News / USA

Bob Lewis Campaigns For Fresh Local Food, Nutrition For All

Greenmarket co-founder is out to change the way New Yorkers grow, buy and eat produce, one delicious apple and head of lettuce at a time

Bob Lewis with radishes
Bob Lewis with radishes

Multimedia

Audio

It's noon on a hot New York summer day, and Bob Lewis picks up a large organic radish at the teeming Union Square greenmarket in Manhattan. It's one of about 50 green markets he has helped establish in New York City since 1976, and one of about 500 now operating across the state. "The magic of it! This is truly a miracle," says Lewis, popping the radish in his mouth. Lewis' efforts have helped preserve family farming in the region, and helped foster closer ties between American family farmers and the communities they feed.

Bob Lewis at Union Square Greenmarket
Bob Lewis at Union Square Greenmarket

Lewis, who was born in Brooklyn in 1946, grew up with interests almost as diverse as the produce on offer at the dozens of stalls here. He majored in geology in college, and later did field work in Kentucky studying the environmental impact of coal strip mining. He studied the water tables in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and conducted regional and town planning in the Catskill Mountains of New York State.

In 1975, Lewis returned to his native New York to look for a job where his passion for the natural and social sciences and agriculture could be satisfied. Soon, he met the veteran city planner and architect Barry Benepe, famous for what's come to be known as "human-centered" urban design. Lewis says they shared an intense interest in cities and agriculture, and how they fit together.

"This led us to essentially decide to create – or recreate – what was once a very essential part of New York City, and all cities, which was the open marketplace."  Thus began the Big Apple's now-ubiquitous "greenmarkets."

Bob Lewis with carrots
Bob Lewis with carrots

Before the first part of the 20th century, most small-scale farmers in the United States sold their produce directly to consumers at local markets. But that changed with the industrialization of agriculture, when food production became more centralized and family farmers were forced to sell their produce to wholesalers, who in turn sold it to distributors, who sold it to urban retailers. This system meant far less profit for small producers, and by the 1970s, many American family farms were in financial crisis.

"The farmers did not have enough economic incentive to continue to produce in the face of the rising costs they experienced," says Lewis, "and the only way to send a signal to those farmers that they could have a future in agriculture was to give them the opportunity to meet the consumer one-on-one, present what they were growing, and see the response."

The response was enormous. Lewis says that because of industrialized farms, which grew produce with an eye toward longer shelf life and ease of transport rather than for taste and nutrition, many city folk had never known the wonders of freshly harvested, regionally-grown fruits and vegetables.

What began as three or four stalls drew ever larger crowds, encouraged other businesses, and increased real estate values
What began as three or four stalls drew ever larger crowds, encouraged other businesses, and increased real estate values

"By bringing back the farmers markets to New York City, we were able to expose hundreds of thousands of people to what real food really is – real food that was grown by people who really care about growing real food," says Lewis with more than a hint of pride, adding  that "ultimately, those experiences kicked off a national [greenmarkets] movement."

Greenmarkets can also restore neighborhoods. When New York's Union Square greenmarket began in the late 70s, the area was blighted with drug dealers, vandals and filth. But what began as three or four stalls drew ever larger crowds, which encouraged other businesses, which in turn increased real estate values. Today, the district is considered a highly desirable place to live, work and raise a family.

Lewis, who now works for New York State's Department of Agriculture and Markets, adds that greenmarkets have flourished in small towns too, where social and economic life on Main Street has been choked off by out of town, malls, offering predictability, but little else.

And Lewis fights hard to put programs in place that give all New Yorkers access to fresh, regionally grown food. One project distributes farmers' market coupons through federal nutrition programs for low-income women, children and the elderly.

"We feel terrific to see in [poor districts such as] the South Bronx or in Harlem a woman with a stroller and a child having a peach with the juice dripping down the child's face who had never ever eaten fresh fruit like this in their life, who had never had a fresh peach ever."  In many cases, those children had mostly been eating processed foods, or their parents couldn't afford fruits or vegetables, or didn't know how to prepare them. "[That was] knowledge that perhaps their grandmother had, but not them," says Lewis.    

Lewis is addressing this knowledge gap in several ways. One program helps to create school gardens where kids grow their own foods and harvest them for use in their own school lunches. He has spearheaded the New Farmer Development Project, which gives immigrant farmers in the New York City region micro-loans to start their own farms, and offers them the use of the greenmarket network.

Lewis and his colleagues also advise the United Nations on ways to promote greenmarket strategies abroad in places like Mexico, Kenya, and Haiti, where urbanization is spreading and small farmers and local markets are threatened.

It's all in a day's work for Bob Lewis, who says all he's really trying to do is "live an ethical life," and see to it that the earth his children inherit will afford them a sustainable bounty of wholesome and delicious food.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs