When he moved to Encanto in 1985, Rob Giambruno started using his backyard to grow avocados, squash, citrus, beans, plums and, most prolifically, berries.

Though it was more than he could ever eat, he’d never thought to sell the surplus until a few months ago, when he stumbled upon the Southeast Farmers Market, which springs up every Friday afternoon on a normally desolate vacant lot near the corner of Euclid Avenue and Market Street, not far from his house.

The market’s organizers needed people like him. Since it opened to much fanfare in early December, the farmers market had been struggling to attract a key constituency — farmers. Giambruno was not a farmer, per se, but he did grow food in the neighborhood. If he got certified by the county’s agriculture department, he could sell that produce at the market and help fill the void.

“You’ve got farmers markets around the county, but southeast San Diego is sort of a forgotten area,” he said. He hopes to be selling by the end of August. “I’m going to be the berry guy.”

Diane Moss, the market’s organizer, is pinning her hopes for the struggling market on people just like Giambruno, nearby residents with green thumbs who might make up for mainstream farmers’ reluctance to set up their booths smack in the middle of a low-income community.

For its grand opening in December, she convinced two farmers to sell there. But two weeks later, when the inaugural crowds were gone, one of those farmers, a Golden Hill lettuce grower, packed up and left for good.

“They stayed two weeks and couldn’t make what they needed,” Moss said.

In the eight months since, several farmers have shown up at Moss’s urging and stayed a week or two, but left soon after.

As farmers markets have proliferated in neighborhoods across San Diego County, the weekly struggle to bring produce to the vacant lot near the corner of Euclid Avenue and Market Street has echoed the decades-long struggle to bring fresh food to much of the surrounding community. The area has long suffered from grocers’ unwillingness to open there, kept away both by a perception of the neighborhood as unsafe and by a dollars-and-cents concern for the bottom line.

The area’s only mainstream grocery store — a Food 4 Less — opened a decade ago, and even then only through the efforts of a nonprofit developer to entice it there.

The farmers market was supposed to chip away at that problem by providing an alternative source of fresh food where there are few. Instead it’s been ensnared by all the same self-reinforcing structural problems: negative perceptions of the neighborhood and cold, hard economics. Then there’s the challenge that most consumes Moss’s day-to-day — entrenched eating habits that support the proliferation of fast food joints while making farmers markets a novelty at best.

“A lot of people don’t even know what a farmers market is,” she said.

It is one measure of the severity of that problem that in eight months, only 94 people have signed up for the Fresh Fund program that offers food stamp recipients up to $20 in matching funds to spend at the market each month. By contrast, the program has signed up 163 participants in the first three weeks of a new market in Linda Vista, 508 in the first three months of Golden Hill’s farmers market and close to 3,000 at a three-year-old market in City Heights.

“It’s a catch-22,” said Troy McKinney, the program’s administrator. “If you don’t have people, you don’t have vendors, and if you don’t have vendors, you won’t have people.”

Recent changes by the City Council may help foster a self-sustaining local food system. So could some of the neighborhood’s geographic idiosyncrasies, a growing interest in urban agriculture, a need for sources of income and neighborhood outreach that Moss plans to conduct through her nonprofit, Project New Village.

For months, the health advocacy group has had the rights to another vacant lot in the nearby neighborhood of Mount Hope. But the land was still off limits until the City Council recently loosened land use laws and made it possible to start community gardens on commercial property.

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Now that the garden is allowed, Moss is set to recruit residents on the surrounding streets and transform the weed-filled parcel into garden plots. The next step is to get the gardeners certified, allowing them to sell their produce, and then to encourage them to take it to the market.

On recent reconnaissance trips through the neighborhood, she’s kept her eye out for stalks of corn and fruit trees visible beyond fence lines.

Moss is also relying on the cooperation of a small but growing population of local food-conscious residents who are slowly transforming southeastern San Diego’s residential landscape.

Women like Kimberly Blough. In November, she, her husband and another couple went in together on a modest house in Encanto, attracted by its sprawling 1.6-acre yard — the perfect place to start a farm. They call it Radio Acres Farm. It’s on Radio Drive.

There, five miles east of downtown and just a few blocks from the struggling market, they’ve embarked on an ambitious experiment in rural-urban communal living, raising beds of corn and kale, eggplants and fruit trees, a couple dozen chickens, turkeys and, if zoning rules soon allow, perhaps goats and rabbits too.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Kimberly Blough and her daughter Estelle feed chickens in their backyard farm in Encanto.

“Everyone around here has such big yards. The area has such potential to come up in the whole local food movement,” Blough said during a visit to the farmers market Friday afternoon. If all goes as planned, she will get her garden and chickens certified by the county, and her farm will soon stock a booth at the market.

“We’re all a bunch of people who want to see this part of town succeed,” she said. She’s part of a group of roughly two dozen local backyard growers, including Giambruno, who are considering county certification.

“There’s actually a lot of stuff growing in the community now, but the awareness isn’t there, or the methods to get it from there to market,” Giambruno said. “There’s been no movement to consolidate, to get everyone moving in the same direction. That’s what Diane’s trying to do.”

Of course, the need remains to attract local residents to the market to shop, something Moss said will require more outreach.

On Friday, there were signs that word of the market was slowly penetrating southeastern San Diego’s neighborhoods.

Stella Roberts, 71, and Marion Taylor, 87, had heard about it at a senior center where they’d been given a $20 WIC voucher to use at the market.

Taylor said she had never shopped at a farmers market, while Roberts had once before, at the amply stocked booths of the market in Hillcrest. The two Navy wives normally shop at a commissary on the Naval Base in Barrio Logan.

“To be honest, I’m a little disappointed,” Roberts said. “I thought it was going to be more stands.” But they said it was helpful to have a place closer to home that accepted their senior vouchers. Each spent only $12 on Friday, and said they would come back the following week to spend the remaining eight.

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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