To buy fresh produce, residents have to travel outside the city's boundaries or depend on the limited selections on corner stores' shelves.
"It's ridiculous how far we have to go to Safeway or other stores to feed our families, and it's been this situation for years. It's been too long," said Saree Mading, lifelong East Palo Alto resident and vice principal of the East Palo Alto Charter School.
East Palo Alto is a classic example of what nutritionists call a "food desert," a cityscape where affordable nutritious foods are unavailable or inaccessible, according to Collective Roots, a nonprofit organization headquartered at the East Palo Alto Charter School.
Given the bleak food landscape and the demand for fresh produce, Collective Roots is advocating for radical change in the local food system.
In the long term, Collective Roots' volunteers and staff members want a full-service supermarket in East Palo Alto. In the short-term, they are taking matters into their own hands.
This coming summer, community leaders are launching East Palo Alto's first Community Farmers' Market outside the St. Francis of Assisi Church at 1425 Bay Road. The opening date is June 1. The market will be open Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
As with all farmers' markets, the Department of Agriculture will govern the monitoring and certification processes. The East Palo Alto market will sell certified organic foods in addition to non-organic fresh foods.
Already, the excitement is building in the community.
Alexis Arias, mother of two, currently travels from her home in East Palo Alto to San Jose's Flea Market to supply her family with fresh produce. When she heard about plans for the new East Palo Alto farmers' market this spring, her enthusiasm was palpable.
"A farmers' market here in East Palo Alto would be good not only because you can shop there, but you can teach your kids different kinds of fruit, vegetables and flowers. ... And you can spend time with your kids, talking and walking around."
Mothers like Arias might be predictable target consumers for the farmers' market, but standing outside a McDonalds, a different demographic expressed a similar interest in local, fresh foods. William Siale, a young man hanging out with his friends, listed what would be on his farmers' market shopping list, ticking items off on his fingers. "If it was fresh foods there, I would eat it. Strawberries, watermelons, blueberries, any kind of fruits and vegetables," Siale said.
John Pearis, another youth, smiled as he looked past the golden McDonalds arches down Bay Road, imagining market stalls. "I love fresh salads. I would shop there," he said.
"It would be nice for a big international supermarket to come in, but in the meantime, this is a homegrown solution to problems of food access," Wolfram Alderson, Collective Roots' executive director, said.
The homegrown feeling appeals to Lettecia Rayson, an East Palo Alto resident and chair of the East Palo Alto Community Farmers' Market Organizing Committee. Repeatedly, Rayson says she has sat through meetings discussing food-system solutions, feeling "excited and then disappointed about the lack of progress."
Now, Rayson feels hopeful. "This community, with all of the challenges it faces, is known for its empowerment. ... No one would have thought we could have brought a farmers' market or sustained it, but we have. I feel better starting now than waiting for some national chain or organization to do something," Rayson said.
"By showing that we have the purchasing power and the economic market to sustain a medium- or large-sized market through our sustaining the farmers' market, we can solve the food access problem. ... [The farmers' market] is going to start as planned and have all the right ingredients for sustainability," she said.
In 2006, approximately 30,000 East Palo Altans spent $68 million per year on food, with much of that money leaking out of the community, according to the Community Development Institute, which based its estimation on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Teams from the Stanford Graduate School of Business working with Collective Roots cite the $68 million as evidence for the farmers' market's viability and note the potential to keep more of these funds within East Palo Alto. More than a business opportunity, though, Alderson sees East Palo Alto's need for fresh foods as an issue of equity.
"This community deserves to have access to healthy food," he said.
Instead of marginalizing low-income residents, Collective Roots is planning eagerly for their arrival. An Electronic Benefits Transfer card booth will make it easy to use government food subsidies at the market. Additionally, the market will accept vouchers from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a program popularly known as WIC, so that shopping at the farmers' market will be broadly accessible.
