When Urban Harvest's newest farmers' market opened in front of City Hall in mid-October, that first Wednesday was an enormous success by anyone's standards: More than 2,000 people came out to peruse the offerings from 25 vendors, a mix of both prepared-food-product vendors and growers selling their own farm-fresh produce. But it was an especially touching success for Urban Harvest and its vendors, many of whom have been with the organization since it was founded more than a decade ago.
Raphael Sher, who goes by Ray, chuckles when he remembers the first days of the Eastside Farmers' Market off Richmond, which is now a bustling Saturday morning market that features more than 50 vendors and thousands of customers each weekend: "If we had 100 customers and made $100, we were happy."
Scher operates the Garden of Eden booth at Eastside and the new City Hall Farmers' Market, selling his backyard-grown produce, and is also an advisory board member of Urban Harvest. And, like many others in the local food community, he was particularly ired by a Fox 26 news report this past Wednesday in which Isiah Carey reported on a complaint filed by Velma Laws, the Director of the City of Houston Mayor's Office of Affirmative Action and Contract Compliance.
In her complaint to the City of Houston, Laws alleged that "there was a lack of diversity out of the 30 vendors when the program began a month ago. The participants were nearly all white." She told Carey that this perceived lack of racial diversity was troublesome: ""It was very disconcerting to me," she said in an interview.
The problem with this report: Despite Urban Harvest's recruitment efforts over the years, it's had difficulty attracting growers, especially minority growers, and the market has had very few applications from minority farmers and prepared-food vendors. Whose fault is that? No one's. Certainly not the city's, and certainly not Urban Harvest's.
"There was no exclusion," said Scher, when asked about the process for assembling those first 25 vendors. It was quite to the contrary, Scher said. "They were desperate for vendors."
As one of the original seven vendors from the very first Eastside Farmers' Market in 2002, Scher knows firsthand how difficult it is to recruit growers for the markets. "We taught a class once a month on growing things for market. And out of those classes, I can think of two people that became vendors," he lamented. "People are trying to figure it all out. It's not easy; it's very hard work. And no one wants to do hard work anymore."
It's also difficult for the markets to recruit local growers -- those who are within the mandated 180-mile radius of Houston, to keep produce as local as possible -- who already have established, successful farming operations. "It's so hard," said Scher. "They think they're going to spend their whole day out there and not sell anything." He shares the story of how Urban Harvest worked for two-and-a-half years to get Atkinson Farms on board, before Mike Atkinson finally caved and came out to Eastside one morning. "By 9:15," Scher laughs, "he had sold out of tomatoes. He only brought a few tubs of them and had to send his son back to the farm to get more. People were lined up to buy them, and that was it!"
More to the point, it's not only difficult to convince established farmers to sell their wares at the markets, it's incredibly difficult -- despite Urban Harvest's many community gardens and school garden programs in low-income elementary and middle schools -- to find minority farmers. "I just don't know of any," Scher says. He relates how many of the minority-owned farms that once populated southeast Texas were bought up by large farming conglomerates, and those minorities -- mainly African-American-- never returned to the farming way of life.
Scher also told of how Urban Harvest has long tried to recruit the Asian gardeners and farmers who sell their produce in bodegas along Bellaire Boulevard. They're simply not interested in going through the application process, he says, and it's a shame.
But what about prepared-food vendors? If there aren't enough minority growers, then perhaps the dearth in that area could be compensated by minority-run companies selling things like honey, cheese, bread or other baked goods? Ms. Laws, who never returned our phone calls asking for an interview, must have missed minority vendors like Manish Puri, who -- like Scher -- was one of the original vendors at the Eastside Farmers' Market and has been a fixture in Houston farmers' markets ever since moving here from San Francisco.
Puri, a native of Delhi, is known for the delicious Indian food he sells at farmers' markets across the city: Nisha's Quick N Ezee Indian Food. A farmers' market veteran, Puri has been selling prepared foods for more than 13 years, both here and in California. Of the many markets he's worked with, "Urban Harvest is the most professionally managed market" of them all, he said.
"They are hardliners, you could say," he laughed, "about local food. That is how I got into the Eastside Farmers Market, by buying all local ingredients and using them in the food. I buy vegetables from the market, I buy chickens from the market." What many people don't realize is that Urban Harvest is incredibly strict about which prepared food vendors they'll allow into Eastside, Discovery Green or the City Hall. There are pages of rules by which the prepared-food vendors must abide in order to have their application approved and in order to sell their wares each week.
When it comes to prepared foods, vendors must "obtain and process ingredients to produce food or craft items within 180 miles of Houston." While not all of the ingredients have to be local, Urban Harvest requires that a very high percentage -- between 80 and 90 percent -- of them are.
Discrimination on any other basis is simply not an issue, Puri said. On the phone, he sounded indignant about this. "I don't feel any discrimination," he emphasized. "I get the same respect every other vendor gets. I am very happy there."
He further clarified: "Race should not be an issue. Whoever goes to [Urban Harvest] and applies, [Urban Harvest] will look at their ingredients...and nothing else."
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In his report, Carey pointed out that "the farmers' market has since added an Indian restaurant owner and an African-American vendor." But what he failed to discover, as he seemingly never interviewed anyone actually associated with Urban Harvest, was that the African-American vendor -- Shirley Ann, who has long-prepared baked goods at the Discovery Green Farmers Market --was already in the process of moving over to City Hall. She simply didn't make it over there that first week. And that Indian restaurant owner? That would be none other than Manish Puri, who certainly wasn't added to the roster based on Laws's complaint, as he's been a vendor with Urban Harvest for three years.
That initial success that Ray Scher celebrated with his Urban Harvest friends and peers has now been overshadowed by a misleading complaint filed by one disgruntled City Hall employee, which could tarnish a desperately needed market. In the televised report, Carey stated that, "when [Laws] looked around, she didn't see any diversity whatsoever." This statement is particularly questionable to Scher, who noted that -- in the market's five weeks in operation -- "as far as the customers are concerned, more are minorities than Anglos."
"People were streaming out of the buildings," he says of the thousands of office workers who continue to come out each week. "If [Laws] only looked at the vendors..." he trailed off. "We would love to have more vendors. We'd love to fill the place with vendors."
It's terribly disappointing that Velma Laws can't see past race and instead see the bounty of good that organizations like Urban Harvest perform for the entire city at large. Meanwhile, Urban Harvest is still taking applications for vendors -- both farmers and prepared food vendors -- regardless of the vendor's race or ethnicity.