Corine Recasner has visited the Watts Healthy Farmers Market nearly every week for more than four years. Some weeks she buys eggs and oranges, but other weeks she can be found selling homemade gumbo or berry jam.
For the African American woman in her sixties, the market is all about generating community and culture for her neighborhood. She talks shop with the vendors, educates young people about Black history and swears by the fresh produce, and handcrafted artisanship for sale.
“It really feels like family here,” Recasner said. “The vendors are very friendly, we can relate to them.”
The market also happens to be one of the few places near her home where Recasner can get fresh produce.
She lives in a “food desert,” an area with no access to fresh produce in stores.
According to a report issued in 2011 by the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 81,000 people in Los Angeles County don’t have access to fresh produce. Most of those people live in areas such as Compton, Watts, East Los Angeles and Inglewood, where traditional grocery stores are nowhere to be found.
“The reasons are really varied and diverse,” said Charles Fields, a regional program manager with California FreshWorks, a program funded by the California Endowment. FreshWorks is a nonprofit fund that encourages grocery chains to set up shop in inner city areas.
Fields said that grocery chains often don’t want to enter these areas for several reasons: a misconception that poor people don’t want to eat healthy food, the fact that big pieces of land are hard to find and the fear that there isn’t a profit to be had where household incomes are so low.
“A lot of that can be overcome,” Fields said. “They just don’t realize it and that’s why we are here to help them.”
The organization provides loans at low interest rates, provides assistance in obtaining permits and guides grocers as to how to make a profit in poor areas — all in an attempt to bring food to the people.
“Our long-term goal is ultimately to make the people healthier,” Fields said. “We’re hoping that if people have increased access to healthy foods that they will actually buy healthy foods and then we’ll see a lot of the health problems that are typical of these communities start to decline.”
In the mean time, farmers markets serve as a vital alternative, Fields said.
The Watts market is one of seven farmers markets put on by Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization hoping to create access to healthy food for inner city and poor communities.
The other markets are located in Atwater Village, Echo Park, Leimert Park Village, Central Los Angeles and two in Hollywood.
“In an area like South L.A., there are very few places where you can get really quality produce,” said Ashley Heistand, the Watts market manager. “There are a lot of liquor stores, fast food stores, corner stores that don’t always have the healthy products that people desire and want to feed their bodies and to make them and their families healthy.”
But even when produce is brought to these areas, affordability can still stand in between the people and a healthy lifestyle.
“We take food stamps, and we also take WIC — not the just the yearly coupons that people get, but we take the monthly fruit and vegetable checks,” Heistand said. “We feel like that is really important for all farmers markets to take.”
On top of that, the market features a matching program — for every dollar of federal benefits a consumer has, the market will match them an additional dollar — in order to get people to use their benefits on healthy food at the market instead of at a fast food restaurant.
Additionally, community members can apply to be certified sellers and sell produce from their home gardens to make additional income. Recasner will begin selling pecans from a tree in her yard.
“They recognize that it is an economically deprived community and allow us to partake in the business,” she said.
But the main goal has been and always will be health, Heistand said.
“We try to provide health services for the community. So, we’ll do blood pressure and vaccines and have nutritional information and do cooking classes,” Heistand said. “We really do believe that a big part of the health and wellness component is in the education and the tools to really use the produce that you just purchased.”
Part of that effort involves having representatives from the health care industry at the market each week.
Maria Aguirre, a community outreach manager at Kaiser Permanente’s Watts Counseling and Learning Center, spends her days teaching Watts residents about nutrition and health benefits.
“In terms of health conditions, I think obesity continues to be an issue, diabetes and cholesterol. There is a lot of asthma,” Aguirre said. “And I think a farmers market really gets the message across that there are other ways to promote health.”
Brenda Vizcarra brings her three-year-old daughter Sophia Rodriguez to the market because she knows that the fruits and nuts she loves will be organic and free of chemicals and preservatives.
“It’s a blessing to have fruit that you know is okay and healthy,” Vizcarra said. “Especially for my daughter. She loves the oranges and the carrots … everything about it, it’s just a different taste. I just love it. It’s a blessing to have it here in Watts.”
This week the two shared homemade pupusas — thick tortillas stuffed with cheese — from a Salvadoran vendor.
Despite the health benefits, economic considerations and community atmosphere of the park, only 600 people come through each week — just slightly more than 1 percent of the Watts population.
The majority of the market’s patrons are senior citizens and mothers with young children, but it has recently started to see an influx of teenagers and young adults.
“It’s only increasing as people hear about the market, as people tell their friends and neighbors about some of the great things that the market has to offer people,” Heistand said. “We have slowly grown over the years so we hope that we will continue to see more people taking an active role in their health.”
Currently the market is trying to involve local churches and high schools with special events to bring more people to the park.
Recasner is confident that if she can get people there, they too will fall in love with the market.
“Once you try it,” she said. “You’re here to buy it.”