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In produce paradise, farm workers can finally eat their own harvest

Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchAuscencio Perez, who is originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, sells aromatic Mexican herbs and other specialties, as well as bananas and other fruits.

Every Saturday morning, Auscencio Perez can be found beneath the shade trees at the county fairgrounds in Merced, presiding over a colorful cascade of melons, peaches and strawberries, as well as pipicha, an aromatic herb similar to cilantro, and verdolaga, a long-stemmed green used in salads.

“Over there, we work with our culture,” Perez says of the remates, or markets, of his native Mexico. “Here, it’s the same."

Perez is one of 60 produce vendors at the Central Valley Farmers Market, an open-air oasis of fruits, vegetables, and fresh and dried chilies of every description embedded within the Merced/Atwater Flea Market. Each week, 5,000 to 8,000 residents, the majority of them Latino farm workers and their families, make their way to the Saturday market, where Hmong farmers selling lemongrass and bitter melon add an Asian twist to this bit of Mexico and Central America in California.

The valley’s two dozen or so flea markets are vibrant fixtures of the community – the place to buy jeans, ranchero boots, bandannas, lingerie, Betty Boop purses, Oakland Raiders piñatas. But with unemployment hovering at 21.4 percent in the county and widespread poverty in the region, the Merced market and others like them are playing an ever more crucial role: places to buy affordable fresh produce using CalFresh nutrition benefits, formerly known as food stamps.

Since supplemental nutrition benefits were accepted at the market two years ago, produce vendors like Perez have seen their business rise 20 to 30 percent.

“People don’t have money,” Perez said. “So the food stamps help us out."

Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchBefore shopping, customers stop at the market's main office to exchange amounts on their electronic benefits card for tokens to use in the market.

Food stamps are not technically stamps: Qualifying customers swipe their electronic benefits card at the market’s main office before shopping. The amount charged, typically around $40, is then exchanged for wooden tokens, used as currency to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables (no churros, soda or prepared foods allowed). The vendors exchange the tokens for cash at market’s end – a much more streamlined process than in the past.

General Manager Michelle Mineni said that since the market began accepting benefits, there has been a steady uptick in annual produce sales: from $112,000 in 2009, when the program started, to $143,000 last year. Mineni and her father, Dennis, who owns the market, are projecting sales of $170,000 for 2011.

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Access to fresh produce in one of America's most verdant valleys is extremely limited.

“Even though farm workers do the planting and harvesting and cut our cauliflower and our lettuce and our asparagus, they themselves are deprived of the same foods they harvest,” said Hugo Morales, founder of Radio Bilingüe, the Fresno-based nonprofit international Spanish media organization.

Juan Vicente Palerm, an anthropologist at UC Santa Barbara, notes that “the small towns in the San Joaquin Valley are without economic infrastructure, lacking formal supermarkets. There are lots of liquor stores, but no Safeways or Albertsons.” The remates represent a new retail system, based on a cultural preference for open-air markets, he observes.

According to a 2006 report by the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, 35.2 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 4 in Merced County are overweight or obese, compared with the state average of 32.9 percent. Roughly 40.4 percent of the county’s children ages 12 to 17 are at risk or are overweight or obese, compared with 29 percent of the state as a whole.

Unlike traditional farmers markets, which often have a language barrier, the flea markets along Highway 99, the state’s main agricultural artery, offer relative bargains – say, $1 for a bag of lemons or 2 pounds of red onions. In addition, “it’s where you run into your comadres” –  godmothers – says Claudia G. Corchado, a program manager for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program in Merced.

For instance, Ana Barajas, 43, who is married to a field worker, embraced a steady stream of friends and relatives while shopping with her CalFresh tokens. She painstakingly sorted through bins brimming with produce, plucking out the best tomatillos for her salsa and tamarind pods for her agua de tamarindo, or tamarind-flavored water (peel the pods; boil; pull out the large seeds; and add sugar, ice and lime).

Over the past five years, there has been a 49 percent increase in supplemental nutrition assistance program redemptions at farmers markets nationwide, representing 1,611 farmers markets and individual farmers and a total of $7,547,028 worth of benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In California, more than 110 farmers markets are accepting electronic benefits transfers.

Genoveva Islas-Hooker, regional program coordinator for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, said using nutrition benefits at alternative outlets like flea markets helps to “de-stigmatize” their use. It also offers new eating patterns.

“Fast food is everywhere,” Islas-Hooker said. “We need to make healthy food just as ubiquitous.”

Jody Rasmussen, operations manager of Denio’s Farmers Market and Swap Meet in Roseville, an 80-acre flea market outside Sacramento, has seen demand for produce increase markedly since the market began accepting benefits in June.

“The economy has been tough on everybody,” she said. “At the market, people really have an opportunity to stretch their purchasing power. There’s a huge trickle-down effect, especially for the vendors. It’s been just tremendous.”

California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.

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