THEY LINE UP EARLY at Rosa Linares’ stand in the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park. Many customers are young mothers with toddlers at their feet. Most are immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, and they are here because Linares grows and sells plants they know from back home.
A big favorite is chipilin, a leafy green vegetable that cooks up like spinach and flavors dishes like eggs and soups. Another is hora de maiz, large corn leaves that wrap tamales.
Her herbs are used in folk remedies that are said to reduce anemia, relieve cramps and refresh skin.
“The produce she sells is from our culture, from our country,” says Rosa Sanchez, a Salvadoran immigrant who lives in Bladensburg and works at the market. “It reminds me of home, when I was growing up, it’s a piece of my homeland.”
Crossroads was founded in 2007 by John Hyde, who sold baked goods at the Takoma Park Farmers Market and noticed that few poor families ever patronized his stand. Hyde, who died in 2009, had a smart, simple idea: Establish a market that’s accessible to low-income shoppers and supplement their food budgets.
Here’s how the system works. Families that qualify for federal nutrition programs like food stamps tell a clerk what portion of their benefits they want to spend. They receive coupons called Fresh Checks that double their purchasing power as long as they use the checks for healthy options. Everyone wins. Families improve their diets while stretching their dollars, and farmers reach new customers.
But launching the market wasn’t easy. The day before it was scheduled to open, the Department of Agriculture said the subsidy program was illegal. Fortunately Hyde had an ally, a senior official at USDA, who called his bosses and said: “What do you think The Washington Post would have to say about your trying to prevent poor people from eating fresh fruits and vegetables?”
The bureaucrats backed down. And today, notes the market’s website, “our model has been replicated in more than 500 farmers markets in 30 states and D.C.”
The only problem is that subsidies cost money and Crossroads is a victim of its own success. It runs every Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., June through November; more than 1,000 shoppers come most days and since 90 percent qualify for some form of aid, the cost keeps going up.
The market has raised $55,000—from private donors, foundations and local governments—to finance Fresh Checks for the current season, but that might not be enough.
“It was really hard to get people here initially and now it’s like exploded,” says Christie Balch, the executive director of the Crossroads Community Food Network, the nonprofit that runs the market. “Every year the number of people we serve keeps going up. I’m sure we’ll run out this year.”
Located on a short block of Anne Street in Takoma Park, just off University Boulevard, the market is also a street fair, a community center and a health clinic.
Kids watch a juggler while their moms shop. Others paint pictures using broccoli and lemons as stamps or draw with chalk on a brick wall. A trumpeter plays jazz, while a small child keeps time with one hand and drinks a bottle with the other.
A group of elderly Chinese women come by bus from Rockville and sit under a shady tent chatting in their native language long before the market opens. “They have relationships with other customers and farmers,” says Balch.
Social service organizations can have trouble reaching immigrant families and here there’s a captive audience. Adventist HealthCare offers free blood pressure tests and health tips.
The University of Maryland Extension program sponsors food demonstrations using produce sold at the market (watermelon and tomato salad was on the menu when I was there).
The shoppers and vendors reflect the diversity of the region (Montgomery County is now one-third foreign born, Prince George’s one-fifth). While Latinos and Asians predominate, there are also Russian speakers, including Lyubov Velychko, a native of Ukraine, who clutches her Fresh Checks and says in halting English, “We save and save and after three weeks we buy something here.”
Margaret Cunningham, an African American who grew up on a farm in Delaware, fondly remembers the fresh vegetables from her mother’s kitchen garden. “Coming from the country, that’s the healthy way to eat,” she says.
Monica Medina and her husband, Isidro, farm 20 acres in Montross, Virginia, a two-hour drive from the market, and sell corn and kale, squash and peppers. Many of their neighbors in Montross come from the same small area in Mexico’s Jalisco state and most are related.
“My dad started in the business,” says Medina. “My cousins were already started, and then we followed the same steps.”
Roy and Arti Castari are from Indonesia and grow Asian specialties like bitter melons on a tiny backyard plot in College Park. “It backs up on the Beltway and they have a huge wall behind their house,” says Balch, who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. “You would never imagine it’s there, it’s like this oasis in the city.”
If Crossroads has a symbol, it’s Rosa Linares, now in her mid-60s, who cleaned houses after emigrating from El Salvador and used her savings to buy her own place in Adelphi, right near the market. Balch tells her story:
“Her sons banded together and bought her the empty lot next to her house and she started farming. She showed up at the market four years ago with a bucket full of produce and an umbrella and she started selling.
“Our market manager was like, ‘Who are you? Did you fill out a vendor application?’ And she was like, ‘No, but I belong here.’ Now she has a full stand and she’s making almost as much as some of the regular farmers.”
Linares is a small woman with a large red straw hat and gold-rimmed front teeth. Her English is limited so my interview with her was brief. I asked if she did all the work herself.
“Look at my hands,” she replied, holding them out for me to see. They were brown and bruised, with dirt edging the fingernails. “I work outside,” she said. And then she laughed.
Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Send him ideas for future columns at firstname.lastname@example.org.