“Those are just like the ones they use at Whole Foods”, said Palma, pointing proudly to a pint-sized blackboard advertising two speckled nectarines for $1. Palma, herself a former employee of Whole Foods, saved up $2,500 over the past year in order to purchase the license and pushcart that would allow her to vend fresh fruit and vegetables from what New York City refers to as a "Green Cart."
And on a bright September morning, with kids and parents stopping by to select from her carefully curated selection of fruit and vegetables, Palma’s enterprise seemed to emblemize the American ideal of the self-sufficient bootstrapper.
Palma takes great pride in the produce she brings to the area. So do the other 10 vendors working in the same two-block radius. But by November, the onset of winter meant a decrease in foot traffic and loss in revenue. While she loves being a Green Cart vendor, Palma has a family to support. So to make ends meet, she is now working a part-time job at a bakery to supplement the income she earns as a Green Cart vendor.
A history of misgivings
Palma and others vendors like her have existed since the founding of the United States and their contribution to the overall economy has not been insignificant. In 1906, a Push Cart Commission recorded over 25,000 street vendors selling produce and dry goods. In 1918 there were 237 municipal markets in cities with populations above 30,000 and street vendors were so numerous that the census had its own category for them until 1940.
The tradition and pride in vending, however, took a turn under the Mayor Fiorella La Guardia’s administration. Despite his own origins from a poor immigrant Italian background, in a reversal of sympathies, La Guardia sought to criminalize street vending by reducing the number of permits from 15,000 in 1934 to 1,000 in 1945. Peddling was almost completely abolished in the 1930’s when enclosed markets buildings were established to “tidy up the streets” in preparation for the World's Fair. Street vending faced another major setback in 1979 when Mayor Koch capped the number of permits at 3,000 for food vendors and 853 for general merchandise vendors.
Street vendors were among the many groups targeted during the Giuliani administration when he implemented his vision for a cleaner New York. In 1998 Giuliani attempted to ban food vendors from 144 blocks in Midtown and lower Manhattan; his plan, however, was largely thwarted as a result of protests and threats of lawsuits. Recently under the Bloomberg administration, fines for all vendors have drastically increased, with some penalties as much as $1,000.
Because of the cap on the number of permits for street vendors enacted by Koch over 30 years ago, the difficulty in procuring a permit is still apparent today. For most vendors, those aspiring to operate their own vendor cart can either sign up for the waiting list and wait decades for a vending permit or purchase one on the black market for up to $10,000 a piece.
A green take on vending
In 2008, the Bloomberg administration passed Local Law 9, which opened up the cap on permits only to vendors who would exclusively sell raw vegetables and fruits in "food deserts," or under-resourced neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is seemingly scant. The idea was that sending a fleet of a thousand Green Carts to the outer boroughs would help tackle the obesity epidemic in New York City. The city estimated that the program would combat obesity by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption by 75,000 New Yorkers each year and in the long term would save 50 lives annually.
To ensure the program’s success, the Tisch Illumination Fund donated a sizeable sum to the New York City Department of Health. According to Laurie Tisch, Mayor Bloomberg approached her after the passage of the law with the request that her foundation provide $1.5 million dollars in support towards the Green Cart program. Tisch’s grant provided extra positions at the DOH to oversee the program’s implementation. In addition, through public Request for Proposals, the DOH awarded portions of the donation to Karp Resources, a private, for-profit healthy food consulting firm, as well as other organizations, to provide program and development support to the Green Cart program. To date, Karp Resources has assisted hundreds of Green Cart vendors in obtaining their permits, becoming educated on the law and navigating the complex world of produce vending.
Perusing the city's promotional material about Green Carts, one gathers that the program has been a success. Remarking on the upward mobility of Green Cart vendors, Ben Thomases, the former NYC Food Policy Czar for the Bloomberg Administration, remarked in an interview: “After two or three years of funding, the vendors are entrepreneurs, and they are self-sufficient.”
Contributing to this narrative is ‘The Apple Pushers,’ a film commissioned by the Tisch Illumination Fund about the Green Cart program and released in the fall of 2011. With narration provided by the actor Edward Norton and sweeping, expansive helicopter shots, ‘The Apple Pushers’ casts the vendors as protagonists in a tale of hard-won triumph: After crossing borders and surviving hostage crises, these immigrants are elated in their reborn lives as respectable vendors.
An exhibition from March through August of last year at the Museum of the City of New York entitled "Movable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program" included photographs by a number of emerging photographers who were commissioned to depict vendors involved in the Green Carts Program. In a press release issued by the museum, Susan Henshaw Jones, the Museum's director, said, “We hope these images focus renewed public attention on a vitally important civic program. The NYC Green Carts are nourishing New Yorkers in a variety of ways: by providing jobs for newly-arrived immigrants, and by providing expanded access to wholesome, nutritious food.”