Barrels of golden apples, ruby-red radishes and other fruits and vegetables fill the Marble Hill Youthmarket stand on West 225th Street. Parents, many from neighboring Inwood, shop for produce while kids pick free pumpkins and watch young chefs prepare snacks using locally-grown ingredients.
Richie Juares, 36, a Marble Hill resident, picks out a head of broccoli while his son, Justin Fernandez, paints pumpkins with the neighborhood kids.
“I have a big garden at home with a lot of plants,” said Juares, a chef who regularly shops at this youthmarket. “I love cooking the vegetables that I buy here. I make lasagna for my kids.”
As farmers markets have become common in New York City, youthmarkets are also growing, though at a slower rate. GrowNYC, a non-profit health organization, first introduced them in 2006 to bring locally-grown produce from tri-state farms to “food deserts” throughout upper Manhattan, the south Bronx, and northern and central Brooklyn, said youthmarket manager Shane Jiles-Joseph. GrowNYC sponsors 11 youthmarkets in New York, two in Manhattan.
Their sales have grown 36 percent since 2008 to hit $90,000 this year, said Ryan Morningstar, GrowNYC youthmarket operations coordinator.
“Not all neighborhoods can support a full-blown farmers market,” said Amanda Gentile of GrowNYC. Sales of fresh, healthy food are lower in some areas compared to others, she said. But “sometimes, in places where farmers markets aren’t successful, a youthmarket will be.”
At youthmarkets, a network of farm stands, nearby farmers supply fresh fruits and vegetables and high school and college students sell it, gaining entrepreneurial and customer service skills while running small-scale businesses.
Jiles-Joseph, 24, began as a Brooklyn youthmarket intern for GrowNYC in 2006, and was hired as full-time youthmarket manager at Marble Hill in 2009.
“My role is to mentor the high school and early college-level adolescents and help them operate a sustainable farm stand in the city,” said Jiles-Joseph as he unloaded boxes of potatoes from his van. “Primarily they learn nutrition, entrepreneurial skills, and it gives them someplace to be in the summer and after school.”
Cindy Lee, 21, another former youthmarket intern, has taken her business management skills to a full-time job at Buffalo Wild Wings in Brooklyn. She plans to also remain the youthmarket manager in Far Rockaway.
“I bartend, and I have experimented with making cocktails using local grown food from upstate New York,” Lee said, mentioning a mojito with corn silk. “I like to share everything I learned with my co-workers, and they come to visit my market.”
Partner organizations employ such interns to operate the 11 youthmarkets each July through November. Bon Secours Health Systems hired the three that this year run the youthmarket in Marble Hill.
“This place is considered a food desert because the quality of food in this area is not as great as other areas,” said York College student Jessica Mendoza, 18, a second-year intern. “So we suggest trying our food because it’s fresh, and it helps the neighborhood understand that the food that you get at the supermarket isn’t as great as it should be.”
Sometimes the interns try creative costumes to draw shoppers’ attention, said Mendoza, wearing a silver full-body suit in the shape of a spoon while stirring cranberries, raspberries and apples over an electric stove. She was making apple berry crisp with Bon Secours community food educator Vanessa Berenstein, impersonating a fork in a similar costume.
Throughout Mendoza’s internship, she said, her own diet vastly improved. She also earns $10 an hour and learns how a small business operates. Being bilingual is an asset at this youthmarket, which serves a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, Mendoza said.
The Marble Hill Youthmarket, launched by Bon Secours in 2009, draws more low-income seniors, WIC mothers and food stamp recipients than any other New York youthmarket, said Bon Secours liaison Sarah Shaikh.
“It doesn’t matter the size of the stand,” Shaikh added, describing her youthmarket’s small-scale operation. “More percentage of our sales came from low-income moms and low-income seniors purchasing foods through subsidized programs than any other stand.” In 2010, “we got a letter from the governor congratulating us for doing this, and we got even more inspired.”
Berenstein, an NYU graduate student in food studies, runs the youthmarket’s cooking demonstrations and develops recipes with Shaikh, experimenting with seasonal and multi-cultural foods.
“Anything that appeals to all five senses has been really successful,” Berenstein said of the samples the interns distribute. “As soon as we’re cooking onions and garlic, people can smell them from a mile away. And they’re ready to eat.”
Some shoppers come every week for recipes, Berenstein said. “And they’re asking, ‘What are you cooking this week?’ And ‘Oh, I want to try this at home!’” Their response shows that “people really are interested in eating healthy,” she said.
Mobile kitchens will be the next step for providing healthy foods to underserved communities in Marble Hill and elsewhere. “By next summer, we’ll have the mobile kitchen project up and running so we can teach other people to do what we’re doing,” Berenstein said.
In the mobile kitchen, an operation on wheels, Shaikh and Berenstein plan to travel with cooking tools, distributing cookbooks and finding new places to set up shop, including community centers, schools and even homes. Though youthmarkets shut down for the winter, people need year-round guidance on how to cook healthy meals, Shaikh said.
GrowNYC, working to keep young people involved in sustainable food education through the year, gives schools in Harlem and the Bronx up to $2,000 for gardening programs. Through “Learn It, Grow It, Eat It,” a sister program, GrowNYC has worked with more than 200 kids.
As the youthmarket closes for the season, children scramble to salvage the last soggy servings of apple berry crisp. Meanwhile, third-year intern Curtis Williams, 21, packs vegetables and fruits back into cardboard boxes, starting with the broccoli.
“Not only are we here to sell things, but we’re here to show people a healthier way to cook and a healthier way to live,” Williams said.