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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

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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.

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