For years, Mariam Arayi-Rivera had to settle for a small amount of fresh produce – mostly of the lower quality kind – for her family. She could only dream about affording an abundance of organic, locally grown, vegetables.
But that all changed this past summer and fall.
“Everyone was asking me ‘are you a vegetarian?’ because I suddenly started making all these dishes with no meat,” said Arayi-Rivera, mother of three with a fourth on the way, whose family went from eating fresh produce twice a week if they were lucky, to having them every day.
The influx of healthy food in the Arayi-Rivera home began in June, when Mariam and her husband Arian, both 30, decided to join a CSA – a community supported agriculture initiative. This is group of people who pay in advance for a share of an anticipated harvest from a nearby farm and then receive, throughout the season, a weekly portion of fruits and vegetables directly from the farmer.
There are dozens of CSA groups throughout the city, including over 30 in Manhattan alone. But subscribing to a CSA tends to be more expensive than shopping for produce in the supermarket, so low-income families have mostly shied away from such a commitment.
The Arayi-Rivera family’s household income is only what Arian makes as a legal clerk – Mariam stays home to take care of the children – and in the beginning of the previous winter they became recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka Food Stamps. Back then, Mariam would to the family shopping mostly in neighborhood groceries, where, she said, the produce was wilting, looked rotten, didn’t smell good, and was certainly not organic.
"There was also the farmers market near Columbia (University),” Mariam recalled one alternative source of quality fresh produce, “but with three kids it’s hard to do this kind of shopping or any shopping.”
Everything change in the spring when Mariam heard from a friend that the Project Harmony CSA is offering memberships in subsidized prices for people eligible for Food Stamps. The discount was made possible with the help of a grant from a non-profit organization called Wholesome Wave. This grant effectively halves the cost of a vegetable share for each CSA member that is on Food Stamps.
From June until the middle of November, on Thursday afternoons, Mariam would drive over from her home in Jackson Heights to Project Harmony’s collection point in the community garden on West 122 Street. She would pay $8 per week and receive a bag full of organic fruits and vegetables.
“We would get whatever Claudio the farmer was growing, it varied week to week,” Mariam said. “The deliveries included peaches, kale, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, basil, lettuce, peppers and lots of eggplants.”
The produce came directly from Claudio Gonzalez’s farm in Goshen, up-state New York, 60 miles northwest of Harlem. Every week, Gonzalez would deliver the goods down to Manhattan, and distribute to members of Project Harmony and to other CSA groups he works with.
“So often lower-income folks are kind of forced to supplement the pantries with canned food, lower quality vegetables, you know, the cheaper things,” said Cindy Nibbelink-Worley, who manages the Project Harmony CSA together with her husband Haja. “I think it’s very important that there’s equal access to locally grown organic food. I mean, everybody needs to be healthy, not just the rich people.”
Nibbelink-Worley said they received the Wholesome Wave grant for the first time last year, and that there are four other Project Harmony members – except the Arayi-Rivera family – that are taking advantage of it.
In 2011, 39,000 households nationwide benefited from the same grant. According to Michel Nischan, CEO, founder and president of Wholesome Wave, the initiative is not charity. It’s a national interest.
“Being able to eliminate a half trillion dollars a year in health costs that are diet related and preventable, would go a long way in helping us balance the budget,” said Nischan, pointing out numerous researches which proved that diabetes and obesity are most prevalent in communities of poverty, where people don’t have sufficient resources to exercise the right of choice to feed their families healthier foods.
Wholesome Wave is sponsored by a handful of foundations and companies, but Nischan has high hopes that the next Farm Bill will include incentives that would replace the philanthropic support the organization has relied on so far. The Farm Bill is a master legislation passed every five years, which directs government supports and food aid programs. Nischan expects Congress to mandate subsidies for direct farmer-to-consumer sales, making them for accessible to impoverished households. The next Farm Bill will be debated on in early 2013 and its passage is planned for in May.
Nischan said that it has been proven time and again that once the barrier of affordable access is broken down, low-income families make healthier food choices, just like the Arayi-Rivera family did.
When the summer-fall share in the Project Harmony CSA ended in the middle of November, the Arayi-Riveras decided to sign up for the winter share, even though it’s not subsidized and they have to pay a full price, $20 more per month than what they paid in the summer.
Mariam said she insisted on signing up because she felt committed to Claudio the farmer. Several weeks earlier, she took her children upstate to visit the Gonzalez Farm, and they were all impressed by the hard work Claudio and his family put in to ensure the farm is sustainable.
“It’s great to meet and get to know the person who grows your food,” Mariam said. “Life is very hard for a farmer in the winter – you are producing less, delivering less, costs are higher, you’re working and pulling potatoes in the snow, it’s so cold up there – so I signed up for the winter share to support.”