The Green Cart Failure and What it Teaches Us

When the Green Cart legislation was passed in 2008 there was a provision that mandated a review of the experiment’s ability to achieve the goals that the mayor and the council speaker laid-greater access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and financial success of the vendors. The underlying assumption was what we have called the, “field of dreams theory,” the belief that if carts were placed in “underserved areas” they would be successful because all that the folks were lacking was access to the veggies.

Almost five years later and what do we find? Well for one thing there has been no study of the program’s effectiveness and no oversight hearing at the city council that would illuminate how the program is going. That, as the Marxists say, is no accident. An oversight hearing would dramatically reveal the total failure of this experiment-and the arrogance and stupidity that promoted it in the first place.

Much of this is revealed in an excellent article we had missed in City Limits last January that found, among other things:

“Based on interviews with 35 vendors in four boroughs conducted over a six-month period, the average vendor takes home an annual net income of approximately $7,500 dollars (based on an average of $62 a day for an eight-month work-year, which was typical of our sample, minus expenses*), putting them in the bottom 7 percent of income in the United States. While some vendors own their own carts, others are employees of the cart owners and receive anywhere from $30 to $80 a day.”  – CityLimit.org

In other words, a total failure that exposes the fallacies that underlay the program’s inception:

“Indeed, many Green Cart vendors are finding it very difficult to make a living. Over 561 vendors have received a permit to operate a Green Cart; the number of active permits has increased every year the program has operated, from 248 in fiscal year 2008-2009.* But according to the Department of Health, 60 percent of Green Cart vendors who started in 2008 did not renew their permits. In Queens, almost 50 percent have given up. Those still vending are sometimes approached by other vendors who have given up and want to sell their vendor cart and permit. According to Green Cart vendor Amerfi Paulino, over 20 people have offered to sell him their permits.”

In a funny riff the City Limits authors highlight how the vendors are limited by the fact that they are restricted to low income areas-the entire rationale for the program in the first place: “To start, the city mandates that Green Cart vendors sell produce only in low-income neighborhoods mostly located in the outer boroughs. Challenges to making this financially viable include a lack of foot traffic, competition among vendors for competitive spots, the difficulty in locating a overnight storage unit for the vendor cart (or “commissary”) near the sanctioned vending spot, the challenge of obtaining produce at an affordable price…”

And then there’s the fact-as we have pointed out-that the “good” spots are those located right near brick and mortar produce sellers: “Mohammed Islam’s cart is located in a relatively bustling corner Avenue J and 15th street, directly across from the famous Di Fara pizza in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. Islam started vending in July of this year and says he was immediately harassed when local store owners, perceiving his business as a threat to their own economic livelihood, called the police. In his first three weeks of vending, Islam received five tickets, totaling over $1,000 dollars.”

The idea that Midwood is a “food desert” is, of course, one of the stupidities that make the Green Carts effort so inane-and the way the law allowed vendors to site carts right in front or near stores selling veggies made no sense. As for the fines, welcome to Bloomberg’s World, where fines are a way of life for all small businesses.

One of the things that critics of the legislation pointed out was that many of the so-called underserved areas were neighborhoods where it was dangerous to operate-a reason why even retailers might not be operating:

“When asked why Islam just doesn’t try vending in a different location, he responded that he is scared to vend in certain sanctioned Green Cart areas. Islam’s apprehension is not unreasonable. According to vendor Mohamed Firoz and a local Bed-Stuy resident, a Green Cart vendor was hospitalized in late August 2011 after he was beaten and robbed at his spot on Nostrand and Macon. Other vendors — especially those for whom English is not a native language — have reported incidents of theft.”

But of course the primary rationale for the experiment was to increase healthier eating. How is that going?

“However, in terms of consumption of healthy food, the Health Department’s annual Green Cart report indicates mixed results. From 2008 to 2010, the percentage of residents in Green Cart communities who reported consuming no fruits or vegetables the previous day increased from 17.1 percent to 18.1 percent, while in non-Green Cart neighborhoods, the same number decreased from 10.7 percent to 9.5 percent. During that same period, the number of residents in Green Cart areas who reported consuming between 1-4 servings decreased by 2 percent.”

When confronted with total failure what does government do? Let’s keep in mind that this program was also the recipient of millions from the Tisch Foundation. The answer-double down on stupidity:

“Solutions start, advocates say, with increasing the neighborhoods where vendors can sell. After all, over 85 percent of New Yorkers in non-Green Cart areas do not consume the daily recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. Reformed legislation might consider identifying indoor vending locations such as community centers and hospitals for vendors to sell produce to the public while remaining sheltered from the rain, snow, and cold.”

Oh for goodness sakes! The idea for the carts was that they would be placed in underserved areas-you know, where there was a paucity of stores selling produce. So, because the experiment fails, these dummies propose putting vendors into areas where there are veggie selling stores-because, “over 85 percent of New Yorkers in non-Green Cart areas do not consume the daily recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables.”

But that failure to consume is not a consequence of the absence of supply but the absence of demand-and the failure to consume will not be remedied by cannibalizing the existing brick and mortar produce retailers! The failure to understand this compromises any of the “reforms” suggested by vendor advocates:

“According to public health advocate and vendor supporter Dr. Bill Jordan, “As I see it, the biggest challenge for the Green Cart Program is the narrow profit margin of selling fresh produce. Established carts can do well, but the initial start-up period for new vendors may benefit from more aggressive marketing and assistance in establishing affordable distribution and storage.”

Not a word for helping those green grocers, bodegas and supermarkets who toil in those underserved areas. This is where public policy should be locating its efforts-along with a robust public education program that we have suggested that would get at the demand side of the equation, something that is the essential ingredient for increasing consumption of healthier foods. http://nyags.org/healthy-bodegas/

 

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