The residents of Galena Park want to bring a farmers market to their food desert. But no seller will come.

Cruz Hinojosa reluctantly walked into the Middleton supermarket in Galena Park on a stormy June morning, visibly uncomfortable and restless. It is the only large-scale grocery store in the city and, in his opinion, is grossly inadequate for its more than 10,000 residents.

Galena Park is designated as a food desert by the United States Department of Agriculture. A dedicated community activist, Hinojosa’s latest quest is to bring a farmers market to the area. But after months of awareness raising, he has yet to find any vendors who will commit to attending.

The town of Galena Park sits at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and the second in the world, is home to companies such as Kinder Morgan and LyondellBasell. The area is almost enclosed by plants: Clinton Drive is the main entry and exit route, a four-lane road where the 18-wheelers roll from the Port of Houston. Only three other roads lead, all crossing the town of Jacinto to the north.

Residents regularly face chemical fires and leaks from nearby factories; During Hurricane Harvey, two tanks collapsed in the oil tank farm operated by Magellan Midstream, spilling more than 460,000 gallons of oil into the city’s floodwaters.

Juan Flores, manager of the Air Alliance Houston community air watch program and friend of Hinojosa, has lived in Galena Park his entire life. He calls the Texmark factory “the stinky.” Growing up, he and his friends played a game about who could hold their breath the longest when they passed him. He also remembers playing in rainbow-colored water, thinking it was cool. Now he knows better.

Hinojosa is a fifth generation Houstonian who grew up in the East End and bought a house in Galena Park in 1999. The town had a good school district, but he was unaware of its environmental challenges.

However, he quickly noticed a lack of representation in government and civic institutions in the predominantly Latino city. For two decades, he served on the city council and the school board. He founded the Galena Park chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 2002. Increasingly aware of the effects of petrochemical plants on residents, he launched the Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park ( ECAGP) in 2010.

Her hands are full of projects to improve the lives of people in the Big Energy backyard, and food justice has become a big part of her efforts.

“The need for fresh vegetables and fruits is there,” Hinojosa said. “When I started (in environmental activism), I didn’t know that meant the health and well-being of everything.”

Cruz Hinojosa, who volunteers with the Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park group, tried to bring more fresh food to the community with a farmers market, but ran into roadblocks in the small community surrounded by heavy industries. Photographed on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at Galena Park.

Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Healthy eating can improve residents’ resilience against environmental exposures, says Grace Lewis, senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which helps ECAGP start a farmers market.

When Hinojosa was a member of the city council, he considered setting up a grocery store in the city. It was an uphill battle, and he became convinced that no large chain stores would come to Galena Park due to one big quirk: the city is dry. Grocery stores depend on alcohol for a significant portion of their sales. An electoral measure to overturn this law was rejected in 2017 in a low voter turnout, 482 to 277 votes.

In 2019, ECAGP received a grant of $ 20,000 from EDF. In a 26-page community action plan that explained how to cope with food desert conditions, ECAGP members noted that a farmers’ market would increase long-term access to food, provide education on the positive effects of healthy eating and would serve as a community gathering place.

The ECAGP team approached farmers in Houston, Deer Park, La Porte and Galveston to attend. They spoke to vendors in other markets, such as the Azteca Farmer’s Market and the Eastern Farmer’s Market on navigation, and sought advice from the Urban Harvest Farmer’s Market team. They even sued the roadside fruit and vegetable vendors.

No one followed. They said they didn’t have the capacity, or they were already engaged in a lucrative place, so why leave it?

Thanks to the EDF grant and an additional $ 28,000 from the Port of Houston, activists planned to offer $ 1,000 in $ 10 vouchers as an incentive for residents and as guaranteed income for vendors. This did not appeal to the latter.

“We need more people to invest their time and willingness to make a farmers market available to all the diverse populations in our region,” Lewis told EDF. “We shouldn’t just keep farmers’ markets in the wealthy areas of our city. “

The Urban Harvest Farmers Market, widely considered to be the best farmers market in Greater Houston, has 100 vendors and a waiting list to learn more. Urban Harvest operates in the affluent River Oaks, though the nonprofit recently launched pop-up mobile markets in eight underserved communities, offering a SNAP matching program up to $ 40.

