As an area with limited access to fresh food, Harlem is considered one of New York City’s “food deserts.” A 2007 city health department report found just two supermarkets for every 10,000 residents in East and central Harlem, compared to three for every 10,000 Upper East Siders. The department also found that about two thirds of Harlem food stores are bodegas, offering a more limited selection of healthy foods than larger grocery stores.
Because of this shortage of fresh food retailers in upper Manhattan, alternative produce sources have thrived, says Margaret Hoffman, regional coordinator for over 20 farmers markets run by the non-profit GrowNYC. “That’s why the markets do as well as they do— because there’s no other source of the product and there’s a demand,” Hoffman says. Yet the Upper West Side farmers markets that Hoffman oversees have attracted more customers than its East Harlem markets.
Perhaps this isn’t so surprising. “I think everyone realizes that we don’t have a consensus with what to do with Harlem,” says Chet Whye, director of HARLEM4 Center for CHANGE, a nonprofit organization working to reverse Harlem’s food desert status. Improving Harlem farmers market attendance, Whye says, requires increasing neighborhood demand for fresh food— one of Harlem4’s principal goals.