Priced out of the market /Fresh fruit market feels the squeeze
Future murky for East Palo Alto's farmers market, now scheduled to close
On weekend mornings throughout the Midpeninsula, fruit and vegetable vendors call out from stalls brimming with small mountains of fresh produce: dark-green wavy chard and lime-green lettuces; orange carrot bunches arranged like sentinels; shapely apples and pears in crimsons and yellows.
Farmers markets are big business, spilling over in downtown spaces from Redwood City to Sunnyvale and beyond.
But not in East Palo Alto. There, despite an arguably greater need for residents to have access to fresh vegetables and fruit, the city's fledgling East Palo Alto Community Farmers' Market is close to shutting down after only a two-year run.
It's not the first time that such an enterprise has failed to gain traction in the city of 34,000. At least three other start-up farmers markets debuted in East Palo Alto in the last 30 years. All folded.
There were great hopes for the most recent iteration of the market when it launched, according to Luisa Buada, CEO of Ravenswood Family Health Center, which helped fund the venture with a Tides Foundation grant.
The idea came out of a 2006 health roundtable dedicated to improving East Palo Alto residents' health and spearheaded by East Palo Alto City Councilman Ruben Abrica. The group involved professionals, officials, residents and nonprofit groups, including Stanford and Lucile Packard Children's hospitals, Ravenswood Family Health Center and San Mateo County Department of Health.
They commissioned a study that found 27.7 percent of public-school students in grades 5, 7 and 9 were obese, according to 2004 data.
They also focused on nutrition as a key component.
They identified lack of access to fresh, healthful foods as contributing to residents' poor health, which included a high rate of diabetes as well as obesity.
A farmers market was seen as a way to provide not only fresh produce but also health education. It opened with considerable optimism.
But in February, Wolfram Alderson, then-executive director of the nonprofit charged with running the enterprise, posted this note on the market's website:
"The worst economic downturn in recent history has impacted nonprofit organizations like Collective Roots in enormous ways and makes it challenging — if not impossible — to sustain the operations of a financially costly project like the market," he wrote.
He went on to say that Collective Roots welcomed another group to fund the market; otherwise his nonprofit would seek to promote fresh produce in another way, perhaps in tandem with its gardening program at schools and homes.
East Palo Alto's market has cost between $40,000 and $70,000 per season, with money allocated for everything from staff time and developing a website to storing tents, tables and chairs, and fees and taxes to the city, according to David Kane, Collective Roots interim executive director.
A significant amount was spent on getting the word out, Kane said, as was encouraging residents to buy fresh food through the EPA Fresh Checks program, by which people receive a $5 produce voucher when they purchased $5 worth of fresh fruit and vegetables.
"Our market is costly because we are not able to collect revenue in the way farmers markets traditionally do, through stall fees," which were waived in order to entice vendors, he said.
The market has been supported by grants, mainly from the Tides Foundation, the Brin Family Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, he said.
But its not just a lack of funding that has threatened the market's viability. Supporters cite numerous other reasons for its probable demise: cultural customs, lack of a central downtown, and competition from more lucrative markets, such as Mi Pueblo Food Center, which opened in November.
The farmers-market organizers say the venture — hosted on Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. at East Palo Alto City Hall — has been successful by some measures.
Customers made 14,000 visits over 58 market days, according to Alderson.
And the fresh, wholesome food has gotten to where it's been needed most.
For example, Collective Roots used the market to provide a safety-net for the hungry by accepting government food stamps and WIC (special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children) vouchers, according to Kane.
Collective Roots also distributed more than $22,000 in farmers-market produce to families in need through the EPA Fresh Checks program, he said.
The market also helped alter people's eating habits, according to Andres Connell, director of Nuestra Casa, a nonprofit organization helping the city's Latino immigrant population.
Nuestra Casa's English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) program, which introduces thematic units to teach language and culture, used a market-themed unit to "change residents' mindsets to more body-friendly ingredients" and away from lard and frying foods, he said.
"It's an awakening process," he said.
Then there have been the social benefits of the weekly gathering spot.
Rev. Bob Hartley and his wife, Clara, sold produce from their backyard garden at the market last year. More than just vegetables will be missed, Clara Hartley said.
Hartley said the farmers market provided a means for meeting up with old friends and was a social conduit for people living in the nearby Runnymede Garden Apartments, which houses seniors and persons with disabilities.
"It's really something for people to meet up. I met a lot of people. Some, we hadn't seen each other for a year," she said.
It also helped the seniors to supplement their income, she said.
"We sold everything we could raise," she said.
Saree Mading, a Collective Roots board member, said shopping at Mi Pueblo is not the same as her forays to the farmers market.
"It was a nice time to get out and walk and get my fruits and flowers. I didn't have to spend money in another area. You see the same faces there each week and you catch up. It's about the relationships that are built," she said.
But financially, the farmers market was non-sustaining, according to Alderson.
At its height, the market could only muster four or five produce vendors and a couple of sporadically attending food trucks and artisans, he said. Roughly 260 people attended weekly during the six-month season from June to December.
