SCHENECTADY – Residents of three low-income neighborhoods, where foods from corner stores and fast-food restaurants are more available than healthy foods, are bound for free transit to the Schenectady Greenmarket.
The nonprofit organization, which holds a farmers market Sundays outside City Hall, teamed with the Capital District Transportation Authority to launch a free pilot trolley service to residents in Hamilton Hill, Mont Pleasant and Eastern Avenue neighborhoods, starting May 16.
The service will run on an approximately 25-minute loop with 15 stops during the duration of the market, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The trolley will operate from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Sponsored by Highmark Blue Shield of Northeastern New York, the Greenmarket has operated in the city since 2008, normally featuring more than 70 vendors. This year’s draw of more than 80 vendors has been its largest turnout to date, Haley Viccaro, Schenectady Greenmarket board chairwoman, said Thursday.
The Greenmarket operates outdoors through October and moves inside of Proctors from November through April. But it recently opened its outdoor market a month earlier and expanded onto Clinton Street around City Hall to promote social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now, as things start to get back to normal, we’re looking at ways to continue to grow our market and expand our customer base, and further support our vendors and our city,” Viccaro said.
The market reached out to CDTA about residents’ reliance on public transportation and their lack of access to healthy food, Viccaro said.
“We were thrilled when CDTA not only thought it was a good idea but decided to partner with us to help make it happen,” she said.
The announcement was made outside the Hillside View Apartments on Craig Street in Hamilton Hill, one of the trolley route stops.
“One of our goals was to have stops at apartment complexes like these that have senior citizens, some lower-income individuals as well, who could really take advantage of this trolley we hope,” Viccaro said.
The Greenmarket accommodates customers with benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the former food stamp program, and customers can maximize those benefits at the farmers market, according to Cheryl Whilby, Schenectady Greenmarket’s market manager.
For instance, for every $5 in EBT tokens that a customer spends at Schenectady Greenmarket, they receive an additional $2 Fresh Connect check that can be used to purchase food from qualifying local food vendors at participating farmers’ markets.
Whilby said it’s untrue but widely believed that individuals and families who use food benefits aren’t working or have no desire to do so. This can translate to recipients of the benefits feeling uncomfortable or judged for using them.
“We never want people to feel like that when shopping at our market, and we want our EBT SNAP customers to feel welcomed and encouraged,” she said.
Technically, the Greenmarket is located in a “food desert,” Whilby said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area that lacks a grocery store, and where healthy food needs to be accessible and affordable, and residents need access to information about what food is healthy or not.
Whilby said she used the term “food apartheid” rather than food desert in describing the role racial inequity has played in the food system.
Some communities have minimal choices about foods they’re able to purchase because of years of racial discrimination and segregation, she asserted.
Corner stores and fast-food options are more readily available in minority communities, she said, ultimately contributing to higher rates of diet-related illnesses such as depression, diabetes, and hypertension.
Jayme B. Lahut, executive director of the Schenectady Metroplex, and board chairman of CDTA, agreed with Whilby’s commentary about lack of access. Lahut cited a survey that determined just 40% of residents in underserved communities have access to vehicles, which he said was a driver of public transit like CDTA.
“It’s a large part of the Greenmarket’s mission to increase accessibility, and CDTA is here to help,” Lahut said.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said the trolley service stood to foster activity at the greenmarket by adding value to the vendors and people who live in the neighborhoods.
“It’s connecting people to opportunities where you live and where you work. How do you do that in a cost-effective, environmentally sustainable manner in today’s world? And so this is an exciting day. It’s a great project.”
Schenectady County Legislator Philip Fields thanked CDTA and the Schenectady Greenmarket. Noting the county recently began offering vaccinations at the market, Fields said:
“This new trolley service will not only give residents access to fresh, local food, it also increases access to COVID-19 vaccines, two things that can help keep our families healthy during the pandemic and beyond.”