Rivera said recently that, despite questions about the food desert concept, she still believes “providing access to healthier options will help to decrease the obesity epidemic, but it must be part of a multifaceted approach,” including healthier options in schools, childcare centers and worksites.
Miami-Dade’s report is the first step toward bringing fresh produce to poor areas, says Karen Weller of the Health Department. She says her group is working with small grocers to find ways to encourage them to offer more vegetables, building on a program in Philadelphia that has been praised for its extensive work with small stores, sometimes providing subsidized refrigeration units to preserve the vegetables or setting up “healthy snack shelves” near the cash registers.
The Health Department also has invested $280,000 to subsidize seven farmers’ markets to serve poor neighborhoods. Some were seasonal and have already closed for the summer. Others seem to have less than reliable hours. Although a website that Weller said showed the locations and times of the markets, at least one, in Brownsville, wasn’t open when the website said it would be.
James Jiler, executive director of Urban GreenWorks, which runs the Liberty City market and has not received stimulus funding, called the Health Department farmers’ market subsidies “a huge boondoggle,” because the grant money hadn’t been distributed until December, so the markets didn’t open till January. Then the funding stopped in March when stimulus grants ended.
Rivera, the Health Department administrator, says the funds “were spent wisely. They were spent strategically, and they were spent on evidence-based practice.”
Karen Landry, executive director of War on Poverty-Florida, a nonprofit based in Jacksonville , which received $35,000 for an Opa-locka farmers’ market, says even though the market was only open for five months, it served as a spark. “The community is being engaged in developing enduring solutions. … We were very satisfied with the support that we received.” Landry said they plan to reopen the market in September.
One market that has continued is in downtown Miami, in the courtyard of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, which is on the edge of Overtown. Run by Earth Learning, the market in early May had a light but steady flow of customers who came for cucumbers, eggplant, custard apples, arugula and wheat grass, a delicacy that goes for $12 a pound.
Most of the customers were middle-class government employees or those visiting the area. Lydia Mackie, who was operating the stand, said few poor people from Overtown came by. She estimated that she had “two to six” food stamp customers that she called “regulars” who shop there biweekly.
Jiler, head of Urban GreenWorks, acknowledges that the poor don’t automatically flock to farmer’s markets. “It is slow. We are learning. You have to change eating habits. … We have a whole generation that is brought up on fast food.”
But Urban GreenWorks sometimes has problems of its own. On an April afternoon when the nonprofit said it was supposed to be offering a market at old Opa-locka city hall, there was no sign of it. The director of projects and programming, Roger Horne, later said the food hadn’t been delivered.