Vegetables and Violence: The challenges of operating a farmers market in South Los Angeles

Published on
November 22, 2011

If Maria Aguirre were to walk the third mile from where she works to the Watts Healthy Farmers Market, she would pass through seven different gang territories.

Ted Watkins Park, where the market is held every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is surrounded by gangs. "Every area is just covered," said Aguirres, the community outreach project manager for the Kaiser Permanente Watts Counseling and Learning Center, which helps to fund and promote the market. On Saturday, she showed this year's California Health Journalism Fellows a block-by-block map of gang territory in South Los Angeles, a tapestry of colors that represent various sects of Crips and Bloods. Aguirre counted nine different gangs that touch the borders of the park.

That might help explain why the farmers market's 500 to 600 customers each Saturday are mostly Latino women and their young children and elderly people. Many customers have teenage sons, said Aguirre, but chose not to bring them for safety's sake.

Dr. Maxine Liggins, Area Medical Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, one of the market's partners, said that Watts is a community in evolution. Until the 1990s, it was largely an African American neighborhood, but by 2000, more than 60 percent of its residents were Latino, mostly from Mexico and Central America. One challenge for programs in shared spaces like the farmers market is to integrate these diverse groups. The market's organizers have had a difficult time attracting African American customers, which they speculate has to do with safety as well as a lack of cultural familiarity with buying fresh produce from outdoor markets.

"It has to do with community investment. It has to do with how safe you feel in your community and how much a part of your community you feel," Liggins said. "Hopefully, we'll come out of this with more unity."

[The slides that Liggins presented to the fellows, above, show data about disparities in income and health between South and West Los Angeles.]

Kaiser Permanente and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health were among a slew of partners that opened the Watts Healthy Farmers Market in 2007. Ashley Hiestand, site manager of the market, which is run by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, says that the market serves the needs of both farmers who need to earn a living and a community that is almost literally starved for fresh food. Watts has just two grocery stores for more than 30,000 people in one of Los Angeles' most poverty-stricken districts. The food gap is filled by cheap calories from abundant fast-food joints, and the dubious selection of goods at corner markets and liquor stores.

Watts Healthy Farmers Market (photo by Angilee Shah)"I'm really tired of people blaming the consumers," Hiestand told the Fellows. She does not think the farmers market is the solution to food access problems in Watts, but she hopes it is a step toward better nutrition and health education in the community. The market offers its patrons health screenings, vaccinations, and accepts payment from government assistance programs including Electronic Benefits Cards (EBT, or food stamps) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) coupons. A grant allows the market to offer match every EBT dollar with an extra dollar for shoppers to spend.

"We're selling high-priced fresh food," said Liggins. "Matching funds are necessary in a situation where you want people to eat healthy but the price of healthy foods is high."

Aguirre acknowledged that an outdoor farmers market can be a tough sell, even to her own parents. "I know that the market is too expensive for some. I know that some people will stay indoors," she said. Still, the Watts Healthy Farmers Market is growing: It began with just a few hundred customers and three stands. Now, the shoppers are coming in greater numbers and finding nine to 12 stands with a larger variety of produce and prepared foods.

And Liggins has hope for Watts' future and for continued growth of its market. "The generation that's coming up is far more color-blind, far more sexual-equality oriented -- they just don't have the issues that a generation before them had," she said.

Learn more about food access in South Los Angeles: 

In South Los Angeles, Disparities in Health, Access to Healthy Food Persist 

An Eye-Opening Visit to Watts

Can we give our kids a healthy lunch?

Food and race issues in South Los Angeles were captured in the 2008 documentary The Garden, featuring Rufina Juarez, volunteer with the South Central Famers, who also spoke with the fellows. The film is streamed on Netflix.