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Food-security programs offer farmers and farmers markets an opportunity to broaden their customer base























Food security is almost as much about education and 'consciousness- raising' as nutrition.




























What each box from the Gardena Market Basket program contained on Nov. 2, 1996. The cost is either $13, $10 or $7, depending on the recipient’s ability to pay.

1 head cauliflower
1 lb. tomatoes
1 lb. Kentucky Wonder green beans
1 bunch carrots
1 lb. squash
1 bunch radishes
1 head red leaf lettuce
2 onions
4 Fuji apples
1 lb. Red Flame grapes
4 oranges
1 lb. plums

In Search of Food Security

Farmers Markets Are Helping to Create a New Urban Food Distribution System

By Morris Newman

Residents of a housing project in Watts are holding discussions about how to make money by selling the produce from a newly created community garden. 

Michelle Mascarenhas at the Gardena market

Far to the north, in the city of Livingston in Merced County, about 50 households -- some migrant farm workers and some Hmong tribespeople -- receive a box each week of fresh fruits and vegetables grown by one of their neighbors. And in the City of Gardena in Los Angeles County, about 15 families are currently paying a small amount weekly to receive pre- packaged baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables purchased at the local farmer’s market.

Seemingly disparate, these three scenarios have a common theme: each is an example of a concept called community food security, which holds that all people should have access to high-quality, fresh produce. The policy targets working-class and low-income people who traditionally have had fewer choices, and more obstacles, to buying fresh fruits and vegetables at competitive prices.

Access to food is the chief problem of inner city residents "because of the lack of markets and supermarket redlining," according to Andy Fisher, coordinator of the Community Food Security Coalition, a group that lobbied for the enactment in the summer of 1996 of a Los Angeles city food-security ordinance.

Although food-security is a nascent policy, funded programs exist on federal, state and local levels. These programs represent opportunities for both farmers and operators of farmers markets to broaden their customer base and geographic coverage alike. Perhaps more importantly, food-security programs are creating new market structures that provide a direct connection between the farmer and the consumer, including -- but not limited to -- farmers markets.

Supporters of food security emphasize that the effort is not a donation-based hunger program. "What food security efforts try to do is to build relationships between different groups related to food, such as community gardens and farmers markets," said Marion Kalb, executive director of the Southland Farmers Market Association.

To Gail Feenstra, a food-systems analyst with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California in Davis, food security is almost as much about education and "consciousness-raising" as nutrition. "The only way that people are going to understand where their food comes from, and to understand the environmental and human consequences of our food production system, is to form direct connections between producers and consumers," she said.

Food security goes beyond food production and marketing, according to Kalb. On the city level, she said, food security policies might take many different forms, from re-routing bus lines to make stops at supermarkets to waiving utility fees for water used in community gardens. "Instead of looking at the negatives, we look at the people, the resources and the land, and go from there," Kalb said.

Los Angeles Ordinance

In Los Angeles, the food-security movement gained momentum June 18, 1996, when the City Council approved the Los Angeles Food Security and Hunger Policy. The policy provides $280,000 in funding for the next four years. An 18-member commission, the members of which are to be named in November, are charged with ensuring that all residents of Los Angeles have access to fresh, affordable and nutritious food, including the "non-standard" produce items favored by different ethnic groups.

Although several other cities -- including Hartford, Conn., St. Paul, Minn., Austin, Tex., and Knoxville, Tenn. -- have already adopted food-security ordinances, the Los Angeles ordinance has been described as having special significance, in light of the city’s enormous size and population.

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture entered the food-security arena, as well, by providing $1 million in grants, and pledging another $2.5 million in future funding, to 13 community projects nationwide, including two community- based efforts in California. (The funding is part of the Community Food Security Act signed into law in April 1996).

One recipient of a federal grant is the Watts project, sponsored by the Southland Farmers Market Association. The project received $64,000 to train community gardeners in farming and production techniques, to increase the availability of locally grown fresh produce, and to provide economic opportunities for low-income gardeners.

Currently, local residents and Southland officials are discussing ways to market the produce of the farm. Kalb contemplates a farm stand that would function as a sort of produce clearinghouse, purchasing produce from some growers, and selling it to other residents.

The other California recipient of the USDA grant is a pair of projects in the San Joaquin Valley. A group called CSA West, affiliated with UC Santa Cruz, has received $45,000, along with a pair of local organizations to promote the concept of Community-Supported Agriculture projects (commonly called CSAs) in the cities of Salinas and Livingston.

"The CSA model involves one principal farm linking with numerous families, who receive a weekly supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season," said Jered Lawson, project manager for CSA West.

In Livingston, a city in Merced County with a large population of ethnic Hmong tribespeople from Southeast Asia, the goals are "food assistance" as well as food security. With the assistance of Casa de la Dignidad, a program run by Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, the local farmer is Maria Ines Catalan, who cultivates about three acres of chayote, nopales, onions, red peppers, broccoli, potatoes, beets, carrots, corn and "everything that is appropriate to the season," according to Lawson. Participating families pay about $15 for the produce boxes, although Lawson said he would like to lower the price.

A similar program, Gardena Market Basket, operates in the South Bay region of Los Angeles County. A cooperative effort of the Southland Farmers Market Association and UCLA’s Pollution Prevention, Education and Research Center, the Market Basket currently provides about 15 families with a pre-packed bag of seasonal produce. The produce bag, which can be picked up at a central location in the city, commands any of three different prices, depending on the ability of buyers to pay: $13, $10 or $7. Program director Michelle Mascarenhas said she hopes up to 50 households will take part in the Market Basket eventually.

Mascarenhas described Market Basket, which has been operational for a year, as a pilot project. She is actively exploring different avenues of distribution, such as drop offs at day-care centers. "These are people who spend a lot of time at home and do not have time to shop, but need a steady supply of fresh produce, especially fruits and vegetables for little kids," she said. "We need a place where people can pick up produce and their kids at the same time."

The Gardena farmers market functions as a discount supplier for Market Basket. Participating farmers sell produce to the program at a 15-percent discount. The proceeds from the sale of the baskets are split between the cost of food and the costs of running the program.

Women and Infant Children Program

Farmers markets are central to another federal food security effort, this time funded through the Women and Infant Children program. The program provides coupons that can be redeemed only at farmers markets. Although the program has severe financial limits -- participants are given only $20 worth of coupons annually -- the end-result is often a change in market behavior, according to Kalb.

"We found that 60 percent of women who initially shop at farmers markets end up staying at those markets and continuing to buy produce there," even after the coupons run out, she said.

Market Basket is funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, which was created by a 1986 state law. The program makes grants on a competitive basis to groups involved in improving food production and distribution, including farmers, researchers and non-profits that encourage sustainable agriculture. Funding for the program comes from both the state and the University of California.

While Feenstra of the sustainable agriculture program applauds the early success of distribution efforts like Gardena Market Basket, she is clearly intrigued by the idea of encouraging people to farm, and using farmers markets as the vehicles for an alternative way of distributing food while providing at least some economic benefit to small growers. To Feenstra, the issue is one of "community empowerment."

"The kinds of programs that we are interested in -- and this is where farmers markets come in -- are those in which you are actually empowering people to make some of their own food, and," she emphasized, "to get some return for it, as well."


Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef