In Bed-Stuy “food desert,” Bangladeshi Vendors Answer Call

Posted on November 19th, 2009 by Eno Alfred in Health, Immigration

By Eno Alfred

Enamuel Hoque handed a red grape to an elderly woman who was studying the fruits and vegetables on his cart along Nostrand Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant.

“You try this, this one is very sweet,” he told the woman who popped another grape into her mouth.

Like many other grape tasters and passers by who stop for a few seconds to have a look, she leaves empty handed.

Green Cart vendor Hoque, right, attends to a customer from Bed-Stuy.

Green Cart vendor Hoque, right, attends to a customer from Bed-Stuy.

Hoque, 55, who lives a few streets away on McDonald Avenue, is undeterred as he tries to get noticed on a block where fruits and vegetables are an uncommon sight.

The city established 500 permits last year for “Green Carts,” which are mobile food carts that offer fresh produce in neighborhoods that have long been isolated from traditional supermarkets, grocery stores and farmers’ markets. This year another 500 permits have been approved to further improve access to healthy food. In the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, the carts are largely operated by Bangladeshi immigrants like Hoque.

More than 1 in 4 adults in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick is obese according to the Brooklyn District Public Health Office. These areas have been called “food deserts” because of the lack of healthy food options. The areas are filled, however, with fast-food outlets offering food that is high in fat and sugar. While the rate of obesity is below 15 per cent in much of Manhattan, rates in less affluent neighborhoods, including Harlem, the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, are over 27 per cent.

The bustling stretches of Nostrand Avenue did not have queues of people waiting to be served by the fruit and vegetable vendor; KFC on the corner had more people inside than Hoque had served in the last hour.

Yet, despite the lack of customers on the chilly Thursday afternoon, everyone who walked by seemed to know Hoque.

Tammy Gould, 42, a resident of Nostrand Avenue, said that the green carts are good for the community, especially for young people.

“When I’m with my two kids, I always stop and get them an orange,” she said. “But kids like to buy a lot of junk, they’re not looking for fruits and vegetables.”

The children are not alone in this preference. According to the Department of Health, 90 percent of New Yorkers eat fewer than the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and 14 percent eat none at all.

It’s hard to miss Hoque’s cart with its green umbrella embellished with the words, “NYC Green Cart.” However, Hoque spends most of his time at his cart waiting to catch the eye of neighbors with bananas priced three for $1, apples going for two for $1 and an assortment of grapes, oranges, red peppers, onions and other produce.

Every morning at 8.30 a.m., Hoque pushes his cart to his spot and waits for customers and the delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables from a food supplier in Manhattan. Once he has paid the delivery man between $200-$400, depending on the selection of items he thinks will sell the most, he will continue his 10-hour shift.

“Because I am 55, it is hard to stay for so long,” he said standing next to his makeshift seat of stacked baskets.

Hoque emigrated to New York more than seven years ago, leaving behind his wife, two children, and a career as a teacher in Bangladesh. After working in Bedford Stuyvesant as a meat cutter and then a grocery seller, he said he decided that he could make more money to send back to his family every three months, if he was his own boss.

“Because we are poor man, this money is enough for me,” Hoque said about earning roughly $1,500 a month. “All of the Bangladeshi generally poor.”

New York is home to the largest Bangladeshi population in the United States. According to the 2000 US Census, Bangladeshi New Yorkers’ per capita income is $10,479, which is less than half of the citywide figure of $22,402.

Vendors with a Green Cart permit can only sell fruit and vegetables.

Vendors with a Green Cart permit can only sell fruit and vegetables.

Seven months ago, Hoque completed the process required to gain a Green Cart license and permit. He did not have a required mobile food vending license and had to pay $56 for a course in food protection and $50 for the license. The application fee is $75.

Just getting on the Green Cart waiting list takes between four to eight weeks.

Vendors must also provide their own carts. Hoque is renting a $4,000 cart, paying $75 a month.

“I am all alone here, no on to help me but God,” Hoque said while tending to a group of women who were chatting and laughing as they waited for their fruit to be put into bags.

Hoque said that unlike most vending permits that run out after six months, the Green Cart permit expires after two years. He said it is less stressful knowing he has a longer period in which to earn back his investment.

Although the waiting list to become a vendor has been notoriously long, Kimberly Bylander, a coordinator at the Brooklyn District Public Health Office that issues permits to vendors says many people do not understand what being a Green Cart vendor entails.

“Some went through the process and then said, ‘wait, what am I going to be selling?’ ” she said about those who start the application process and then stop when they find out they can only sell fruit and vegetables.

Despite the slow business, Hoque said he would persevere.

“Really I’m happy,” Hoque said standing behind his cart. “One day I will go and join my family, but I will keep working now.”

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