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San Diego's Urban Farms: Oases In Food Deserts

The City Heights Farmers' Market has become a model for outdoor markets that offer fresh produce to low-income immigrant folks in the inner city. July 23, 2011.
Tom Fudge
The City Heights Farmers' Market has become a model for outdoor markets that offer fresh produce to low-income immigrant folks in the inner city. July 23, 2011.
San Diego's Urban Farms: Oases In Food Deserts
San Diego is trying to link urban farms to farmers' markets and bring a bounty of fresh food to areas of the city sorely lacking in healthy alternatives.

The Bayside Community Center sits on the edge of Tecolote Canyon amidst a landscape of rental housing, abandoned lots and strip malls. This is Linda Vista, a destination for many immigrants. It's also the kind of low-income neighborhood that can become a food desert, for its lack of fresh produce and good grocery stores. That's one reasons why the community center wanted to build the Linda Vista Neighborhood Garden.

"It was a dump. We had containers and leftovers of everything," said Jorge Riquelme, the executive director of Bayside Community Center, as he described the plot of land where people decided to create the community garden.

"I told them go ahead and do it, but I didn't expect much," he said. "And this area suddenly became clear. Week after week people removing brush, trees, rocks garbage."


Last week, Linda Vista broke ground on the Linda Vista Neighborhood Garden, with visions of it becoming a productive urban farm. It was a step toward creating an environment where low-income people could have greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The other step, also taken last week, was the founding of a farmers' market on Linda Vista Road. Ultimately, community activists want the urban farm to supply the farmers' market.

If that sounds like a stretch, be aware that it's already being done in City Heights, another San Diego neighborhood that has a lot in common with Linda Vista. The City Heights Farmers' Market has thrived near the corner of Fairmount and University Avenues for three years. Here, veiled African immigrants and other immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America bump shoulders to push their way to the front of food vendor stalls.

The market serves low-income people with its convenient location, and by providing economic assistance. At one end of the market, Fernanda Vega-Decampos collects WIC and food-stamp vouchers from shoppers. She then hands them wooden tokens, worth a dollar each, that people use to purchase fresh beans, watermelons, plums and some very exotic-looking vegetables.

Decampos works with the International Rescue Committee, one of the partners in managing the market.

"This farmer's market was opened to combat childhood obesity in City Heights," she said. "And about four years ago we started talking to residents about if we need an open-air market in this area. We have a lot of immigrants… a lot of new immigrants that are used to shopping outdoors. And we also needed more culturally appropriate produce."

Growing Food on City Lots

A lot of that culturally-appropriate produce is not exotic at all because it's grown a mile away at the New Roots Community Farm.

Last year, First Lady Michelle Obama visited this urban farm as part of her campaign against childhood obesity. New Roots still displays the sign they used to welcome her. Here, almost two and a half acres of land are planted with corn, tomatoes, beans and some exotic vegetables.

The connection between this urban farm and the City Heights Farmer's Market is the same symbiosis they're trying to create in Linda Vista. Michelle Zive is executive director of the nutrition project of the Healthy Works program, which is working to establish farmers' markets in low-income areas.

"New roots does actually sell here at the City Heights farmer's market. But... we plan to link up with the Linda Vista garden as well," Zive said. "So as soon as their produce is up and running, we're going to be able to sell that at Linda Vista. That's our hope."

The creation of urban gardens linked to farmer's markets is a nationwide trend. In Detroit, many square miles of urban decay have been turned into urban farms. Jorge Riquelme, of Linda Vista, said there's empty land in San Diego that also could be put to work.

"We're trying to take a step forward to integrate land that is sitting idle, and should be accessible to the community," he said.

In Linda Vista, the new community garden will be less than a mile from the farmer's market. Make them work together, and you're really cutting down the food miles.