas have high concentrations of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) -- better known as food stamps -- recipients. Because of the lack of healthy food options in many communities with high concentrations of SNAP beneficiaries, SNAP benefits are often used at corner stores and bodegas where healthy food options are limited.

Analysis

As indicated above, the infrastructure for agricultural community gardens already exists, as there are over 500 community gardens in the five boroughs. Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx have high concentrations of gardens but they are not evenly distributed across the boroughs. In areas where there is no community garden, the city should subsidize the development of gardens. Community gardens already have the existing resources and infrastructure for growing fruits and vegetables; therefore, repurposing areas of community gardens to serve those incapable of growing their own produce would be a natural transition. These fruits and vegetables can then be sold and paid for with cash, credit, or Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to accommodate those receiving SNAP benefits. The capability to accept EBT cards would increase access to healthy foods to thousands of low-income New Yorkers.

Due to the existence of established infrastructure, the only cost of this initiative would be providing community gardens with credit card machines capable of accepting EBT cards. This cost could be minimized by partnering with private companies that already provide eligible vendors with free EBT machines, such as JPMorgan, Fidelity Investment, or Affiliated Computer Services.

Next Steps

GreenThumb and GrowNYC, New York City’s largest community garden programs, can assist in establishing the agricultural community gardens EBT program. GrowNYC operates greenmarkets that accept EBT cards and its core mission is to provide fresh produce to all New Yorkers, making it an ideal collaborator in this venture.

Established New York City community gardens should begin to designate parcels of land specifically for growing food to be sold to community members who do not have the time necessary to grow their own food. With the limited space in New York City, it is likely gardens will be forced to repurpose existing portions of the gardens rather than expanding to appropriate new land.