In East Palo Alto, a city that has been labeled a "food desert" — a populated area where there is minimal access to healthy, affordable food — the picture is quite different.
On Wednesday afternoons in front of the Ravenswood Family Health Center on Bay Road, three vendors sell a selection of organic fruits and vegetables. Before entering the market, customers have the option to check in at a plastic desk manned by staff and volunteers of the nonprofit Collective Roots, who verify people participating in the Fresh Checks program. Fresh Checks allows anyone with a qualifying income (equivalent to the federal income standards for food stamps) to purchase $40 worth of fresh produce at the farmers market while only spending $20 in cash, food stamps, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) or Senior Brown Bag food bank checks.
The East Palo Alto Community Farmers' Market, operated by Collective Roots, is in its sixth season but still struggles to attract both vendors and customers, said Nicole Wires, Collective Roots' manager of community initiatives.
"It has and continues to be very challenging to have a farmers market, a viable farmers market, here," she said on a recent Wednesday at the market. "There's a lot of competing conflicts.
"Farmers themselves, if they can get into any other market, they'd rather go to that market. ... The first couple years of operation of our market, on a good day, a farmer would make $300. And on a good day at Cal. Ave., a farmer could make $3,000. And on a good day at Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, they could make $10,000. I mean, it's huge orders of magnitude."
A woman staffing one of the East Palo Alto tents, who was from Garcia Farms in Hollister, Calif., said that East Palo Alto's is the smallest market her family's farm sells at.
When the East Palo Alto farmers market first opened in 2008 — filling a void that had been lacking in the city since the 1980s, Wires said — it was operated by Collective Roots and for two years housed in the parking lot of St. Francis of Assisi Church on Bay Road. The following two years, Collective Roots teamed up with the YMCA, which hosted the market on Saturday afternoons.
Many people associate farmers markets with weekend mornings, when most people are off from work and can go to enjoy or shop for groceries for the upcoming week. It's a lucrative time for vendors as well. All of the larger farmers markets in the surrounding area — California Avenue, downtown Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Half Moon Bay, the Ferry Building in San Francisco — are on Saturday or Sunday mornings.
Wires said they chose Saturday afternoons in the hopes that farmers selling at California Avenue or another local market would then come to East Palo Alto with whatever they didn't sell.
But that didn't work well for East Palo Altans, who were already cooking at home with their families or otherwise occupied by the afternoon, Wires said.
The Saturday afternoon market at the YMCA was characterized by "really bad timing, really low attendance," she said.
When it comes to getting healthy food in East Palo Alto, there's more at play than physical access, Wires believes. Systemic problems such as high unemployment and poverty play a much larger role.
"For a long time there was a narrative that physical access was a barrier (to healthy food), especially in low-income communities of color," Wires said. "And people know it's more nuanced than that, but there's been a lot of research showing that even as physical access barriers are overcome, the economic access — the price, the time — those are just as significant, if not more significant.
"So as the economy has tanked and continues to be terrible for people without language skills or other technical skills that are valued in the economy right now ... I mean, despite the economic recovery, it's not being felt evenly, right? So if a lot of people still don't have employment, that's by far, in a way, a more significant contributor to their access to healthy food than whether or not there's a grocery store or a farmers market in the community."
For many, the choice between purchasing cheap fast food or junk food and expensive fresh, organic produce is not about health, but rather, saving money.
Many residents hailed the 2009 opening of Mi Pueblo, located on East Bayshore Road in the Ravenswood Shopping Center, calling it a much-needed and long-awaited void-filler when it came to access to healthy, affordable food in East Palo Alto. In theory, the arrival of the Latino-centric supermarket meant that East Palo Alto residents no longer needed to go outside of the city to shop for groceries. But many still do.
Sadie Taylor, who has lived in East Palo Alto for 46 years, said she's accustomed to going to Safeway in Menlo Park or Foods Co. in Redwood City for groceries simply because she always has. She also goes to the California Avenue farmers market, which she said has things that the East Palo Alto market doesn't.
