Salinas considers a new policy for farmers markets in the East Side’s “food desert.”
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
For some people working in the “Salad Bowl of the World,” it can be tricky to find healthy foods in their own neighborhoods. One way to make it easier, some city officials argue, is to keep a farmers market running in East Salinas.
The Salinas City Council is reviewing a policy that would allow farmers markets, and other commercial enterprises, to be held in city parks.
In fact, for the past several months such a market has been operating in Closter Park on Towt Street between East Laurel Drive and Garner Avenue. But the market is being run on a temporary special events permit, which doesn’t allow for a permanent presence. Advocates are looking to make it a Sunday fixture.
“We’re trying to promote a healthy lifestyle,” says City Councilman Tony Barrera, who represents the district.
Barrera helped bring the farmers market into the neighborhood as part of an effort to revitalize the park, which he says some people are afraid of visiting given past incidents of gang violence.
Salinas Recreation and Parks Commissioner Al Espindola says the market provides a good alternative to the alcohol, tobacco, and junk food that line the shelves of many neighborhood mom-and-pop stores.
The area around Closter Park was classified by Building Healthy Communities, an initiative headed by several local nonprofits, as a “food desert,” meaning there’s no easy access to fresh produce within a few blocks.
“Here we have the very people who are probably instrumental in getting the fruits and vegetables picked, [and] they don’t have the access to buy them within their general neighborhood,” says Espindola, who serves on the Building Healthy Communities council.
The closest grocery store, he says, is nearly three miles away.
Contrast that with the dozens of licensed liquor establishments in East Salinas. There are so many, Barrera says, the city has put a cap on alcohol permits. If a new business wants one, it has to either buy it from an already-licensed establishment or wait until a licensed place closes down.
Espindola is careful to distinguish a farmers market from a flea market, which he compares to a garage sale. A farmers market would necessarily provide a variety of fresh produce, he says, but it could also sell other goods.
The Closter Park market has been known to provide a variety of non-food items, including small animals like birds. Barrera says he’d support a minimum quota – like 50 percent – on how many of the market’s booths must sell produce.
Creating a policy to allow private enterprise in the parks, however, could lead to a rash of similar requests for other purposes.
In a recent press conference, Mayor Dennis Donohue said Salinas is “open-space constrained,” and the parks issue is a more significant conversation than it seems to be.
“We want to thoroughly research [the policy] and do due diligence to make sure we have a correct balance of public use and commercial uses in a public facility,” says Sheila Molinari, the city’s community services manager.
Molinari says the city has fewer parks than other cities of its size, and public land must be used wisely.
At the Nov. 13 City Council meeting, the council instructed the Recreation and Parks Commission to review the policy and come up with a suggestion. A subcommittee will present its findings Dec. 5.