With a jazz trio playing in the background, a small cluster of white tents on blacktop formed an oasis Wednesday at North Foster Drive and Greenwell Springs Road.
The tents were part of the opening of the Red Stick Mobile Farmers Market, an effort to help expand access to fresh fruits and vegetables to areas of the parish labeled “food deserts.”
According to a 2012 report by Pennington Biomedical Research Center scientists , as many as 103,000 East Baton Rouge Parish residents — including 25,000 children — live in food deserts — areas with high poverty rates and limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Raymond Jetson, pastor of Star Hill Baptist Church, the site for Wednesday’s formal kickoff.
The idea for a mobile farmers market was born out of conversations in the fall of 2010, Jetson said. People in food deserts need “to have a place where people can see that potatoes come from somewhere other than a drive-through window,” Jetson said.
The stop at Star Hill on Wednesday afternoon was the second of the day for the farmers market. It opened for two hours in the morning at the Scotlandville Branch Library.
“We consistently had about eight shoppers all morning,” said Copper Alvarez, director of Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance.
BREADA operates the Red Stick Farmers Market and the Main Street Market.
One shopper enjoyed it so much she left and brought back two of her neighbors, Alvarez said of the morning stop.
A small crowd gathered around the various tables at Star Hill on Wednesday, examining strawberries, onions, artisan breads, meats, seafood other fresh fruits and vegetables and even plants.
Mamye Hall attends church at Star Hill, but lives near College Drive.
“I would’ve come over here anyway,” she said as she carried a half-flat of strawberries and fresh bread to her car. “It’s phenomenal.”
Fran Kamal came for the fresh vegetables.
“I am trying to better my health,” she said. She pointed to the cabbage and bunches of leeks and mustard greens in her bag. “I am juicing a lot these days, so I need the fresh produce.”
Two vendors also said the market was worthwhile.
“It’s been pretty good,” said Eric Morrow, who was selling strawberries and onions grown on his Ponchatoula farm. Morrow is a regular at the Red Stick Farmers Market, and said his primary business is direct sales at events like the one at Star Hill.
Bill Cooper, of Forte Grove bakers, said the sales Wednesday were very good.
“We are very excited,” he said. “This is kind of a neat, neat thing to get involved with.”
BREADA’s Alvarez said the two locations visited this week are “in the middle of food deserts.” The next step, she said, was to add a stop in the 70802 ZIP code.
BREADA also plans to take the mobile market to special events, Alvarez said.
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel, who made food deserts a central issue in her campaign last year, said increasing the access to fresh produce is an important step.
“The opportunity to have fresh fruit and vegetables is wonderful,” she said.
Banks-Daniel’s district includes much of Scotlandville and some parts of Baker.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker said giving people healthier options is a key to changing habits. The Scotlandville Branch Library is in her district.
“It won’t eliminate all the problems,” she said. “But those who want to choose healthy will have the opportunity.”
Jetson sounded a similar note when he said just opening a market wouldn’t solve some of the problems that food deserts exacerbate, namely high rates of obesity and other diet-related health problems.
“This is a good first step,” he said of the farmers market. “It all begins somewhere.”
Jetson said those who remember when fresh fruits and vegetables were available would need to teach younger people about it.
“These are people who haven’t had access,” he said.