Alkali Flat gets fresh

Nonprofit group Alchemist set to launch urban farm stand in J. Neely Johnson Park

Next week’s topic: green blogs

Since the closing of Albertson’s doors at 23rd and F streets in 2006, the historic Sacramento neighborhood of Alkali Flat has been left wanting for reasonable access to quality food.

“We’ve heard this over and over, that the neighborhood would just love to have a Trader Joe’s or a good market,” says Lisa Nelson, board president of community development corporation Alchemist. After a visioning session with residents in April of last year, the need for nearby food sources in the area became clearer than ever. With many dependent upon the 12th Street light-rail corridor for transportation, traveling any sort of distance can be time-consuming and costly for some and impossible for others, leaving corner stores as the only option for sustenance.

Alchemist says this simply isn’t good enough.

“They’re bodegas,” argues Jonelle Bobillot, Alchemist’s development director. “You can get some dusty macaroni and cheese and a soda. If you can find fresh produce at all, it’s nasty.”

Well, a partial solution is in the works. Under the guidance of Dan Best, head of the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets, Alchemist is gearing up to open what is known as an urban farm stand at J. Neely Johnson Park at 11th and F streets starting on Tuesday, July 10 from 4 to 7 p.m. In an area the size of Alkali Flat, it is difficult to sustain a true farmers’ market, with Best having witnessed things of similar size start and fail. Instead of a full-blown market, an urban farm stand—permits do not require the presence of the growers themselves—is a much more feasible option. Over a year in the making, Bobillot acknowledges the amount of “baby steps” required in its conception. “You feel like you’re running in place a lot of the time.”

The farm stand will offer seasonal fruits and vegetables. While currently set up to sell only conventional produce, Bobillot and volunteers are in the process of working with the Growers Collaborative to determine the demand for providing organics, as well. And all will be in support of local farms. In fact, fruits and vegetables to be found at Tuesday’s opening will be delivered from the same farmers who are at that morning’s farmers’ market in Fremont Park.

“One of the goals of this is not only to provide fresh produce, but to create community space and use that park more. It’s been getting better, but it used to be a real haven for drug trafficking,” says Nelson.

In addition, local artists and craftspeople are invited to share their talents at the event, with a wide variety slated to sell their wares, from jewelers to soap makers. “We’ve even got someone who wants to come out and do free portraits of people,” says Bobillot. As the market gains momentum, musicians likely will be added to the agenda of activities.

Other community groups have had their interests piqued by the possibilities for outreach in the area. Organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, Organic Sacramento, WEAVE and Women’s Health Specialists all have expressed interest in working with the urban farm stand to have an eventual presence in the park during the market event.

Support from Mayor Heather Fargo and Council member Ray Tretheway has paved the way for permitting, as well as a temporary food facility, supplies varying from canopies to a children’s bounce house, and necessary funding for the 501(c)3 to fully realize the vision for Neely Park.

Alchemist’s members view the farm stand to be the catalyst that will set many more things in motion for the Flat, which has been targeted for redevelopment for over 20 years. “The great thing is the neighborhood association, PAC, and Alchemist are all trying to fight gentrification, yet make the neighborhood better. So I’m really hopeful for the future of Alkali Flat,” said Nelson.

“It’s very clear what the community wants, and they aren’t things that are incompatible with redevelopment or even with economic interest from the outside,” Nelson continued. “But how much better [will it be] if we can make it local, if we can employ people, if we can work with the community? It can be a local coffee shop instead of a Starbucks.”

Then there’s the added hope that the Neely Park urban food stand will inspire an even bigger ball to get rolling. Nelson, Bobillot and Best want the project to become a model for similar future endeavors, where the same problems exist regarding food access in other areas not big enough to sustain full-scale markets. “We’ll learn a lot from this first time around,” says Nelson. There’s this idea of participatory research, which is, basically, by doing the research, you’re also changing the community. You as the observer are right in the mix. We’ve been involved in Alkali Flat only because we’re a small organization and can only do so much, but I think in our brains, Sacramento proper is our service area.”

So what of Alchemist itself? Says Bobillot: “Organizations like Alchemist are great, because they can come in and say, ‘We’re young, we have energy, and we’ll listen to you.’”

“Part of a being in community development is letting the community decide,” Nelson says.

Bobillot agrees and chimes in: “We need to stay malleable. Who knows where we might end up?”