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The Farmers Market Challenge in Southeastern SD

The opening of a new farmers market in a low-income neighborhood
was a reason to celebrate. Now organizers face the real challenge:
making it work.

Friday’s grand opening of a farmers market on Euclid Avenue near Market Street was a reason to celebrate: It’s the first in southeastern San Diego since the 1990s and the product of several years’ work by a small nonprofit to increase the availability of fresh produce in one of the city’s low-income areas.

As twilight settled to the hum of a live cello performance, residents and community leaders were all smiles.

Spring Valley resident Sheila Small was impressed by the turnout as she walked through the crowd with a Salvadoran pupusa in hand and her two young grandchildren in tow. She had just one complaint.

“I did expect more fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Toward the back stood the market’s only two fresh produce stands, one offering heads of lettuce grown hydroponically in a front yard in Golden Hill, and the other broccoli, greens, and cabbage grown by refugees at the New Roots Community Farm in City Heights.

Diane Moss, the market’s director, said attracting farmers to the market was her single greatest challenge, and her single greatest objective.

Local farmers clamor for a chance to set up booths at markets in other parts of the city, like Hillcrest, where organic produce commands top prices and where crowds are often so thick that maneuvering through can be a challenge. But not at this market in southeastern San Diego.

“For smaller farmers, this is their livelihood,” Moss said. “When you combine that with what people think of southeastern San Diego, that’s something the farmers don’t want to risk.”

That “something” is the perception that a farmers market won’t succeed in a minority community like this, where unemployment is high and expendable income scarce.

In fact, the challenges facing the Southeast Farmers Market mirror the challenges facing the communities surrounding it. They’ve been plagued for decades by a deterioration of economic activity as businesses have moved out and been replaced by vacant lots.

Elected officials and community activists have tried with limited success to convince businesses and developers to move into the area, much like Moss has struggled to attract farmers to sell produce at the new market.

The market operates on a vacant lot owned by the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a major nonprofit that’s based there and has bought almost 60 acres of land in the area. It hopes to develop the land to jumpstart the surrounding neighborhoods’ economic revitalization — something that could be slow in coming if left to for-profit developers who find the area unattractive.

Moss thinks the lack of interest by farmers to sell at her market requires a similar response, at least at first: Community food activists will have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. If all goes well, farmers at a planned community garden nearby will be able to sell their produce at the market next year, and refugees and other farmers from the City Heights farm will continue selling there.

But the barriers to success are many, and they include convincing local residents to do at least some of their shopping at the market. One incentive is a county program for residents receiving food stamps, disability insurance or assistance for new mothers. It offers up to $20 in additional money — in the form of wooden tokens — to residents who contribute some of their assistance dollars, or their own cash, to buy produce.

Mallory Cochrane, the coordinator of the Fresh Fund program, was optimistic at the start of the day, but by the end of the market not a single resident had signed up for the program. She said that was disappointing, but that success would depend on spreading the word about the program, which is “free money every month.”

The real challenge for the market’s success will be on display this Friday and in the Fridays to come, as excitement about the grand opening wears off and many of the community leaders and activists from other parts of the city begin to trickle away, leaving success up to actual residents.

Moss said she and her organization, Project New Village, plan to go door to door to promote the market. She said she’s aware of how hard it will be, but is hopeful, especially if the nearby community garden — which she’s also organizing — gets up and running.

“I’m seeing neighbors who have been waiting for this a long time,” Moss said. “This is just a starting point.”

Adrian Florido recommends the Salvadoran pupusas for sale at the Southeast Farmers Market. He also took the photos in this post. You can contact directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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