Fruits, vegetables and red tape

Del Paso Heights almost gets a much-needed farmer’s market, but city codes derail the effort

Kristina Froats and her daughter Charmell must take a combination of buses and light rail just to get to the grocery store and back.

Kristina Froats and her daughter Charmell must take a combination of buses and light rail just to get to the grocery store and back.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Kristina Froats is exhausted. Standing at a bus stop in the afternoon heat, the 4-foot-11-inch single mom holds her toddler, a diaper bag, a stroller and a bagful of groceries. She’s been waiting 30 minutes for a bus to take her home to her apartment in Del Paso Heights.

Froats, 22, has spent her entire day like this, hopping from bus to light rail and back again. As she struggles back onto the bus, nobody offers to help. She’s instead met with a few dirty looks and an overtired child.

All this for one bag of fruit and vegetables.

“I cannot stress enough how difficult it is,” she says.

When her refrigerator is empty, Froats has a choice: plan an entire day around a trip to a downtown farmer’s market or major supermarket, or walk to the nearest and only grocer in her immediate neighborhood, a mini-mart stocked with old produce.

“It bothers me that I can’t be one of those people that has the mom and dad and car to run to the store,” Froats says. “It’s exhausting, and it’s embarrassing.”

Froats is not alone. In 2000, the Sacramento City Hunger Commission published a report that found a large number of Del Paso and North Sacramento residents struggling to get decent produce and meats. With no major supermarket chains and only four medium-sized, independent grocers serving the 95815 and 95838 zip codes, most residents say they have to leave their neighborhoods to get quality fruits and vegetables. For families who don’t have cars, this can mean expensive bus rides with kids and bags of groceries in tow.

According to Peggy Roark, project manager of the Hunger Commission, some area markets stock up only at the beginning of each month anticipating customers who get food stamps at that time. By the end of the month, the selection is often less than desirable with wilted greens, watery bags of carrots and overripe fruit.

Until recently, a solution seemed to be on the way—an organic farmer’s market in the heart of these communities. Two nonprofits, the Uptown Community Development Corporation (CDC) in conjunction with From the Garden to the Table (FGTT), had spent the last year organizing the market.

Jeffrey Smith, director of FGTT, and Sheldon Bartel, executive director of the Uptown CDC, envisioned a market where residents could purchase high-quality produce, receive free seedlings to start their own organic gardens and learn about ways to use nutrition to prevent disease. People not able to afford organic produce could use food stamps and free produce certificates provided through a national Women Infant Children (WIC) farmer’s market program.

Bartel and Smith registered the market with the state, obtained a $290 county permit and lined up 25 organic growers eager to participate in what would have been one of the few exclusively organic farmer’s markets in California.

Calvary Christian Center, a popular, centrally located Del Paso/North Sacramento church, offered its parking lot for the weekly market. Bartel and Smith mailed postcards and launched an area marketing campaign announcing the market’s first day: April 6.

However, shortly thereafter, they stumbled across a large piece of red tape that would drive the project to a grinding halt: zoning restrictions.

Calvary Christian Center is not zoned for commercial use, said Gary Little of the city’s Neighborhood Services Department. And since the city Planning Commission has no specific classification for farmer’s markets, it is lumped in with flea markets as an open-air market. Given this classification, the church would have to be rezoned for commercial use in order to host a farmer’s market—a process that could take six months and cost around $10,000.

“Zoning is not an issue that you can take lightly,” says District 2 City Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy. “The obstacles have always been there. They didn’t check them out first.”

But for some, this is simply a case of bureaucracy getting in the way of tangible needs.

“Every time we try one thing, it’s not right, we gotta do something else,” says a frustrated Smith. “I see these people outright denying people access to good food and good health and a decent way of life. All I was trying to do was make it better for the community.”

If the market can’t happen, opportunities may be lost. Take WIC’s farmer’s market vouchers, for example. Each summer, WIC hands out vouchers for free produce at farmer’s markets. However, last year, less than half of the caseload at the Grand Avenue WIC office was able to take advantage of the vouchers, since no markets were in the area.

“This is food that could have been on the table and in the tummies,” says Janet Talksy, WIC team leader for Del Paso Heights and North Sacramento.

According to Smith, a lot of people have tried to talk him out of the organic focus of the market, explaining that many of the area’s residents would not be able to afford organic food. Meanwhile, other farmer’s market organizers turned away from the project citing past failed attempts at markets in low-income areas.

Yet for Smith, these concerns should not outweigh the importance of getting quality food to the people who need it most.

“The majority of diseases in low-income people come from diet,” says Smith, who has 22 years of experience as a chef and nutrition educator, including time spent running a recovery center in Oakland for the homeless and drug-addicted. “I saw firsthand the difference in recovery when people have clean food.”

Today, Smith would like nothing more than to use a venue like an organic farmer’s market to provide high-quality food and teach people how best to use it.

“I’m all about indigenous foods,” says Smith. “I don’t try to teach them new things like Alice Waters. You don’t do fava beans. You find cleaner ways of doing the food people like to eat.”

In talking to Froats, Smith’s instincts appear to be correct. Even if the produce cost a little more, she would gladly pay the price in order to get fresh, quality food near home.

“Ever since I had my daughter, I’ve become more conscious of nutrition,” says Froats. “I would be singing my praises if we had that market out here.”

Most agree the proposed Uptown Farmer’s Market would be a win-win for the community. The question now is how to move past the obstacles and ensuing frustration.

“This isn’t something to fight over,” says Little. “We want to help.”

Little and Sheedy have met with city zoning officers to discuss any possible quick fixes. And while there appears to be no way around the zoning dilemma, Little believes a good solution would be to hold the postponed market at an area park.

Bartel, however, has three big concerns: parking, visibility and support. City parks in the area would not provide enough of those key resources, he says. Plus, a city park would cost an additional $2,000-$3,000 a year to rent.

Located on Marysville Boulevard, Calvary Christian Center is a highly visible midway point between Del Paso Heights and North Sacramento, with ample parking and a supportive congregation. According to Bartel, the church’s congregation offers a strong potential customer base that has helped secure the growers’ interest—an interesting point since a farmer’s market attempted a decade ago at Hegginwood Park failed to attract enough vendors.

“There must be some way around the zoning restrictions,” says Del Paso resident Bill Maynard, head of the Sacramento Area Community Garden Coalition. “Perhaps we could look at a new zoning classification for farmer’s markets,” suggests the Hunger Commission’s Roark.

Meanwhile, Sheedy has offered instead to try to work with local grocers to improve food quality.

“I think a farmer’s market is a wonderful concept,” says Sheedy. “But you need to start working in tandem early. You can’t take two steps forward and three steps back.”

In the long run, Sheedy’s top priority is bringing a major supermarket to her district in 2003. “We now have a hard offer from a grocery chain,” she says, although she refuses to offer details of the not-yet-approved deal.

But for someone trying to feed a family, that supermarket’s opening day is a long way away. How to provide better access to good produce will continue to be a dilemma for North Sacramento. Many now are left wishing the city would just leave them alone and let them do some good.

“To think that we did all this work and have nothing to show for it is just unbelievable,” says Smith.

As for Froats, she’s hoping that last bit of grapes and bananas will be enough for one more day. Such a basic thing made so difficult.

“It just hurts my heart,” she says, “that I have to go through this.”