To supply the market, Collective Roots hopes to attract farmers lacking opportunities and minority farmers. But the most important goal in attracting farmers is finding those who can best meet the needs of people in the community, Alderson said.
An exuberant man with a long history in establishing community farmers' markets, Alderson's career began with the Interfaith Hunger Coalition 30 years ago, when he organized a community farmers' market in Los Angeles. He went on to establish additional markets in low-income communities, many of which are still going strong, Alderson said.
The impetus for the East Palo Alto Farmers' Market Organizing Committee came out Councilman Ruben Abrica's Community Health Roundtable in October of 2006. One purpose of the Roundtable was to support food-system change in East Palo Alto, including the development of a weekly farmers' market. To achieve this goal, the organizing committee formed in July of 2007.
Recalling past community farmers' markets, Abrica mentioned fellow Councilmember Pat Foster and others' effort to establish a market on Donohoe Street, as well as the now-closed women's cooperative, Lettuce Work, whose vegetable and fruit stand stood on University Avenue near the 3 Brothers Restaurant. Abrica himself was involved in a past market effort four years ago at the East Palo Alto Senior Center.
Though previous efforts never solved the community's food-access problems, Abrica has hope for the current endeavor.
"I really feel excited about this new development, particularly with community health. That was always my primary interest. It still is — getting people working on it from all different angles. ...
"I think this latest effort might be a longer-lasting effort," Abrica said.
Besides Rayson, members of the East Palo Alto Community Farmers' Market Committee includes Alderson, and leaders from the East Palo Alto Senior Center, East Palo Alto Charter School, San Mateo County Health Department, Sequoia Unified School District, Ravenswood Family Health Center, the Stanford Population Health Program and the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Eddy Lowe, an eighth-grade student at the East Palo Alto Charter School, is the youngest member of the committee. "People are noticing me as someone who wants to help with the community," said Lowe, who was inspired to participate in the organizing committee after he and a friend volunteered to go on a field trip to a farmers' market.
"Other students didn't want to go. They didn't know what it would be like," he said. The market wasn't what he thought it would be like, either, Lowe said, adding that he was pleasantly surprised. The best part was the human interaction between buyers and sellers, he said.
"The guy who was selling called us over. He said that if we bought two pounds, we'd get one free. So, we got some vegetables. It was fun," Lowe said.
The upcoming East Palo Alto market will provide interested youth like Lowe with leadership, management and internship opportunities in the area of food justice and the economics of food, Rayson said.
Support for the farmers' market runs deep not only among East Palo Altans but also among public-health experts. "[This] project represents a perfect example of the positive benefits that can result from effective collaboration among a City's residents, local government, and leaders from among the health, education, recreation, and youth services sectors," wrote Michelle Oppen, who serves as the program director for the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Center for Healthy Weight.
"We see the farmers' market as a nexus point and a catalyst for health initiatives," Alderson said, citing chronic and preventable diseases such as Type II diabetes and obesity as examples of health problems tied to both low-income and reduced access to fresh produce.
In addition to the support of health and business professionals, the farmers' market has gained the support of community spiritual leaders. Though the market is not affiliated with any one faith, Collective Roots hopes that religious leaders across East Palo Alto will encourage their members to attend the market.
Father Goode, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, is enthusiastic about the market that will soon operate outside his church's doors. "I think it will be a great thing. ... We are providing the space and we hope it works out, but it doesn't bring a dollar to the church. We hope it is a good thing for the community," he said.
Though Collective Roots seeks to reflect the tradition of agriculture in East Palo Alto, Alderson doesn't have visions of reconstructing the urban utopia of the 1920s and '30s. He wants to help bring up a new generation with an awareness of farming and the benefits of local food.
"Supporting local farmers allows food to be transported across shorter distances, reducing pollution and saving energy and money," Alderson said. "And when children learn that lemons grow on trees, you just can't put a dollar sign on that knowledge," he concluded.
For more information about Collective Roots and the upcoming farmers' market, go to www.collectiveroots.org.