Tag Archive | "Washington Heights"

A tour with Meals on Wheels in Washington Heights

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‘Health Bucks’ help make healthful eating affordable


The Washington Heights Farmer's Market gives away the most Health Bucks each year. (Photo: Nushin Rashidian)


People who use food stamps can now use them at 49 farmers markets in New York City — and get a bonus for thinking healthier.

By presenting their electronic benefits cards at the participating farmers markets and requesting “tokens” to spend with the vendors, customers will get “Health Bucks” — $2 in “Health Bucks” for every $5 in tokens.

“Health Bucks encourages people who are already shopping at the market to spend more money because it increases their budget,” says Alexis Stevens from the Council on the Environment of NYC (CENYC), which started the program in 2005.

Two dollars may not seem like much, but it adds up.

“I tell the customers it’s better to spend $25 because, at the end, it’s not $25, it’s $35,” says Johnny Malgir, an assistant to Sarah Fabian, the manager of the market at 175th Street and Broadway in Washington Heights every Thursday, which has the most customers taking advantage of the plan.

Both customers and farmers benefit from the program. But many farmers go one step further: They lower their prices to make their products more affordable than local grocers who also accept food stamps.

Sergio Nolasco of Nolasco Farms charges  $5 for a watermelon at the Washington Heights farmers’ market, but will charge $7 for the same watermelon at a market in Inwood or Sunnyside.

He says that customers in Washington Heights flock to the farmers’ market because the produce is fresh, but they still expect low prices. They are not willing to pay extra for a fruit or vegetable just because it wasn’t sprayed, or because it falls somewhere under the umbrella of “organic.”

“I do markets in the Bronx and they don’t understand the difference with pesticides or without pesticides,” Nolasco says.


A customer hands a vendor her chosen head of broccoli. (Photo: Nushin Rashidian)

If Nolasco and other farmers don’t lower their prices to match customers’ budgets, the Health Bucks program wouldn’t be as successful as it is, says Fabian.

Karina Tiburcio has been shopping at the Washington Heights farmers’ market for five years. Each week, she uses $15 of her $250 monthly allowance to buy potatoes, bread, peaches, apples, tomatoes and corn; she uses her six Health Bucks dollars to get two heads of lettuce and one pound of green peppers for free.

“Here you pay $2 for a pound of peppers and at the market it’s $3,” Tiburcio says. “One whole dollar more.”

Tiburcio can do a lot with that one dollar at the farmers’ market. She can buy one pound of red potatoes, green beans or yellow onions; she can buy three ears of corn, three cucumbers or three pounds of apples.

Just down the street, a market on 173rd Street and Broadway charges $1 for three apples of the same size.

Stevens was allotted $180,000 this year to print 90,000 Health Bucks, which she says is not enough to encourage the 1.5 million city residents receiving food stamps to spend their money at farmers’ markets.

“We hope to expand and include more markets in the program,” she says. “We’re delighted with it and we think it’s increasing food stamp usage at our markets. It’s making our produce available to more people.”

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