Giving Compass' Take:

• Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund share how a sustainable food project, the NYC Green Cart initiative, works to increase community health. 

• What could a sustainable food program look like in your area? Where is the need greatest? 

• Learn about truly involving the community in community health projects.

It all started with street vendors. In 2008, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund partnered with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to launch the NYC Green Cart Initiative, an innovative public health and economic development strategy to increase the availability of fresh produce in neighborhoods where access is a challenge and there are high rates of diet-related diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Street vendors have been a vital part of the New York City landscape for centuries. But the City has a cap on the number of street vending permits, leading to long waiting lists for prospective vendors, a black market for permits, and a tendency for street vendors to set up in busy parts of Manhattan, whether they sell hot dogs, halal food, ice cream or fruit. In 2008, the Mayor and City authorized the Department of Health to issue up to 1,000 new street vending permits – but only to sell fresh fruits and vegetables, and exclusively in targeted neighborhoods where the data say that consumption of fresh produce is low and the rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are high.

The NYC Green Cart Initiative was a blend of public policy, private philanthropy and grassroots entrepreneurship. The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund supported vendor training, business development assistance and low-interest loans, as well as design, marketing and community outreach and nutrition education to promote consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables from Green Cart vendors.

The Fund’s grants also enabled Karen Karp & Partners, a food business and policy consulting firm, to provide on-the-ground assistance and advice to the Green Cart vendors. The Fund augmented the initiative with publication of NYC Green Cart Cookbooks that were distributed for free to the vendors to hand out to their customers, and funded a documentary film, The Apple Pushers, that was used by community organizations across the US to raise awareness of food access issues as well as immigrant entrepreneurship.

Ten years later, the NYC Green Cart initiative is going strong and self-sustaining.

Today, there are 320 vendors using these permits to operate Green Carts in neighborhoods such as the South Bronx, East Harlem, Central Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant and Bushwick, and entrepreneurs create new Green Cart businesses every year.

And because many vendors have at least one additional employee, several hundred jobs have been created. Regardless of whether or not the vendors continue their businesses, they develop sales, business management and customer relations experience and skills that help them obtain other work or start other businesses, creating even greater economic impact for families and communities.

Several research studies have demonstrated even more dimensions of impact.