When Whole Foods Comes to Town: A Changing Food Landscape in Harlem

Around noon on a Saturday outside of Morningside Park, Orlanda Graham, 60, was walking home after attending a church service with her sister and grandnephew. As they joked around about how they would spend the rest of the day, they strolled past the park’s farmers market at 110th Street and Manhattan Avenue. To Graham, it is a bustling symbol of the startling change her neighborhood has undergone.

“I’ve seen it,” Graham said of the market. She shook her head in disbelief. “There’s a Costco on 116th, an Applebee’s and now there’s even a Whole Foods on 125th.”

Like many other things in Harlem, the food landscape is changing. In an area once commonly referred to as a food desert, the number of options is no longer so small. The Whole Foods Market on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue is set to open this spring, and farmers markets like the one by Morningside Park have become increasingly common.

“We don’t live in a food desert,” Tareya Warren, 20, who lives in East Harlem, said. “Our grocery stores are pretty local.”

But as the area makes room for the new, residents are asking what will happen to the old. They do not have to look far for the answer: In November, the local Pathmark at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue shut its doors. In January, an Associated Supermarket in Washington Heights narrowly avoided closing after community petitions called for it to remain open.

“That’s kind of messed up,” Ashley Baker, 22, an East Harlem resident, said when she learned that Pathmark had closed.

“Pathmark was more affordable,” Ms. Warren said.

The Migliorelli Farm stand at the Morningside Park farmers market at 110th Street on May 28. The challenge some residents face is not access to fresh produce, but the affordability of such items. Khaled Sayed / NYT Institute

The food desert problem of the 1980s and 1990s has changed shape. Instead of a lack of access to fresh produce and healthy food, the challenge residents now face, some said, is a lack of affordable options.

Founded in 2005, the Morningside Park farmers market has tried to address the mixed incomes of local residents. But the realities of a farmers market make that difficult.

“The idea was to set up a market because it was an underserved area in terms of fresh produce,” said Brad Taylor, president of the Friends of Morningside Park and one of the market’s cofounders.

Before the opening of the market, some residents told Mr. Taylor, they would have to go to Union Square to buy their food.

To appeal to a more diverse group of customers, the market accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer, or E.B.T. Jon Zeltsman, president of Down to Earth markets, estimates between 100 and 150 people pay for their food using E.B.T. at the Morningside Park market each week.

But Mr. Zeltsman said it is difficult to make a farmers market accessible for lower income consumers.

“Without subsidizing it in a low-income neighborhood, it’s hard to say that a farmers market has a wide array of products, versus just produce, that can actually fill the niche of what the supermarket does,” Mr. Zeltsman said. “A farmers market can’t produce it at the price someone on a limited budget can afford.”

Some longtime, low-income residents worry that incoming stores will cater only to newer, wealthier residents. They wonder how they will find affordable food options in an area that is becoming increasingly less affordable.

Community members disagree about the Whole Foods: some praise its accessibility, while others reject its location. Online commenters on a Curbed article in April complained about the architecture’s lack of coherence within the fabric of East Harlem’s streets.

“Awful,” wrote commenter “lo_pan” on April 26 at 11:07 a.m. “They’re trashing Harlem’s streetscapes with these new, ugly buildings.”

Responses were more positive from residents walking around Lenox Avenue and 125th Street on a Sunday evening. Cassandra Morrison, 36, who lives 10 blocks away, said it will make things easier for her.

“I have to eat gluten-free, so now I can do that without having to go all the way downtown,” Ms. Morrison said. “But I’ve heard people say, ‘Why is it coming?’”

Keith DeBetham, 57, moved to Harlem in 1997. For him, the Whole Foods is not a problem. But he acknowledges that it means “more white people are moving in.”

As for whether a Whole Foods would have any effect on the Morningside Park farmers market, Mr. Taylor was not worried.

But he said the new Whole Foods is indicative of some larger changes in the community.

“One could ask: Why weren’t these options here when richer families had not moved in?” Mr. Taylor said.