Her first time at HB Mercado Certified Farmer's Market in Huntington Beach, Vianey Ramirez pushed a stroller by the stands, not sure whether she'd buy anything. But before she knew it, she was busy loading bags of produce into the stroller, cramming fruits and vegetables under the seat and even fitting a few items on the canopy.
"I buy a lot," Ramirez said, sounding a little surprised during a recent visit as she ticked off her items, which totaled $20 and included oranges, apples, chiles and tomatoes. And she bought it all with a check from the federal Women, Infants, and Children program earmarked for use at farmers markets.
The ability to pay using public assistance funds is one important way to make farmers markets, which traditionally have served high-end customers, an option for lower-income shoppers. It's one of the strategies that HB Mercado is using to bolster access to fresh produce for residents of the Oak View neighborhood.
Sometimes known pejoratively as the "Slater Slums," Oak View lies within walking distance of HB Mercado, held at Ocean View High School from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
Four months after opening, the market is small but lively, with 14 vendors and a modest though steady stream of customers. If HB Mercado succeeds, it could go a long way toward improving one community's daily diet, which might make a difference in obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
But success is far from guaranteed. Farmers markets fail almost as often as they spring up, according to research by Oregon State University. Markets intended for low-income customers are especially challenging, experts say. Goods can be pricey, and customers have less to spend. In addition, farmers need to make a profit, which depends on a high volume of customers.
"It takes time to get shoppers," said Ashley Hiestand of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, which runs farmers markets serving low-income shoppers in LA. "We work with small, family farmers sometimes traveling great distances. … We have to make sure it's worth it for the farmers."
Vela, a community organization contracted to manage HB Mercado, is generating traffic through Facebook and fliers and by sending representatives to schools and community events. Juan Gonzalez, Vela's market manager, fosters a lively atmosphere with the help of raffles, face painting, people in vegetable costumes, music and a food stand memorable for its cactus tacos.
Vela also invites community groups to set up tables and has arranged for medical and dental vans to treat patients on site. But Gonzales said he needs to attract more Oak View residents to the market.
"It's been a challenge. There are some misconceptions that pricing is a little high," he said. "Our customers buy products from the local grocery store not knowing the quality. Everything we have is fresh. We're still trying to educate and address these misconceptions."
Luckily for many of the market's customers, HB Mercado vendors offer many reasonable options. Examples on a recent day included $1 for a sizeable bag of tomatoes, strawberries at $2 a basket, six Ruby Star grapefruit for $2 and a bag of three peppers (green, red and yellow) for $1.
But what really pleased shopper June Vallace of Huntington Beach was three bunches of asparagus for $5 — not the tough, thick stalks but, as her friend Kathy Oliver said, "the yummy, skinny stuff."
Both Vallace and Oliver have begun making it a habit to stop by HB Mercado on Saturdays.
"We love it," Vallace said. "We've been here before. We come for the tacos. They have beautiful produce."
Shoppers from outside Oak View such as Vallace and Oliver are vital to the market's success, explained Iosefa Alofaituli, executive director of the Oak View Renewal Partnership, a nonprofit organization that launched the market. The market's location on well-traveled Warner Avenue makes it highly visible to Huntington Beach traffic, so it draws a cross section of residents.
"That's part of our philosophy," Alofaituli said, echoing recommendations by experts to put markets in locations that can serve both low- and middle-income customers.
But the benefits of such a location can create a dilemma as well. "It's a challenge to serve the specific population right there in Oak View but also try to encourage people from the surrounding area to shop at the market," said Gillian Poe of the OC Food Access Coalition.
According to Hiestand, who manages a farmers market in Watts, low-income shoppers are more likely to need staples than exotic and expensive offerings. And the food must be culturally appropriate, she and other experts say.
Gonalez knows this well and regularly talks to Oak View residents about their shopping needs. "I'm mostly hearing, 'When are you going to bring in chile serrano?' " Gonzales said. Oak View residents also want fresh bread and tortillas, which are in the works.
By contrast, shoppers from outside Oak View have requested organic products, which demand a more expensive and time-consuming certification process that leads to higher prices.
As in many farmers markets, vendors at HB Mercado pay part of their proceeds to market organizers such as the Oak View partnership, which raised donations to start the market. The plan is to break even within a year of opening so that revenues can go to the partnership as well as to Ocean View High School, which is providing the space.
HB Mercado is like any venture in which you invest capital and effort and hope to recoup costs and generate revenue, said retired executive and philanthropist Jack Shaw, president of the Oak View partnership. But the market serves a purpose beyond putting healthful food on the table, important as that may be, he said.
It also helps break down Oak View's status as a nearly hidden, little-known pocket of poverty in what is known as "Surf City."
"The greater Huntington Beach community should know Oak View exists," he said, "and Oak View should be part of the greater community."
Amy DePaul is a freelance writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at email@example.com