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New farmers market tackles South LA's 'food deserts' at a local hospital

Javonne Sanders, left, serves salads and juice using fresh produce with her local business, Toss It Up. Emily Dugdale/KPCC

A farmers market opening Wednesday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in the Willowbrook neighborhood of South Los Angeles is the first in the county to open on a hospital campus. 

It’s small – just ten or so vendors clustered under tents outside the hospital entrance. But the staff here says it will make a big difference.

The hospital serves over a million people in an area with the highest death rate related to diabetes in the county. It's also an "amputation hotspot" due to complications from untreated diabetes.

Yolanda Vera, chief executive officer of the hospital outpatient center, said only one out of ten adults here eats enough servings of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

"This is a very sick community," she said, listing diabetes, blood pressure and untreated illnesses as just some of the persistent health issues. 

The new farmers market is part of their efforts to knock this area off the list of L.A's "food deserts" – places with a lack of access to grocery stores and fresh produce. 

"We want to make it as simple as possible for our patients and for our seniors to access fruits and vegetables," she said. 

She gestured around at the crowd of hospital staff, locals and patients browsing through produce and artisanal food items for sale. 

"What you see if you stand here is this wonderful community that is so resilient," she said. "We're all focused on how to heal, and how to nourish this community."

Local district Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas worked to partner the farmers market with Market Watch, a California program that in July received a $3.9 million dollar federal grant to encourage low-income shoppers to buy fresh produce.


"This is a community where the health challenges are most profound," he said. "We emphasize wellness, but we also emphasize that in the context of prevention, and fundamental to that is nutrition."

James Haydu, executive director of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles – the owner and operator of the farmers market – said that last week at the "soft-launch" of the market, every single vendor sold out an hour before it closed. 

"I think that speaks to the absolute need for a venue for fresh food access in underserved areas, South Los Angeles in particular," he said. 

The fact that the market can partner with Market Match is also huge, he says. The organization matches dollar-for-dollar up to 10 dollars for farmers market customers who use EBT or food stamps. 

Javonne Sanders is one of the vendors at the new market. Her South L.A. business Toss It Up sells salads, juice and more using fresh produce. 

"I realized there was no healthy salad bars or any alternative health eating places that we could go to," she said.

The MLK Campus market is her first farmers market – and she's thrilled to be here. 

"I think it's perfect," she says. "It gives the patients, the members of the hospital and employees the opportunity to come down, interact with entrepreneurs like myself and enjoy something healthy."

Georgia Stewart lives nearby and was here at hospital to pick up her medications, but she's now taking full advantage of a stack of fresh peaches from Ken's Produce in Reedley, CA. 

"It’s a treat to come over here to look at the different items that they have," she said. "And I was going to go grocery shopping after I left here as well!"

She's standing next to a table of colorful vegetables, and Supervisor Ridley-Thomas is eyeing it. 

"We're just ecstatic that we've gotten this off the ground, and I can't wait to run down that aisle and grab me some fruit and vegetables," he said. 

The market will be open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.