In comparison, when the Downtown Palo Alto Farmers Market started in 1981 it attracted 800 people on the first day. The downtown market now has 50 vendors and hundreds of patrons, according to its website.
Farmers at East Palo Alto's market didn't make enough money to pay for stalls, so that fee was waived.
Buada said Ravenswood Family Health provided $80,000 for two years running to support the market out of a Tides Foundation grant the center received. But it is unlikely another grant could be obtained to keep the market going if so much money couldn't get it off the ground in two years.
Alderson said he couldn't attract farmers to set up stands in the city because many said they were already committed to farmers markets elsewhere.
Linda Sharg, a vendor at the California Avenue Farmers Market in Palo Alto, said the underlying reason keeping vendors away from East Palo Alto is economic.
"It's not how many people come but how much they spend," said Sharg, who works with Heirloom Organics, a Hollister-based specialty-greens business.
Farmers want to go where they can get the most money for their efforts to recoup their sizeable outlay of expenses: labor, gas and travel, she said. Palo Alto and Menlo Park offer clientele who want the more exotic specialty produce and are willing to pay a higher price.
Some people in East Palo Alto suspect those prices have kept the market from building a customer base.
Buada, of Ravenswood Family Health Center, recalled that the first time she learned of organic produce she was outraged by the higher prices.
In East Palo Alto, especially with a high-unemployment rate, residents are looking for value, she said.
"We can sit there and tell people to eat five fruits and vegetables a day but they are limited by money and working several jobs," she said.
Cultural attitudes about food and shopping habits also affected how people responded to the farmers market, Buada said. In the city's June 2007 health profile, 64 percent of survey respondents said at least one family member was foreign born.
"In many countries, in the Pacific Islands and Latin America, people go to outdoor markets where they get the cheapest vegetables because there is no middleman. Here, it's the reverse. You go to a farmers market and pay more than in a grocery store. It's illogical," she said. "There is not the cultural appreciation."
Abrica said the farmers market also has competition from the city's underground economy, which reflects the custom of how people often bought food in their native countries.
"On any given day little trucks drive into neighborhoods, roll down the back and it's like a farmers market right in the truck. The trucks are coming to people's homes," he said.
Then there's the location of the market, at the back of the City Hall parking lot. Its low-visibility has limited the number of customers, Buada and others said.
Abrica agreed, saying that the lack of a centralized downtown makes it challenging for such an enterprise.
But Abrica believes a farmers market has a future in East Palo Alto — it's a matter of having the right form. A 2006 study found that East Palo Altans spent $68 million annually on food, with much of the money spent out of the city, according to the Community Development Institute.
Economic feasibility studies completed when Mi Pueblo Food Center planned to open a full-service supermarket showed the city could sustain a second supermarket in 10 years, he said. Such statistics indicate a farmers market could survive if the right conditions were created, he said.
Kane said all across the country communities are able to support a full-service grocery store and a farmers market, and he thinks East Palo Alto can do the same thing.
He disagreed with speculation that Mi Pueblo reduced the farmers market's clientele. In the two final months of the market, attendance was higher than in the first year of operations, even with the presence of the supermarket, he said.
"It's not a deficit of support. It's a deficit of funding," he said.
Now the East Palo Alto Community Farmers' Market Organizing Committee — a group of residents, gardeners and health professionals — are looking for new ways to keep the market open and vibrant.
One possibility is to pool the produce from backyard gardens, Clara Hartley said.
About 20 people are part of the East Palo Alto Backyard Garden Network, which links backyard food producers who share ideas, gardening tips and other agricultural knowledge, she said. The network is organized and aided by Collective Roots.
Lauretta Bennett, another resident, said proponents plan to meet and brainstorm. The group is looking at trying to find someone to take ownership of the market or approach local hospitals for funding as part of the public-health strategy for healthful eating, she said.
Bennett said she became involved with the farmers market after attending a San Mateo County Health Department meeting on the topic.
"We were devastated," she said of hearing about the market's likely closure.
Among other possible futures: A market composed more of backyard farmers. In smaller communities where residents have less disposable income, viable markets offer non-certified crops or more local neighborhood growers, according to Sharg, the California Avenue vendor. In San Francisco, where she lives, the Alemany, Fillmore and Civic Center markets offer lower-cost produce, she said.
At the very least, Abrica has hopes that the next generation of East Palo Alto residents, largely including those born in the United States who do not have the agricultural backgrounds of their parents, will support a farmers market.
Buada said that assessment has some basis. In Oakland, where second and third generations of immigrant parents are now coming of age, there is a willingness to try other less-familiar foods, she said.
The next time around, the farmers market could also get more direct support from city government, Abrica said.
The city has been looking into ways to incorporate a healthy-community policy into the city's strategic plans. A farmers market could play a part.
For now, "There are lots of pieces floating around and no one really has the answer," he said.
POSSIBLE DROP QUOTES:
'It's not a deficit of support. It's a deficit of funding.'
— David Kane, interim executive director for Collective Roots
'It's not how many people come but how much they spend.'
— Linda Sharg, a vendor at the California Avenue Farmers Market in Palo Alto
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at email@example.com.