Standing for Healthy Eating

Lessons from a farmers’ market serving Ocean Hill-Brownsville

By Michayla Savitt

SCHOOL SETTING: Fresh produce from upstate farms for sale in the cafeteria at PS 178 Saint Clair Mckelway, where students help run it. (Michayla Savitt)

Kale, potatoes, and apples may not always mesh well in a cooking pot but they fit nicely into the bags of Brooklyn residents seeking access to quality, affordable produce at the Seeds in the Middle farmers’ market.

The market at 2163 Dean St. in Ocean Hill has support from the Fortune Society and PS 178 Saint Clair Mckelway, where students help run it.

Every Wednesday from 12:30 to 3 p.m in the school cafeteria, fresh fruits and vegetables from upstate farms are sold to about four dozen customers.

“Everybody says that eating healthy is expensive. That’s one of the major reasons that people say they can’t eat healthy,” said Nancie Katz, executive director of Seeds in the Middle. “So we’re trying to get in the middle of that.”

With extended federal food assistance benefits available, having a reliable place to get fresh, healthy produce at a reasonable price is essential for area residents. The GrowNYC greenmarket in nearby Brownsville is only open from July 9 to Nov. 19. Seeds in the Middle is the only market in the area that operates year-round.

Some residents at the market say they were drawn to Seeds in the Middle because they are unhappy with the cost and quality of supermarket produce.

“Locally, the prices are ridiculous,” resident Angela Peterkind said. “I would spend on one bag of vegetables and fruit—and I might have added some cheese—$50 in the supermarket.”

Another resident, Zora Hardamon, has sworn off buying bagged leafy greens from stores because the Seeds in the Middle market provides fresher buys.

“I’ve never bought any kale, spinach or anything in the bag since then,” she said.

Peterkind said she had also seen changes in how children understand food sources.

“Unfortunately, I think we’ve gotten far away from, like, when the food came out of the garden and to the table, and kids don’t even know what some food really looks like when it’s in this whole form,” she said. “I think it’s important for my community to know real food.”

What limits food access

Nevin Cohen, an associate professor at CUNY School of Public Health and director at CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, said despite the presence of a good number of supermarkets in Ocean Hill and Brownsville, prices on fruits and vegetables can be too high for families.

“It’s a function of the ability to have the income to really be able to shop around and buy quality food,” he said. “If you’re on a really fixed income and limited income, it becomes really difficult to access high-quality food.”

According to Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center, for every supermarket in this part of Brooklyn, there are 15 bodegas. But supermarkets are more likely to carry produce.

“Food access is not as much about proximity in New York City, as it is about poverty,” Cohen said. “It’s really that in many neighborhoods, the residents…don’t have sufficient income to buy healthy food.”

Seeds in the Middle strives to fill that gap. Like at many farmers’ markets in the city, government support such as electronic benefit transfers and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aid can be used.

Pam Harris, a counselor at the Fortune Society—which serves formerly incarcerated people— estimates that about half the customers of Seeds in the Middle use public benefits. That just about matches census data that showed nearly half of Ocean Hill and Brownsville residents received food stamps in 2020—a percentage that only increased in the pandemic.

Everybody says that eating healthy is expensive. That’s one of the major reasons that people say they can’t eat healthy.

Nancie Katz

Executive director, Seeds in the Middle

Opening up access to healthy food in Ocean Hill and Brownsville requires broader economic solutions, Cohen said.

“People have eating habits that don’t change overnight, just because there’s a new store and big new supermarkets sell just as much unhealthy food as they sell healthy food,” he said. “If the goal is improved nutrition and the ability of people to actually afford healthy food, that requires a higher minimum wage, a livable wage for everyone.”

A head start for kids

Seeds in the Middle is now calling on the mayor and the City Council to direct funds to create 10 farm stands across the city, along with edible gardens, and a community-run café.

In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the obesity rate is 15% higher than the citywide average, and the life expectancy is 11 years shorter than residents in the Financial District part of Manhattan. Katz emphasized that teaching healthy living needs to start young.

“The students in every single one of our school’s on-farm stands are actually running a healthy business, like a farm market. Then we’re adding the 50-cent market for the children,” Katz said, adding that the arrangement gives them a chance to buy less expensive and healthier food at the market.

Katz said the group has not yet received a response from the city about the petition. The offices of Mayor Eric Adams, Speaker Adrienne Adams and local Council Member Darlene Mealy did not respond to requests for comment.

The market continues to serve the community week after week, with a bigger goal in mind.

“Imagine if we have the students in the schools, and the kids are learning about running these farm stands,” Katz said. “That’s what we’re doing, transforming the environment. And we’re making the kids be the changemakers because they’re going to be the ones that are going to grow up in this.”