Rolando Pérez lives in a homeless shelter. His cell phone service was recently disconnected because he was unable to make his bill payments. And his son Christopher can’t log into remote classes because the family doesn’t have access to WiFi. But every morning at 5 a.m., Pérez drives his van to the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie to pick up hundreds of dollars of fresh fruits and vegetables, which he sells on the street in East New York.
“In this area, I am the only produce vendor,” says Pérez. That’s not far from the truth.
Located just a few miles away from the world’s fine dining epicenter, the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn is one of the city’s food swamps, a designation for an area that has more access to fast food, liquor stores, and convenience stores than it does healthy food options. The neighborhood is littered with delis and bodegas that have mostly packaged goods and, if they’re lucky, a few baskets with some bananas and onions.
Food swamps are also some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, so ordering groceries on Instacart or even going to the area’s sole grocery store once a week to fill up the refrigerator is not an option. It’s a cash economy here, and sustenance is acquired one puzzle piece at a time. Street vendors, with their more accessible lower prices, are particularly essential in these neighborhoods.
“We go out every day and are exposed on the street. But we feel that we all have a duty to work,” says Sabina Morales Hernandez, who runs a produce stand in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, another food swamp. Street vendors all over the city have seen their clientele dwindle due to fears over COVID-19. Hernandez sends money to relatives in Mexico every month, and is now overextended. For Pérez, what used to be $400 worth of gross sales a day is now $100.
“Everyone is afraid to leave their house,” says Anna Pérez, who has been married to Rolando for 25 years and runs the produce stand with him. “I’m afraid, sure, but we’ve taken all the necessary precautions.”
Rolando Pérez does not qualify for any government aid. Although he is an American citizen, his wife is a Honduran immigrant, which eliminates them from receiving relief checks. And though he has a mobile food vendor’s license, his cash-based microbusiness hardly has the banking history required to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program.
Many street vendors are in similar positions, according to Carina Kaufman-Guttierez, deputy director of the Street Vendors Project, a 2,000-member support and advocacy organization for mobile vendors in New York City. To get a license to sell, vendors only need a sales tax ID and not a social security number, she says. “This leads to a discussion about how many undocumented people are left out from benefits and federal aid,” Kaufman-Guttierez says.
While many street food vendors have deserted their posts out of a combination of fear of contracting COVID-19 and plummeting sales numbers, some say that they have no choice but to come to work every day, despite the constant exposure to the elements, harassment from police over their locations, and now, the novel coronavirus.
“I would estimate 5 to 10 percent of vendors are still working,” says Kaufman-Guttierez. Some members of the Street Vendors Project report sales decreases of up to 80 to 90 percent.
On the corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, under the rumbling trains overhead and next to vendors selling face masks and gloves — the area is one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 cases in the city — Hernandez and her assistants are on the street as early as 7 a.m. to hawk fresh produce. These days, the business is slow, but the deals are still good: three avocados for two dollars, which would normally net just one at a supermarket. A head of lettuce, which could be $2.50 at the store, is a dollar at the stand. Every penny counts in a neighborhood where over 50 percent of the population lives near the poverty line.
“I try to do my best to have the best prices on fresh fruit,” says Hernandez.
Hernandez sells on the street for 12 hours, but her work day doesn’t end there. As the sun sets, she’ll drive with her 21-year-old granddaughter Areli Valencia to the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market in the Bronx to reload. Hernandez is like a computer, her entire inventory seemingly loaded into her brain as she inspects cases of produce for quality and then counts off the number that she needs: Mangoes have been moving briskly, so she buys 30 cases; cucumbers less so, but these ones are particularly pretty, she says, so she takes three cases.
The two women will work from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m., going from vendor to vendor, and buying up each one’s specialty. Since they’re a smaller operation, the two move boxes of produce and build each one of the pallets by hand, all while bundled up for the near-freezing conditions inside the refrigerated warehouses. “You get sleepy. You get cold,” says Hernandez as she inspected a box of organic bananas. They sell well, too, so she purchased 18 cases.
As the truck rolls up in the early morning hours to pick up the pallets of fresh produce that Hernandez has spent hours building, she’ll head to her home in Corona to sleep for a few hours before hitting the streets again to sell.
“We have to survive, to help our families,” says Hernandez.