Senior citizens have a new option for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Inspired by the popularity of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, which allow urbanites to financially support an area farm in exchange for produce, Council Member Gale Brewer of District 6 launched the Westside Senior Supported Agriculture (WSSA) food bag program in August.
The pilot program, which ends November 1, revises traditional CSA structure to better fit the needs of seniors. Earlier this year, Community Board 4 conducted a general survey of 1220 seniors over the age of 60 years living in the area, part of which falls under Brewer’s district. Lack of access to affordable, fresh food was one of the most common problems listed.
With the WSSA program, participating seniors choose when they would like to purchase an $8 bag of locally grown produce, instead of paying a lump sum of money at the beginning of a growing season for weekly food bags. The biweekly signup for a bag of seasonal fruits and vegetables, like peppers, lettuce and apples, takes place Mondays and Tuesdays at designated senior centers. The food bags are then available for pick up the Thursday of the following week at the same center.
Part of Brewer’s overall “Grow Green, Age Well” initiative, the WSSA purchases fresh, local produce through GrowNYC, an environmental non-profit that runs many of Manhattan’s greenmarkets. After starting August 23 with 63 seniors and five senior centers, the program has expanded to more than 100 participating seniors, with additional centers joining the partnership. Any senior can participate when they sign up at a designated center.
Brewer said that she is thrilled with the response the program has gotten thus far. Some seniors have even written letters to her office commenting on how beautiful the food is. “Literally the fruit and vegetables have come out of the ground hours earlier,” said Brewer.
Since most seniors survive on a fixed income, low price point was something Brewer worked hard to achieve. “Our main concern was to provide high quality produce at an affordable price,” said Shulamit Warren, chief of staff of Brewer’s office.
The relatively low cost of the food bags, compared to standard grocery store prices, as well as the locally grown crops and the low weight of the bags appeals to a number of seniors. “I like the food, it’s better than the usual stuff with insecticides and chemicals. The quality has been great, too,” said Cassandra O’Neill, who visits the Goddard Riverside Community Center everyday and has been using the program since its inception.
For seniors like Norma Villafuerte, who eat salad at least once a day, the food bag is “absolutely marvelous.” “They give you everything you need,” said Villafuerte, who usually buys her groceries at a nearby Fairway Market. “The apples were nice and crisp, the cherry tomatoes were excellent. The whole thing was outstanding.”
The cost was a big incentive for some. “All that for $8?! That’s a good deal!” exclaimed one first-time customer. “There’s more than $8 worth in there for sure.”
Still, the group of participating seniors has been limited, said Ed Bartosik, Senior/Hunger Programs Director for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), a participating center. “These are not frail 90 year olds,” Bartosik said. “They’re pretty fit 65 year olds.”
Chenal Thompson, assistant director of the Hamilton Senior Center, said that while the produce is visually appealing and more diverse than what some of the seniors at Hamilton usually eat, it’s still a bit pricey. Many seniors that visit the center are on a tight fixed income and can barely afford a $1.75 donation for the center’s lunches. For that price, diners can eat a portioned and balanced meal while chatting with friends in a cafeteria that resembles a grade school lunchroom. One recent center lunch consisted of chicken parmesan, penne pasta, broccoli, apples and grape juice. “I have no income,” said Nicolas Fountaes over lunch at the Encore Senior Center, which is not a part of the WSSA network. “If I had $16 a month I’d go to the corner shop and buy 10 apples or 10 peaches for $1.”
Some seniors at the Hamilton Center also found the large amount of food to be excessive. The center’s set meals meet their daily food needs, and any other produce can be purchased from a food stand on an as needed basis, one senior said. “I live by myself,” said Gil Marquez, a senior at the Hamilton Center. “That sounds like a lot.”
For Dolores Gallagher, who has been coming to Encore for the last four years, the senior center also offers an important sense of community. “I’d always come here because I like the social aspect,” she said. “The staff here is great and the food is the best in the city.”
Each brown food bag currently includes a brightly-colored slip of paper with recipes and instructions on how to prepare and store the produce, but Bartosik plans to take the program a step further in the spring by offering nutrition and cooking classes for the NCJW seniors.
While the program ends with the growing season, Brewer plans to begin advertising for the spring 2013 growing season this winter. She hopes that giving seniors many months to discover and inquire about WSSA will help kick off the program’s second year with even more participants. “This is very much a word of mouth kind of thing,” Brewer said. “It’s very exciting. It’s a program people feel good about.”