Potatoes for the People: Addressing Food Insecurity in New York City

Line of Inwood residents awaiting entry into the market.

The USDA defines the term “food insecurity” as having a “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members” and “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” At present, this sad reality describes many New Yorkers. In Manhattan, for example, the food insecurity rate is an astonishing 16.3%, a figure that includes nearly 260,000 people. Last week, while volunteering at City Harvest’s Mobile Market, I got involved in a small initiative looking to tackle this enormous problem in the northernmost section of Manhattan, the Inwood neighborhood of Washington Heights.

Just what is a mobile market, you might ask? Picture your local farmers market. But instead of friendly farmers behind the stands, there are people like you and me—people who had no role in producing the food. Instead of the usual eye-catching displays and intricate arrangements, the food is piled on pallets in bulk. Instead of having time to pick and choose from a variety of diverse options, the “shoppers” are ushered down a line and given bags of the food, pre-selected and weighed according to each individual’s needs. Instead of shoppers casually strolling through the tents, sipping their morning coffees, these shoppers have often been waiting in line for hours, hoping they arrived early enough to be allowed in before the food runs out. Such is the nature of City Harvest’s Washington Heights mobile market. This NYC based nonprofit, which bills its actions as “rescuing food for New York’s hungry,” brings its mobile market to Washington Heights as part of its cycle around the five boroughs twice each month.

Volunteers meet and divide tasks for the morning.

It was a brisk October morning as I sleepily wandered down Dyckman St. after a quick ride on the Bx12. I found the Mobile Market and checked in with the volunteer coordinator. After standing around for a few quick moments, chatting with the other volunteers who ranged greatly in age, occupation, and familiarity with the project, Tony, the project organizer, gathered us up to introduce City Harvest’s initiative. He breezed through a variety of impressive statistics such as: Mobile Markets distribute about 150,000 pounds of nutrient dense fruits and vegetables each month and will deliver over 2.5 million pounds this year; 750 food insecure people will be served nearly 20,000 pounds of food that day alone.  He also informed us that we were standing on the grounds of the New York City Housing Authority’s Dyckman Houses, an affordable housing complex for low income families. This particular mobile market was created to serve only Dyckman residents and those allowed access to the senior care facilities. Tony touched on subjects such as urban food deserts and socioeconomic correlations to disease, obesity, and access to nutritious food. Even the topic of food waste was addressed from an environmental standpoint. As stated boldly on its homepage, City Harvest is a “food rescue” organization, meaning that the millions of pounds of produce City Harvest distributes to food insecure people is sourced from farms and restaurants across the country that would have otherwise thrown it away.  

So as I frantically dashed around the market on that beautiful fall morning last week, elbows deep in potatoes, weighing, bagging, and receiving the seemingly endless line with the Dyckman residents, I considered the multitude of issues this market was, so boldly, seeking to address. The market seemed to present a unique platform for discourse that couldn’t have formed outside the Dyckman property. While the operation did have an overtone that was initially strict, rushed and stressful, I found there were moments that contradicted this and seemed to speak more to the true nature of the market atmosphere. For one, the recipients of the market shares, though intended to be solely residents of the Dyckman Houses were, in reality, not always residents. “Shoppers” came through with outside visitor passes; some came through without passes at all, nodded along by supervisors. Second, while we were expected to bag and select the produce at our assigned station ourselves, exceptions were made if someone felt inclined to select the food themselves. These acts of bending the rules of what initially seemed like an impersonal assembly line showed the patience and kindness that made me realize why City Harvest was something special. Moreover, my conversations with the shoppers were also humanizing in this sense. The prevailing attitude revealed that these people felt less targeted for the circumstances that necessitated their eligibility for this kind of assistance than an open public environment would normally leave them feeling–where discourse on food insecurity is more frequently silenced as something to be ashamed of, rather than recognized as symptom of a larger problem. In so many words, it became clear to me that both the volunteers and the shoppers felt more at ease to discuss their situation in the market environment.

Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, provides some insight into this public that seemed to be both familiar and strange. Like the way a publication or speech creates a platform for discourse that engages “indefinite strangers,” City Harvest brings about strangers to address the issues of food insecurity through support, action and awareness. According to Warner, if a particular public suspends the assumed norm (food security, in this case) and instead allows freedom and safety of a familiar common ground, the prevention of outside judgments or attacks fosters positive progress and support for those whose “queerness” (here, food insecurity) might be otherwise limiting. In these cases, the public has transcended its impersonal realm and created a counterpublic. The mobile market setting  welcomes the strangers of both Dyckman and City Harvest–defined strangers, if you will, who are “not just anybody”—to address the taboo of food insecurity and hunger. Warner uses the queer counterpublic as an example of this concept, stating, “Within a gay or queer counterpublic, for example, no one is in the closet: the presumptive heterosexuality that constitutes the closet for individuals in ordinary speech is suspended” (120). The Inwood market, by opening its doors to these ideologically  ‘familiar strangers’ creates an ideal environment for addressing the issues of food insecurity in New York City.

Fellow volunteers at the potato station.

Personal photos taken by author at City Harvest Mobile Market.

Other sources:
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone, 2002. Print.

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