Port Authority Greenmarket: An Oasis in the Midtown West Food Desert



The Port Authority Greenmarket offers fresh produce to commuters and shoppers in the Port Authority. Photo: AP Images

Jams, soups, apples straight from the orchard, sour cream coffee cake. All the usual fare of New York City’s Greenmarkets is present. But this market happens to be in a bus terminal–wedged into an indoor mall with brown floor tiles, within earshot of escalators, next to a souvenir kiosk selling miniature yellow cabs, and across from a Hudson News stand–all in the largest bus transit station in New York City.

This is the Port Authority Greenmarket, run by GrowNYC, the non-profit organization behind dozens of farmer’s markets around New York City. The Port Authority market is in the concourse at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and has been open every Thursday since June 2009. It features only two stalls: Katchkie Farm from Kinderhook, NY and Prospect Hill Orchard from Milton, NY.

“Almost every day someone will stop and say ‘Wow, you must be new–I ve been coming past here for years and I’ve never seen this’ and we have to assure them we’ve been here for two years now.” says Allison Walton, who works at the Katchkie Farm stall. Katchkie is an organic farming operation managed by  NYC-based catering company Great Performances. The produce is grown at the farm and sold in the greenmarket.

“It is food desert-ish around here, “ said Walton, using a term that refers to an area in which people don’t have close access to fresh, affordable groceries, creating a perpetual health issue for residents. In New York City, food deserts are generally confined to  areas of Harlem and Brooklyn and the outer boroughs, but in relatively food-rich Manhattan, there is a lack of grocery stores with fresh produce in the immediate area around the Port Authority.  The closest grocery store, not counting corner stores and delis, is the Food Emporium eight blocks away. The closest Whole Foods is over 20 blocks south, in Chelsea.

”We have a good set of regular customers. About 80 percent of them shop here two or three times a month,” said Walton.  The stall has seasonal produce–this month their haul includes beets, lettuce, bell peppers and chillies, eggplant, turnips, onions, and some preserved or prepared foods including picked okra, ratatouille, and fresh salads and sandwiches.

“I usually hate beets, but the beet chips at the Katchkie farm stall transformed my views of them,” says Jason Olko, a regular at the Greenmarket. Olko works at Urban Pathways, a homeless shelter on 38th Street and Eighth Avenue. He lives in Harlem and discovered the market on his commute two years ago. “This is a great lunch spot,” he said. “For produce, I have a CSA,”  a Community Supported Agriculture project where consumers buy produce directly from farmers, “where I shop in Harlem, but this definitely helps to fill in the gaps.”

Zach Brooks is the founder and editor of MidtownLunch.com, a site for lunch destinations in Midtown New York. “There are good and cheap places to eat lunch in Midtown, but they’re not often healthy places to eat,” said Brooks. “The area around Port Authority is underserved, especially for groceries and healthy food. The location is a great idea because it is under-used space, and tons of people travel through every day.”

But with only two stalls, the impact to the surrounding area has been limited. “For people who commute through the Port Authority, which lacks the beauty of Grand Central for example, it is a nice surprise to be able to pick up vegetables on their commute,” says Alexandra Penfold, a food writer who has covered the greenmarket for the MidtownLunch website. “But it’s still quite a rushed location, so I don’t think it’s a big lunch destination.”

Walton said that while some people in the area pick up lunch on the go, buying ready-made soups and sandwiches, people buying all their produce at the market is less common. “Some people do get all their groceries here, but they’re exceptions rather than the rule, “ said Walton.

Elizabeth Hohn and Carmen Serrano, both based in Brooklyn, run the Prospect Hill Orchard stall on behalf of the farmers. They sell baked goods, 30 varieties of apples, and fresh cider—which sells out quickly. “During the summer, the peaches are really popular,” says Serrano.  Their peach selection includes a white donut peach variety named Saturn, which is available only in early August. Elizabeth explains that farmers don’t come to the market themselves because they are busy back at the farm. “People are surprised to see us here,” said Serrano. “The greenmarket adds a touch of class to the Port Authority.”

And the location provides a unique set of quirks. Elizabeth, Carmen and Alice have had to deal with some unusual workplace issues, including people thinking their stalls were all free samples. They also describe themselves as a “de facto information booth.” “People ask us for travel information all the time. They come over and ask us what time their bus is going. Sometimes I think we should have t-shirts saying “This is the Port Authority Greenmarket, NOT Port Authority information,” said Walton.