Farmers market seeks to fill niche in southwest Santa Rosa

The new Southwest Santa Rosa farmers market opened quietly Thursday night, but organizers are hoping it’s the start of something big.

The market, which is managed by the California Parenting Institute, was started in part to bring locally grown produce and farmed goods to neighborhoods where many people have limited incomes and limited access to markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

Held in the institute’s parking lot on Standish Avenue, the market, like others in the county, accepts WIC and CalFresh electronic benefits transfer cards. But through Market Match, a program funded by private donors and grants, it will also provide as much as $5 extra to shoppers who purchase food at the market.

The program will run as long as funds are available.

“We felt that there were parts of our community that weren’t served by farmers markets and we wanted to help change that,” said CPI’s Tiffani Montgomery. “We are committed to making it easier for anyone to get local produce and vegetables at affordable prices.”

Montgomery said organizers sought out local farmers and other vendors to work the market, a lineup she said would change in part from week to week. Because the market is committed to accepting CalFresh debit cards, formerly food stamps, the farmers selling at the market must be certified through the County of Sonoma.

“I’ve shopped at FoodMaxx, and the produce to be honest is not very good or fresh and it’s still expensive,” said Danielle Divine, 35, of Santa Rosa, who heard about the market at a local CalFresh office. “I’ve been to other farmers markets, but it kind of feels like they look down on us. This one is welcoming.”

On opening night, the small market was anchored by four fresh produce farmers who sold everything from strawberries to kale, mixed greens, cherries and squash.

The farmers said they welcomed the chance to get their produce to a wider range of people.

“We’re a small farm, but we try to make our produce affordable,” said Libby Irving of Petaluma’s Bloomfield Organics, which in addition to selling at various markets in the area, hosts an event on the last Sunday of the month, where people can go down to the farm and pay $40 to pick their own fruits and vegetables.

The market will feature a changing selection of prepared food vendors. Thursday, there was booths selling hummus and another that offered ribs, fried chicken and Jambalaya.

More than 100 people attended the market Thursday, which included live music and booths manned by nonprofits. Organizers said they invite the nonprofits on the condition they provide something for kids to do.

Thursday, children could make paper butterflies, blow soap bubbles, drive electronic cars and even spin a wheel for prizes. Members of the nearby Rincon Valley Fire Department gave tours of a fire engine, and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department manned the parking lot.

Some vendors, noting the low turnout, wondered if the setting — in what is essentially an industrial area — was conducive to attracting shoppers.

“Yes, we need to bring markets to everyone, but this is not really a neighborhood,” said Lazaro Calderon from Sonoma farm The Patch. “I don’t know whether this is going to work.”

The market will be held from 4-7 p.m. Thursdays through the end of September with a cost of about $7,000, which Montgomery said the Institute raised through donations from the John Jordan Foundation, Law Office of Michael A. Fiumara and the county’s health services department.

California Parenting Institute workers will be on-hand to assist people with applying for CalFresh benefits.

“We hoped to have more people, but we’re expecting it to grow as the word gets out,” said Montgomery of the institute, founded in 1978, which provides parenting education and mental health assistance to families and children.

You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or [email protected]