Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Charles Drew University, partners open South LA's newest farmers market with help from federal grant

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South L.A.'s newest farmers market officially opened its doors Friday morning in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the parking lot of Crenshaw Christian Center.

The market – the official name of which is the Vermont Village CDC, Heritage Education Group and Charles Drew University Farmers Market – will take place there every Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

To celebrate its first day, the new farmers market gave free food to the first 200 customers, and also offered free HIV testing, diabetes screening and flu shots.

But none of it would have happened if Charles Drew University professor Cynthia Davis hadn't taught some of her students a grantwriting course.

Establishing the market

Davis has worked at Drew for more than 28 years, and has taught in their public health program since 2008. Last January, her grad students decided they wanted their capstone project to be the development of a farmers market in South Los Angeles.

"This part of South L.A., SPA [service planning area] 6, is a food desert," she said. "Close to 33 percent of the adults in SPA 6 are suffering from obesity. There are issues of access to fresh fruits and vegetables."

Although the area technically isn't a food desert, fresh, healthy food is still pretty hard to come by. Davis worked her connections at Crenshaw Christian Center to secure a venue for a market, but they needed cash. So she and her students submitted a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in May of last year. For a while, they didn't hear back, which was enough to prompt Davis to start looking for other funding sources.

Then in September, the USDA notified them they'd been awarded a one-year grant for the establishment of a South L.A. farmers market, in the amount of $81,240.

Davis and her students were ecstatic.

"There's a lack of these kind of services in our community," she said. "And you're talking about over 1 million people who live in SPA 6 and the fact that we only have four farmers markets – but then we have the highest morbidity and mortality across the the board with chronic illnesses: obesity, cancer, heart disease."

Farmers markets, said Davis, increase access to healthy food.

"They let consumers know that you do have some alternative choices other than fast food," she said.

The funding will get the new market through September, which means Davis is already looking for more money.

"This is going to generate revenue," she said. "We're hoping that enough revenue will be generated so it becomes self-sustaining." But just in case it doesn't, Davis is seeking private and public funding. She's already got a request in to L.A. County.

"We don't want this to end after a year, for all this work to go down the drain," she said.

Market standards

Early Friday morning, Pa Thao woke up and began a four-hour commute from her family's 20-acre farm in Fresno to the parking lot at Crenshaw Christian Center.

"I plant, I harvest, I sell," she said, adding that except for a few weeks when she'll need to help manage the harvest, she plans to vend her produce at the farmers market every week.

"A lot of people are becoming more and more health-conscious," she said. "Thank God for that."

Thao is one of the vendors managed by Bing Turner, the market's manager. This isn't the Compton native's first rodeo – he worked on five farmers market before taking the reins on this one.

"You want to make sure you have a familial and collegial atmosphere," he said. "The way the farmers respond to the people that work at the market, the way they respond to the community reflects the entire market."

As manager, Turner says his job is to ensure quality and keep track of logistics. Part of that is enforcing internal health standards – they're aiming for the market to be 50 percent agriculture and 50 percent community vendors, "to make sure there's a balance there."

Also, anyone selling cooked food has to offer vegetarian, low-sodium and low-fat options. Turner also says it's important for him to "drive the market to the community." To that end, shoppers can pay with EBT.

"We want to make sure the prices reflect the needs of the community," he said.

Turner said the organizers of this farmers market consider it a "health intervention."

"Some people look at farmers markets as ways of bringing the community together – that's nice," he said. "Some people look at them as country-fying the community, as the 'good old days.' But our focus is purely looking at ways of how to intervene in communities of color that suffer from obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and how we can make an impact."

Thao, for her part, says the reason she plans to make the trip every week is simple.

"I want to share," she said. "I'm third-generation in this family business. And I want to share a little piece of my family with everyone else."

As for any prospective customers, Thao's got a recommendation.

"Winter carrots," she said, pointing to the stack on her table. "They're the best all year round. Nothing beats winter carrots. They are the sweetest."

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