AVENAL — Avenal’s residents harvest California produce and nuts for the nation and the world, but they may not have much access to the really fresh stuff themselves.
That irony is part of the driving force behind a new regional effort to create a weekly farmers market in this small community on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley.
California State University, Fresno, announced this week that the university’s Office of Community and Economic Development has received a $100,000 U.S. Agriculture Department grant to develop farmers markets in Avenal, Huron and Orange Cove.
Avenal will get $25,000, according to Sheila Verdugo, community activities supervisor for Avenal. She said the money will be used to hire a part-time farmers market manager, launch a marketing campaign and conduct training for vendors.
“We obviously know we’re sitting in the middle of farming communities all around us,” she said. “What we need to do is bring the fresh produce directly to our community.”
Avenal Mayor Harlan Casida said that there are three supermarkets in Avenal that sell produce.
Verdugo said the idea of the farmers market is to get food to people faster than they can get it in a conventional store and to create entrepreneurial opportunities for smaller farmers/vendors.
“It’s actually getting it into their hands in the freshest way possible,” she said. “I think it’s going to be huge for the community.”
The Fresno State press release announcing the grant used the term “food desert.” The phrase refers to the lack of access for people in many low-income areas to healthy food — even in communities like Avenal and Huron that are comprised mostly of farmworkers.
“It’s kind of ironic,” said Ismael Herrera, an associate director of the CSU Fresno office implementing the USDA grant. “It really is an issue of accessibility.”
Lack of transportation can also be a big issue, according to Herrera.
Residents may be only able to reach convenience stores, which may not stock fresh produce. They do stock plenty of packaged foods with unhealthy ingredients.
Even in stores that have produce may jack up the price because of the remoteness of the store and the lack of competition, according to Herrera.
Casida said Avenal residents travel to the Monday sale/swap meet in Hanford, where buyers can purchase anything from live chickens to fruit, vegetables and chili peppers.
According to Verdugo, Avenal has tried farmers markets before, but it didn’t work very well. She said lack of foot traffic was one reason.
She hopes it’ll be different this time around.
For one thing, there’s the Fresno State/USDA grant money to hire a part-time person with experience in farmers markets to oversee the process. She said nobody has been hired yet, but the search has begun.
For another, multiple organizations are involved in the planning, including the University of California Cooperative Extension Hanford office, Kings Community Action Organization and Family Healthcare Network.
“I believe that the planning and implementation this time around may [produce] a different result,” Verdugo said.
One of the obstacles is Avenal’s isolation from the rest of Kings County and the San Joaquin Valley. That presents challenges lining up enough vendors to make the farmers market work, according to Verdugo.
She said an effort is underway to recruit sellers who can include Avenal as a one of their regular stops in a circuit of farmers markets throughout Central California.
Verdugo said she and others involved in the planning effort are hoping to attract vendors/small growers from as far away as Fresno, Kerman and Visalia.
The market is also slated to include entertainment such as bounce houses and face-painting for kids as well as live music.
The farmers market is slated to launch sometime in the spring or summer of 2016, according to Verdugo.
“I think we have the right people in place to make this work,” she said. “We’re hoping for the best.”