Market manager Tyler Horne says he regularly receives requests for advice from people trying to start new farmers’ markets. Consistency is the key, he tells them. Markets with irregular hours are difficult for farmers to engage, and vendors have grown weary of invitations to new markets, which are not always well managed.

“Your hens are still laying eggs in the weeks when the market is not,” said Horne.

Trucks are backing up on Clinton Drive while waiting for a train to pass on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at Galena Park.  Cruz Hinojosa, who volunteers with the Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park group, tried to bring more fresh food to the community with a farmers market, but ran into roadblocks in the small community surrounded by heavy industries.

Trucks are backing up on Clinton Drive while waiting for a train to pass on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at Galena Park. Cruz Hinojosa, who volunteers with the Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park group, tried to bring more fresh food to the community with a farmers market, but ran into roadblocks in the small community surrounded by heavy industries.

Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Second Ward’s urban farm, Finca Tres Robles, has been a vendor at the East End Farmers Market for 15 months and at Urban Harvest for three years. Co-founder Tommy Garcia-Prats says they were one of only two product sellers at the East End event at the end of their tenure, and there wasn’t enough attendance for it. worth it.

He estimates his annual cost to participate in the markets was around $ 9,500, factoring in stand costs, personnel, insurance, vehicle wear and tear and other considerations. The days of selling $ 400 to $ 600 weren’t very profitable for what usually took around eight to ten hours from start to finish, he says. And of course, it could rain.

Garcia-Prats says he receives a request about once a month from a farmer’s market operator looking for vendors. There’s a lag, he says: There just aren’t enough farms in Houston’s local food system to support all of these new markets.

In Galena Park, Hinojosa wants to start community gardens. He is in talks with Harris County to install raised beds on right-of-way easements around town, including along Hunting Bayou. He hopes to involve students and local Scout troops to help maintain them.

Last year, a class at Texas A&M University developed an urban revitalization proposal to promote environmental justice in Galena Park. A key point has been the establishment of community farms and soil remediation for agriculture at the dredged sites.

One of the proposed locations was Sweet Home Baptist Church, which once housed a thriving community garden that was largely abandoned during the pandemic due to a lack of volunteers, Hinojosa says. In June, the land was mostly occupied by weeds, with leftover onions and peppers drowned in the spongy mud that had just rained.

On October 16, ECAGP finally had the opportunity to open a farmers market to its neighbors as part of the Galena Park Independent School District fall festival. But they were ultimately unable to find farmers. Instead, they bought fruits and vegetables from Luna Produce, a market vendor on Airline in the Heights, to be resold at cost at the event.

“Our main goal is to try to bring healthy food to the community,” said ECAGP Treasury Secretary Maria Barraza. They will keep trying to find sellers on the farm, but it’s better than nothing.

Roxana Sumrall, left, receives lettuce from Mia Gonzalez at the Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park produce stand during a recent fall festival.

Roxana Sumrall, left, receives lettuce from Mia Gonzalez at the Environmental Community Advocates of Galena Park produce stand during a recent fall festival.

Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

On a sunny, fall Saturday, three members worked at the well-stocked produce stand. The festival also had a petting zoo, pumpkin patch, plant stand, craft vendors, and live music from none other than Hinojosa’s band The Legends.

There was a clear interest in the product stand, which remained busy all morning. By the midpoint of the event, they had already handed out 70 of the 100 $ 10 coupons.

Porter resident Cindy Ponce lived in Galena Park and still follows her kids’ old school on Facebook, where she saw the fall festival ad and was drawn to the farm stand and a voucher for $ 10. Ponce says there were never enough fresh food options at Galena Park. She left the market with an ECAGP branded tote bag overflowing with zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, onions, grapefruits, apples and limes.

Hinojosa says her ultimate goal is for the farmers themselves to explain the benefits of fresh food to those who attend: It’s better for you. “

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James V. Payne