She knows that Mi Pueblo has a lot of fresh produce but doesn't shop there often, she said. She said she doesn't know why.
Taylor also has tended to a garden of her own for the last 10 years, growing collard greens, turnips, green beans, tomatoes and more.
"(Fresh food) is very important to me," Taylor said. "Homegrown food, yes."
She called the farmers market a blessing, one of many positive changes she's seen in the almost half century she's lived in East Palo Alto.
"I appreciate it. That's another change. We never had a farmers market here before."
On the last Wednesday in July, Taylor was at the East Palo Alto market for the first time this season (it opened on April 3 and will run until Dec. 18) with her friend, Norma Gyles. Gyles, who has lived in East Palo Alto since 2005, said she also usually goes outside of East Palo Alto to buy her groceries out of habit and in search of affordable prices.
Both women agreed that even though the farmers market produce is "nice," they thought the prices can be high.
At the market that Wednesday, Garcia Farms was selling any fruit for $2 per pound and most vegetables (Brussels sprouts, carrots, tomatoes, yellow onions, cucumbers) for $1 to $1.50 per pound. There was a deal on small seedless watermelons: $3 each or two for $5.
Mi Pueblo's prices just barely undercut the farmers market's. A much larger seedless watermelon cost 47 cents per pound and a small one, $2.98 each. Peaches and mangoes cost 98 cents per pound; Roma tomatoes, $1.18 per pound; a bag of carrots for $1.28 or 58 cents each.
"They're more expensive at Mi Pueblo and they're not organic," said another farmers-market patron, Graciela Valencia. "Some of the stuff is kind of pricey (at the farmers market), but I mean, you're paying for something good that's organic."
"Doesn't have no chemicals or anything," she added, something she's aware of when she purchases groceries.
Valencia said she usually does shop at Mi Pueblo but came to the farmers market to get fresh fruit to make baby food at home for her 5-month-old son, who recently started eating solid food. The young mother of three was using Fresh Checks tokens to pay at the market. With a few left over, she planned to return the following week.
Mi Pueblo and the farmers market are not the only places to buy fresh produce in East Palo Alto. There are numerous corner stores in the area, many of them Latino, and small markets such as Country Time Market on University Avenue and Bell Street.
Country Time Market's produce section is scant, but prices are cheap. Onions go for 69 cents; mangoes, two for $1; limes, 10 for $1. On a recent afternoon, there were also apples, overripe bananas and a few moldy sweet potatoes.
"There are (markets with produce), but because they're smaller, the fruit or vegetable isn't as fresh," Delia Mercado said in Spanish at the farmers market.
Mercado said she often frequents Mi Pueblo but hasn't wanted to lately. She was put off by the news that the San Jose-based grocery chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection in late July.
Wires said that one week of a six-week Collective Roots program called Cooking Matters is dedicated to a grocery store tour in which participants are taught basic consumer literacy and how to read labels, budget and plan ahead for grocery shopping. Collective Roots leads the tour at Mi Pueblo.
"And very frequently, with longtime residents of East Palo Alto, it's the first time they've been to Mi Pueblo," Wires said. "It's very hard to know, and I don't think there's any statistics on this, but I think that a fair amount of (Mi Pueblo's) traffic, because of where it's located, is actually commuters or people passing through and not necessarily folks from the community."
Wires also mentioned that she senses some racial resentment about shopping at Mi Pueblo as a Latino specialty foods store in a community with many other racial populations.
"It's almost like it's two totally different communities living in the same place. And there's a lot of resentment between communities towards each other. And there's a lot of bonding and relationships, especially amongst young people, but language is a huge barrier, (as are) perceptions."
However, health persists as the common denominator in East Palo Alto.
"Health is always a huge motivator for people, especially families with kids," Wires said.
When asked if health is important to her, Mercado, holding a flat of fresh strawberries with one arm and her young daughter with the other, answered "of course" in Spanish.
"It's something for your entire life," she added.
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