By Kellie Schmitt
To combat a growing obesity crisis in Kern County, farmers will be bringing their fresh vegetables and vibrant fruits to four burgeoning markets around the Central Valley.
For vendors like Laurie Henry, it means a chance to tell more residents about her white, green, blue and chocolate-colored hens’ eggs.
“A lot of people are unaware that the egg shell is like human hair – the color depends on the chicken,” Henry said. “And the more natural the egg, the higher it is in vitamin content.”
This May, Henry will showcase her free-range eggs at the Delano and Central Park at Mill Creek farmers’ markets, both of which opened on a pilot basis last year. They’re part of the four new markets the Kern County Public Health Department has helped create in low-income areas of the San Joaquin Valley.
The department’s effort to promote healthy eating is especially relevant in a county facing grim health figures. More than 60 percent of adults in Kern County are overweight or obese, and figure relating to heart disease and diabetes are among the worse in the state. Along with encouraging healthier food choices, the markets are also a way to bolster communities and keep locally-grown produce in the Central Valley.
“This is a way to promote a healthy lifestyle without being too in-your-face about it,” said Avtar Nijjer-Sidhu, a senior health educator with the county’s environmental health division. “We need to be in more areas where children are overweight and parents have limited income.”
Tackling Heath Disparities
Shortly after Nijjer-Sidhu joined the Public Health Department in 2006, she came up with a plan to tackle the county’s high health disparities. Despite the Central Valley’s rich agricultural base, most crops didn’t stay in the area.
“It’s hard for me to see the produce go to L.A,” she said. “We need that produce locally.”
Bakersfield already had farmers’ markets, but they were mostly clustered in wealthier, central areas.
Nijjer-Sidhu , who has a doctorate in nutrition, wanted to bring the local produce to outlying regions that didn’t have plentiful access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2007, she set-up the first pilot market at her home base, outside the Public Health building. There was just one vendor, not enough customers and interest waned.
The next year, she brought in more vendors and arranged for Women Infants and Children (WIC) food vouchers to be accepted. The department also took care of promotion, making sure residents learned of the new markets through radio, media, fliers and brightly-colored banners.
Soon after, Nijjer-Sidhu received a phone call from Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard, requesting a market in Oildale. In 2009, the Oildale Market was born and the one outside Public Health grew. Last year, the department started new markets in the city of Delano and Bakersfield’s Central Park – efforts they’re hoping to expand this coming spring.
Creating new markets in underprivileged areas hasn’t been without challenges. For one, the timing corresponded with the economic recession.
Nijjer-Sidhu worked with local agencies to ensure that WIC vouchers could be accepted in lieu of cash.
Vendors, too, say they’re willing to bend the rules for people who need extra help. Brenda Luetger of B.J.’s Lavender Farm, says she plays with prices if someone really wants a product but can’t afford the cost. “The prices are set, but if someone’s down on their luck, I try to help,” said Luetger, who will be joining the Central Park market this year. “I’m not in this to get rich.”
Keeping young markets like Oildale afloat is a challenge, said Charles Drew, the market manager there. Kern County’s spread-out geography makes it hard to create markets with sufficient farmers and customers. Many farmers can’t afford the expense of sending equipment, fuel and personal to smaller markets, especially on prime weekend days.
Drew said he’s hopeful that smart scheduling such as having two nearby markets on the same day can alleviate farmers’ financial concerns and encourage them to attend newer, smaller markets.
When it comes to customers, building new markets also can be a hard sell in a region where people aren’t always accustomed to eating healthy and buying local. “Remember the old saying ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink?’” Drew said.
But, Mariel Mehdipour, the county’s director of health promotion, stressed the importance of creating a more conducive atmosphere.
“If the environment doesn’t support healthy behaviors, how can individuals do what their doctor is telling them?” she said.
Experimenting with Ingredients
For Oildale resident Chris Hollinger, 46, last year’s farmers’ market presented a rare opportunity to have fresh local produce near her home. Hollinger attended the market with her parents, who are both disabled.
“A lot of people like my parents who aren’t able to travel long distances came to the market,” she said. “It brings a lot of people who would like to eat healthier and fresher, but who aren’t able to get stuff like that.”
Hollinger and her parents would come home and improvise meals with their fresh produce, such as adding a bounty of vegetables to their fresh egg omelets.
While fruits are best-sellers, customers are often baffled by ingredients like kale, thai basil, or even zucchini, Nijjer-Sidhu said. Cooking skills are increasingly being lost in a world where parents both work, and pre-packaged microwave or fast food meals are the norm.
Having a bread vendor is always a good draw, even if it means enticing people with freshly-baked brownies. Providing recipes also helps encourage people unfamiliar with new products. Nijjer-Sidhu created an email list where she sends out information on one vegetable or fruit, such as a pluot.
Along with healthy eating, the markets also add a sense of optimism and foster community in areas that may need it most, Nijjer-Sidhu said. In Oildale, an area known for its love of country music, they brought in The Trout Band. She’s exploring adding a mariachi band for Latino-heavy Delano.
While Nijjer-Sidhu and the Public Health Department promote the new markets, the day-to-day responsibilities fall to the market managers. Finding a strong manager is key to their ongoing success, she said.
Jaclyn Allen, who will manage the Delano market this spring, stresses the importance of building markets with “all the staples” to make the effort fruitful for customers. Allen tries to create a fun environment, where residents want to socialize and get excited about trying new products such as hummus. “Now my customers are hooked on it,” she said. “They come for the hummus.”
Allen says she thinks strategically about market hours, such as changing markets from weekday mornings to evenings when more customers are free. She also encourages her vendors to arrange their booths in a visually-appealing way and offer free samples.
When people tell her they don’t like grapefruits, she’ll insist they try the sweet Oro Blanco variety. When they say they have no idea what to do with bok choy, she’ll tell them to marinate it and throw it on the grill.
Despite the hurdles, Allen and other market organizers say Kern County is ready for healthier options.
“People are so new to the concept that they’re like kids in a candy shop,” Allen said. “People here are ready to make that choice to eat healthy.”