By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Farmer's markets with street closure permits should be combined with play streets to create neighborhood hotspots aimed at fighting obesity and promoting healthy eating, according to a study from the New York Academy of Medicine and Transportation Alternatives.
At two sites this summer hosting both a play street and a farmer's market — one in the Bronx and the other at East 104th Street between Second and Third avenues in East Harlem — kids came to get some exercise while parents came for healthy fruits and vegetables.
"We had a pretty good amount of families that would walk to the farmer's market and their kids would see soccer balls, chalk and hoops and become interested," said Julia Day, director of transportation and health for Transportation Alternatives.
The play streets were organized by Transportation Alternatives, Strategic
Alliance for Health, an arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, and Harvest Home Farmer's Market, a non-profit organization
that runs 20 farmer's markets in low-income neighborhoods citywide.
The plan utilizes the unused portion of streets at farmer's markets that have street closure permits. Last year, 10 farmer's markets across the city also had street closure permits. East Harlem is classified as a district of public health area where residents suffer from disproportionately high rate of diabetes, asthma and obesity. One in four kids in Head Start programs in East and Central Harlem are obese and four in 10 in public elementary schools are overweight.
The study found that 855 youths attended the East Harlem play street from July 15 to Aug. 26. Another 265 people of all ages visited the farmer's market. About 11 percent of play street attendees heard about the program after visiting the farmer's market.
"Kids learned for the first time how to jump rope, play dodge ball and
hopscotch," said Javier Lopez, director of the Strategic Alliance for Health. "Latino kids and African American kids played soccer together. This is a model that can be replicated in places without parks. There are plenty of farmer's markets."
The project was a collaborative community effort. Day said her group reached out to local day care centers and community centers to let them know about the program. One camp program had more than 100 kids on its waiting list and was looking for other recreational outlets to tell parents about. Various groups came to the play streets to teach dance, supervise relay races and teach kids how to jump rope and play soccer.
"We think more parks and playgrounds are wonderful and play streets are no substitute, but they increase access to open space," said Day. "It's like open space in your backyard in that it's more likely you will come use the space."
There were also other unintended benefits from the play street and farmer's market combination. Eighty-four percent of people surveyed said that their neighborhood felt safer with a play street.
Farmer's markets also stand to benefit.
"Many of the people who came said they didn't know we were there," said
Harvest Home CEO and founder Maritza Owens. "It's important for the kids to see that food doesn't come out of a box."
Transportation Alternatives is already at work making sure more collaborations occur next summer. The group is preparing a best practices guide and case study for community groups and politicians.
"There is community demand for these events and they can be replicated at markets that already have street closure permits," said Day. "It's about identifying community partners and leaders and making sure each play street reflects the community."