Every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., farmers and shoppers gather at the East Palo Alto farmers market, hosted by nonprofit Fresh Approach.

This year, the East Palo Alto market runs from May through November at Bloomhouse, 2555 Pulgas Ave. Farmers travel from as far as Salinas to attend the market, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fresh Approach is dedicated to providing healthy food access to low-income communities. They work with organic family farms in California, providing a space for them to sell their produce while giving East Palo Alto residents access to fresh produce. Food assistance program participants can also get free produce through the market’s robust matching program.

“For a place like East Palo Alto, where they don’t have access to a grocery store that has local, organic, healthy produce, I think it is extremely important to be there for the community.”

Vera Cordova, Fresh Approach

“For a place like East Palo Alto, where they don’t have access to a grocery store that has local, organic, healthy produce, I think it is extremely important to be there for the community,” said Fresh Approach’s food access program coordinator Vera Cordova Mendoza. “Especially during a time when, for some, money is tight, or they just got onto federal benefits because they lost their job.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused business closures and unemployment in the Bay Area, food insecurity is on the rise. The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank reported that they nearly doubled the number of households they serve weekly, from 32,000 pre-pandemic to 60,000 now.

Lost jobs and income make it harder to afford necessities like food. Farmers also struggled to find places to sell their produce.

In an effort to help, Fresh Approach created the Farm Fresh Food Relief project, an emergency food hub that collects unsold produce from small farmers and distributes it to needy families. They continue to host markets at various locations in San Mateo County, including the one in East Palo Alto.

Gilberto Guillen of Castellanos Farms dons a face mask and cap with the message “Got Fruit?” at the launch of the Fresh Approach East Palo Alto farmers market in May.

Matching grants help those in need

The East Palo Alto market features farmers from Gallardo’s Organic Farm and Ponce Produce in Watsonville, a farming community in the Salinas Valley. Farmers also hail from Castellanos Farms in Tulare County, a more than three-hour drive from East Palo Alto.

Of all the Fresh Approach markets, the East Palo Alto market has the most expansive matching program, which allows recipients of Cal Fresh or other food assistance programs to double their money while shopping. In 2018, Fresh Approach distributed $25,793 in free produce through matching programs at the East Palo Alto market.

Shoppers with Cal Fresh EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, formerly known as food stamps, can receive up to $20 in free produce per visit. The matching program goes beyond CalFresh — anyone considered low-income, who goes to the Ravenswood Family Health Center, veterans, or recipients of other food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are eligible to match their dollars.

Mendoza said she noticed more people using the Pandemic EBT cards, which were part of a one-time food assistance program to support students who lost access to school meals when schools closed.

Community partnership

Fresh Approach also partnered with local organizations to distribute coupons to low-income families from August to October. The coupons expire in November and can be redeemed for $3 of free produce around the county.

Though the pandemic has halted their in-person classes and limited the routes of their mobile market, Fresh Approach continues to address food insecurity.

Mendoza recalled the story of an old man who hadn’t been coming to the market for a while as he was afraid to leave his home during the pandemic. When he finally attended the market, VeggieRX vouchers in hand, she struck up a conversation with him.

“He told me he hasn’t been eating any fresh food for the last two months,” Mendoza said. “With the market being there, he was finally able to buy some fresh produce.”

Now, Fresh Approach is preparing for the launch of a mobile farmers market in the south Bay Area, which will happen at the end of September.

For more information, people can visit their website.