Harlem ‘Food Desert’ Finds an Oasis in Farmers Markets

When Brad Taylor moved to Harlem in 1992, Morningside Park was not known as a place to visit alone.

“I was sort of told that’s not a safe park, because it wasn’t when my wife was growing up in the ’70s,” he said. “We lived in the neighborhood for a number of years before we got in the park.”

Now, as president of Friends of Morningside Park, a volunteer association dedicated to improving the park, Mr. Taylor, 57, spends much of his time there. He smiled affably when talking about the park and how things in the neighborhood have changed. During more than a decade working with the organization, Mr. Taylor said, he has supported key initiatives, including the park’s seasonal farmers market.

When Mr. Taylor came to the area in the early ’90s, he said, Harlem was often described as a “food desert.” “Between 110th and 125th Streets on the east edge of the park between Manhattan Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, there was no supermarket whatsoever,” he said.

Because he lived on the Columbia University side of Morningside Park at the time, Mr. Taylor was less affected by few food choices. But the idea for the farmers market came partly from a lack of supermarkets in the area.

Now in its 11th year, the market is looking to abandon its April-to-December schedule and become a year-round operation. Mr. Taylor said a survey administered a few years ago found that about 300 participants expressed interest in keeping the market open all year.

Harlem may no longer be a food desert, but that does not make access to cheap food any easier for low-income residents, Mr. Taylor said. “Prices are pretty steep,” he said.

Still, Brian Elbel, an associate professor of population health and health policy at New York University, said it is difficult to measure prices of groceries in the neighborhood.

“There isn’t any great data on prices that exist, so anything said there would be conjecture.” Mr. Elbel said in an email.

Navigating the interests of longtime residents and newcomers is often considered a feature of living in a gentrifying neighborhood like Harlem. Aissatou Bey-Grecia, vice president of Friends of Morningside Park, has lived in the neighborhood since 1967. She became involved in the organization to represent longtime Harlem residents. She said working with Mr. Taylor has been a great experience because of his open-mindedness.

“He really does like the community and he’s expansive in his view,” Ms. Bey-Grecia, 62, said. “He knows the people — he knows who’s who and what’s what, and he’s also got a level of respect.”

Mr. Taylor’s goal is immortalized on the organization’s shirts: making the park “our common ground.”