A Kelly St. garden volunteer harvesting a pepper. Photo prrovided by Kelly Street Garden.

More access to veggies has helped residents become healthier eaters, say food box distributors

Produce box distributors are increasing their distribution to meet the growing demand for fresh vegetables from South Bronx residents since the pandemic began. They hope the demand and their ability to deliver will continue past the pandemic.

Jamine Williams, the Healthy Livable Communities coordinator at Longwood-based community health center Urban Health Plan, helps manage a weekly food stand outside the organization’s workforce development center, Project H.O.P.E., at 854 Hunts Point Avenue.

In years past, the organization sold 25–30 of GrowNYC’s $14 Farm Fresh food boxes weekly. Since the pandemic started, the stand has been able to distribute free boxes as well, nearly quadrupling their distribution to 100 food boxes weekly.

Kelly Street Garden, located at 924 Kelly St., has also seen increased demand for their free produce shares, according to resident garden manager Sheryll Durrant. 

Even in a growing season shortened by COVID-19 restrictions, the garden has nearly doubled its shares, serving 75 households weekly on average this year. Participation continues to rise, and the garden regularly sees over 100 households each week, many coming from farther distances than would have in years past, according to Durrant.

Emily Martinez, a 34-year-old practice manager at Mt. Sinai Morningside hospital, is one new participant. She began picking up Kelly St. produce for her family of three during the summer after her hours were cut at work and her boyfriend lost his job.

The free produce from the garden, which she calls “a little gem downstairs,” helped her family survive the financial strain of losing three-quarters of their income.

Increased food donations into the area have enabled this incredible increase in produce available for distribution.

Amanda Septimo, Assembly member-elect for the New York State Assembly 84th district, said she believed the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need in the neighborhood on full display, contributing to increased donations. 

“The uptick in donations has made a real difference in food security for people,” she said.

Septimo said she hopes the increased donations continue even after COVID-19 subsides. 

“How do you sustain this when the apparent need is not as available? What happens when charity dies as apparent and emergent needs fade?” said Septimo.

Community-based organizations have bought the Project H.O.P.E. stand an additional 1,309 boxes to distribute for free on top of their regular order, according to GrowNYC.

This year, organizations like Harvest Home, and the city’s Nourish New York program enabled Kelly Street Garden to add more than 15,000 lbs. of additional, particularly potatoes and other root vegetables, to its regular greens-heavy produce bags.

Williams believes more residents have made produce a part of their regular cooking as a result. She said residents come to the stand specifically requesting produce, passing over the organization’s pantry bags and prepared meals. 

  “COVID-19, while devastating, gave us a chance to introduce people to more produce,” she said. “That’s big and hopefully will continue.”

Martinez said she’s always prioritized feeding her family produce, particularly greens, but the quality at the neighborhood grocery can be hit-or-miss. She sometimes used to stop at a Trader Joe’s in Manhattan instead of the local supermarkets.

Although their financial situation has improved, Martinez still gets a produce share from the garden.

 “There’s a lot of meaning in getting something you know was grown with love,” said Martinez. “Even if I had double my income, I’d still go back. I’d still go if I had to pay a $5 or $10 donation or whatever.”