On a relaxed and breezy Tuesday evening in Alkali Flat, residents trickle in and out of J. Neely Johnson Park to check out the fresh produce on sale at their local Urban Farm Stand.
Just like a typical farmers market, the Urban Farm Stand opens up once a week to sell a variety of organic and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables from nearby suppliers. In fact, the Urban Farm Stand is just like a farmers market, but operates on a much smaller scale with just four tables.
The only big difference is there are no farmers here.
Instead, the stand is run with help from community volunteers like 15-year-old McClatchy High School student, Kellan Thomas, who lives with her mother in subsidized housing not far from the park.
Thomas began working at the stand about two months ago and says she has been learning a lot about the business.
“Some things here I didn’t know existed, like pluots,” she said. “I didn’t know what those were, but now I do.”
Thomas says her mother asked her if she would like to volunteer at the stand after seeing a flyer at a local neighborhood mini-mart. She agreed thinking the experience would help eventually lead her to a paid part-time job and some pocket-money.
“I’ve learned sales experience and how to interact with people,” Thomas said. “I was shy when I first got here, now I’m asking questions and people are really nice. It’s like one big family.”
Thomas added that she thought she already knew most of the people in her neighborhood, but said she is getting to know a lot more new faces at the stand.
She also acknowledged the service that is being provided to her community.
“It gives access to more variety of vegetables and the prices are manageable,” she said. “A lot of people here are middle class and lower income.”
As Thomas explained the types of meals her mother has prepared with ingredients from the stand– including stir-fry, her favorite–a spider crawled across the collard greens laying in front her. She backed up, keeping a steady eye focused on the tiny arachnid while her supervisor, Davida Douglas tells her not to worry.
Douglas is actually in charge of the stand. She is the sole employee of Alchemist CDC, the non-profit community organizing group that runs this stand and another, busier one at McClatchy Park.
Business is slow in Alkali Flat tonight, but Douglas says average sales for one night at J. Neely Johnson range from $200-300, and as much as $900 at the McClatchy site.
Douglas says the stand offers goods that are hard to find in a neighborhood without any grocery stores nearby —the closest store Albertson’s on F and 23rd Streets closed in 2006 and re-opened as a Rite-Aid.
“It’s a service the community can use and it makes [shopping] more convenient, as opposed to convenience stores that may just sell items like beer and candy,” Douglas said. “As a non-profit we can take the financial risk of selling perishable goods.”
A wireless machine also allows Douglas and her team of volunteers to accept food stamps via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. Recently, the federal government has made an effort through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to improve healthy food access and promote nutrition.
While it may be quiet at the stand tonight, its presence has brought a peaceful mood to a park that Douglas says has been notorious for drug dealing.
Next to the stand, a young man plays his acoustic guitar at a folding table and is later accompanied by man, much his senior, toting a harmonica.
Not much further off, a woman mentions to the masseuse performing her chair massage that she just may fall asleep.
With operating hours of 4:00p.m. to 7:00 p.m., the stand creates a calm place of respite during the habitually frantic after-work exodus from downtown.
Tonight the stand makes itself just as much part of the park as the community garden is directly behind it.
Despite Alkali Flat’s notoriety, 47-year-old attorney, Mona Tawatao says she thinks the neighborhood remains “vibrant and pleasant.”
With her office located just around the corner, Tawatao routinely visits the stand after work. Today, she has picked out a handful of apricots and heirloom tomatoes and says she appreciates the stand’s proximity.
“If more neighborhoods did this it would have a good impact on emissions and global warming,” said Tawatao.
For more information on the Urban Farm Stand and Alchemist CDC, including sites, seasons, & hours visit: www.urbanfarmstand.org