Walk by Padre Plaza on any autumn Wednesday afternoon, and you might be lured through the gates by the smells of something cooking. Follow your nose to the courtyard of this bustling patch of green at the corner of St. Ann’s Avenue and East 139th Street and you’ll find a woman in an apron, preparing a meal under a sturdy, white tent.
Each week, a representative of the city’s Department of Health demonstrates ways to prepare the fresh fruits and vegetables that farmers and community gardeners sell in Padre Plaza’s farmers market. More and more people are shopping at the market, thanks in part to two programs that lower the cost of the food.
Along with the cooking demonstrations, Padre Plaza participates in several programs that make farmers’ markets more affordable for shoppers who use EBT, or food stamps.
The market is one of nearly 60 in the city to offer Health Bucks. For every $5 a shopper spends using EBT, he or she receives a coupon for two more dollars to spend on fruits and vegetables. In addition, Padre Plaza is one of only two gardens in citywide to pilot Double Dollars this year, a program that allows WIC users to get twice the value of their money spent at the market.
Mike Young, President of Padre Plaza, says that these programs have been extremely successful. Sales are up 60 percent this season from last year. “We had no idea it was going to go that strong,” he said. “Oh my goodness, it’s been great.”
Recently, the market has tempted shoppers with beets, potatoes, onions, apples, basil, tomatoes, peppers, watermelons and more. One vendor was doing a brisk business selling his farm’s dried herbs and iced teas.
Garden member Gwendolyn Kennely paused in her shopping to say, “I enjoy preparing meals knowing that the onions, potatoes, and garlic are up to my standards.” The produce “has a better taste than some store-bought vegetables,” she added.
Some shoppers, said Ashley Thomas, “come for specific items from their home countries, like tomatillos, calabaza squash, cilantro and jalapenos.”
Thomas was until recently the Active Living Coordinator at Sustainable South Bronx, which this year, began helping to organize the market’s operations. She said the organization became involved in the market to round out its Smart Living campaign, which includes an exercise program with a bicycling club and yoga classes.
“It’s a way to incorporate healthy eating,” Thomas said, in a neighborhood where obesity and lack of access to fresh foods are both persistent problems.
Young said that Sustainable South Bronx has provided access to volunteers and employees who are able to advertise the market, draw more people in, and clean up at the end of the day.
He appreciates the freedom that Sustainable South Bronx has given him in organizing the vendors. “They allowed me to make personal contact with all the farmers,” he said, leading to good communication and a smoothly-run operation.
Four times on a recent Wednesday, two instructors discussed the nutritional benefits of cooking with fruits and vegetables, gave a lesson in food preparation, and then shared samples of the day’s dish with a small group gathered on benches before them. Recent recipe lessons have included sauteed kale with white beans, poached pears and applesauce.
People nodded approval of a fresh, tangy cabbage salad. Participants then received two dollars in Health Bucks to spend at the market, one of the perks of attending the cooking demonstrations. They stood up, thanked the cooks, and walked right into the market to purchase something fresh, healthy and locally grown.
A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.