By Adriana Palominos

When a farmers market came to Mariachi Plaza in the summer of 2009, local residents welcomed it as a healthy alternative to poor food shopping options in Boyle Heights.

Although it began with a large number of produce vendors, including several organic farmers, the market no longer offers a variety of produce, nor does it appear to attract big crowds.  In contrast, markets thrive in nearby communities, such as downtown and East Los Angeles, where farmers offer a variety of organic produce.

When Boyle Heights Beat visited the Boyle Heights Farmers’ Market in Spring 2011 28 vendors were offering prepared foods and assorted fruits and vegetables. On a Friday afternoon this spring, there were only nine vendors, and most were selling makeup, clothing and other non-edible merchandise.

Six merchants were selling along the southeastern edge of Mariachi Plaza, including a woman selling homemade mole. On adjoining Bailey Street, there were two prepared food vendors and a single stand selling non-organic produce at wholesale prices.

Satina Woods, a 36-year-old Boyle Heights resident, was one of about half a dozen customers who visited the produce stand during an hour-long period that day. Woods said it was her first visit to the market, as she picked out carrots and blueberries. “I like to support the farmers here and the community,” says Woods, “I believe it’s a better deal, and you get fresher stuff than what you get at the stores.”

Just one produce stand makes a certified farmers market

Leticia Medina and her family run that produce stand. Medina’s son, Robert Rentería, said some of the original vendors left the Mariachi Plaza market because they were upset about sometimes being displaced by special events. When vendors stopped showing up, he said, customers also stayed away.

“The problem is getting the business back,” complained Rentería, who said rainy spring weather hasn’t helped. “There isn’t any business. There isn’t any reason for vendors to be here.”

Rentería said his mother has been able to stay in business because their wholesale produce is affordable and targets a specific segment of the population. “You get a lot of people that want organic, and we are not organic, we are wholesale. And then you got the Latino population, and they say, ‘Oh, my God, this is fresh, and it is cheaper than the market.’”

Tonie Juárez, the businesswoman who runs the Boyle Heights market, said she is constantly trying to line up more produce vendors. “We’re still trying. We’re not giving up,” she said. Her permit to operate is contingent on having at least one produce vendor, she said.

 “As long as we have Leticia, the Mendez Produce, we’re good,” Juárez said. “Once we don’t have her, then I won’t have the certificate to be a farmers market.”

According to Juárez, the produce vendors who left were too expensive for most customers. Incentives that help make produce affordable in other low-income neighborhoods haven’t caught on here, she says.

Juárez  said that when she began the market with a group of friends, the idea was that it would be a self-sustaining venture. She leases Mariachi Plaza from Metro and got permission from Councilman José Huízar’s office to close Bailey Street to traffic.  Vendors pay a weekly fee–$50 for prepared food sellers and $20 for sellers of merchandise.   The market operates on Fridays from 3 to 9 p.m.

Non-profit farmers markets attract more customers

Juárez, who has run Eastside markets for over two decades, said not all neighborhoods can support such ventures. She recently closed a six-month-old market in El Sereno. On the other hand, she recently reopened a market in East Los Angeles’ Salazar Park, where she first began 24 years ago, an indication that demand can rise and fall over time.

That will put her in direct competition with another market operating Saturday mornings at the East Los Angeles Civic Center, where over a dozen vendors are divided almost evenly between certified farmers and non-certified vendors.  Contrasting sharply with the Boyle Heights Farmers Market, the market has far more vendors of produce, plus prepared food, nuts and Mexican candies and even arts and crafts.

Established in 2006, the East Los Angeles Market is run by Volunteers of East Los Angeles (VELA). Because it is operated as a non-profit, the market does not charge its vendors.

Manager Jairo Chavarría says the East Los Angeles Farmers market is able to thrive in the community because it allows customers to use various forms of payment, including EBT (electronic payment from the CalFresh program) and WIC vouchers for fruit and vegetables. People who receive these and other benefits, such as Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), can receive up to $10 in vouchers for produce through the Market Match program, sponsored by Hunger Action Los Angeles. “The way it works is if [customers] give us $5 in cash, they get $10 in coupons,” said Chavarría.

Juárez said she tried the Market Match program in Boyle Heights, but it was unsuccessful.  She even tried the USDA Farmers Market Nutrition program, which distributes vouchers to senior citizens, but  “they wouldn’t even cash in the coupons.”

Juárez  said she has been more successful with a second  “international” market held at Mariachi Plaza on Sunday afternoons, with live music and other entertainment.  Holiday events for Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day and Día de los Muertos, among others, have also boosted sales on Sundays.

“It’s very important, because we bring the community together every Sunday,” she said. “It’s a family place to come and shop and stay and talk to friends and dance.”

Juarez claims that the Friday market gets about 100 to 150 customers over a six-hour period. The Sunday market, she says, draws between 300 and 400 people. She has considered closing down the Friday Farmers Market, but says the suggestion upset many of her vendors, including the 92-year-old woman who sells the mole.

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *