An oasis in a food desert: Central Avenue's farmers market

March 15, 2012, 3:24 p.m.

The farmers market that takes place at the Central Avenue Constituent Services Center every Thursday is one of South L.A. residents' few options for getting fresh produce. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

It's certainly not easy to find produce that's fresh off the farm in South L.A. among the McDonald's, Jack in the Boxes and convenience stores – but it's also not impossible.

One simply needs to look at the Central Avenue Constituent Services Center every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., where one of SEE-LA's farmers markets boasts a fresh selection of fruits, vegetables, nuts and eggs.  

SEE-LA – or Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles – is a nonprofit community development corporation that works to improve the quality of life in Los Angeles. Laura Gonzales runs the farmers market on Central Avenue for SEE-LA, which is the nonprofit's smallest market project.

"There are only six farmers who sell here," she said. "They have to be certified by the Department of Agriculture in order to work here." Some of those farmers make the drive from cities like Bakersfield, Nipomo, Riverside and San Diego to sell their produce – in part, Gonzales said, because this is where a lot of their sales happen.

The market's first location was 43rd Street. Then it moved to the Central Avenue Jazz Park, and then later the parking lot of Carver Middle School, before finally settling permanently at the Constituent Services Center. Gonzales said Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry has been a strong supporter of the market, which is part of the reason they're able to use the space for free every Thursday.

"We couldn't have found anyone better than her," Gonzales said of the councilwoman, pointing to her efforts to provide the members of the South L.A. community with more healthy eating options.

"The food options in South L.A. – there's not a lot of selection," she said. "We only have Fresh & Easy on Adams, and that's pretty much it in terms of good stores. It's a food desert here."

Some of the market's vendors agreed. L.A.-native Alejandro Caporeo sells fruit – mostly citrus – that come from a farm in Fallbrook in San Diego County.

"If you go to the store, all you're going to get is junk," he said. "Over here, you're going to get quality."

Not to mention some more exotic pickings – like blood oranges or cherimoyas. "We sell here to support a community, to bring them fresh fruit from a farm," he said. "And they'll see a lot of things they've never seen at the store."

Caporeo described current profits as "so-so," but was confident people would keep coming. "We've got stuff that people like, so they come," he said.

Juan Plascencia made the drive out from a Lancaster farm that specializes in nuts and dried fruit. Pointing out his most popular items – lemon almonds and glazed pecans – Plascencia said his profits were also "up and down," but that it's important that he and the other farmers are there.

"People need to eat more nutritious, healthy food," he said, pointing out the unhealthy options surrounding the Constituent Services Center. "Our produce is very healthy. It's natural, we don't use any spray, chemicals or preservatives."

In recent years, Gonzales has seen an increase in health consciousness in the area, which she credits to the media. "I think people are getting conscious of nutrition and getting more vegetables and fruits because of all the things in the news about being healthy," she said.

Still, statistics still paint South L.A. as an area falling far behind the rest of the county in its collective health, and the market itself relies heavily on grants to remain sustainable. Its clientele rarely uses cash – WIC and EBT are the most popular methods of payment, to the point where Gonzales said the farmers market was responsible for 99 percent of WIC coupon redemption in the area last year.

Right now, Gonzales is focused on the week-to-week tasks running the market entails, a big part of which is keeping her farmers happy.

"The farmers really like it," she said. "I didn't bring many farmers because we're already at capacity right now. if I bring more, sales will go down for everybody. I want to make my farmers happy and make enough money for them to take home because they drive a long ways out here."

Israel Castellanos, who drives out from Riverside every week to sell his vegetables, which include kale, cauliflower and lettuce, seems to be one of those happy farmers. He said everything he sells is pretty popular and that profits seem to be improving.

"It's good for people's health because it's fresh," he said in Spanish. "I just come out here because – well, you have to make a living."

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