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For a Scrappy Neighborhood, a Scent of Farm Fresh

By Tracie McMillan


The New York Times • July 10, 2005

After 17 years, Joanne Grant knows Bushwick. So when she looked out her kitchen window and saw a farmer unloading his bounty onto her Brooklyn street Wednesday morning, she knew something was up.

Still clad in slippers and an aqua housedress, her hair tucked under a nightcap, Ms. Grant headed over to the farmer and waited in line to buy the three bunches of broccoli she clutched in her hand. But she also watched her front door anxiously.

“My husband is going to be mad,” she said. “I had the bacon on the stove, but I turned it off, and told him to wait five minutes.”

What had so excited Ms. Grant was the opening of a Greenmarket in her neighborhood. It was a tiny affair, no more than one farmer and two tables, but Bushwick has never had a Greenmarket. In fact, according to data gathered for a city Health Department study of food access in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, fresh produce is in short supply for the neighborhood’s 104,000 residents. The neighborhood has 10 supermarkets, compared with 131 bodegas, only one-third of which carry fresh fruit.

The inaugural day at the market, which is all-organic, attracted an eager, if thin, crowd of patrons. Set in a basketball court on Linden Street between Central and Wilson Avenues, the two tables overflowed with crimson tomatoes, leafy-topped carrots and crisp herbs and greens grown by Ras Oba, who hails from Vermont and is the market’s sole farmer. The little outpost, a far cry from the bustling urban commerce of Union Square, was more reminiscent of a lackadaisical stoop sale – sans stoop.

The slow pace didn’t faze the market’s backers. “We are the little farmers’ market that could,” said Asantewaa Harris, an organizer with Community Vision Council, a Brooklyn nonprofit group that began discussing a farmers’ market in October as a way to combat obesity, diabetes and other health problems. “We’ll grow.”

Milta Delvalle stopped by after noticing the market on a morning walk. Encouraged to sample herbs by Mr. Oba’s wife, Dafina Obidiah, Ms. Delvalle nibbled a leaf of stevia, a sweet plant. “Mmmm, that’s sweet, that’s sugar!” she exclaimed. “That’s what I need. I’m diabetic.”

But Wilbur Orta, a retiree who was out on a morning paper run, raised a question. Most bodegas offer credit to regular customers, a big benefit in a neighborhood like Bushwick, where 38 percent of residents live in poverty compared with 21 percent citywide. “Is the market going to give store credit?” he wondered aloud.

Local merchants were also wary. Domingo Santana, the owner of a bodega around the corner, worried that the farm stand would cut in on his sales of basic produce like onions and tomatoes. “There’s too much competition,” he said. “If they have more variety of produce, they’ll probably sell more.”

Still, a spot check found Mr. Oba’s prices high for the neighborhood. At $2.50 a pound, his organic tomatoes, though pretty, were far above the 99 cents charged for the pesticide-treated variety at three nearby bodegas and two supermarkets.

“We don’t stress organic at all,” said Dorothy Tucker, a nutritionist with the city’s Health Department who said her low-income clients would find such foods too expensive.

Still, you won’t hear any complaints from Alfonsina Suero, a 77-year-old Dominican native. After Ms. Suero filled her shopping cart at the market, she longingly fingered a small rosemary plant. Mr. Oba priced the herb at $5, but after she shot him a disdainful look, he offered it as a gift. Lifting her hands and eyes to the sky, she cried, “Gracias, Señor Jesus,” and threw her arms around her benefactor.

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