More than 60 percent of residents in Mecklenburg County are obese, according to the county’s Food Policy Council. One of the primary reasons for the high rate of obesity, which often leads to health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure, is the lack of grocery stores in many neighborhoods, according to the council.
That’s a problem in the Beatties Ford Road corridor in West Charlotte. Health Department officials say it’s a food desert and are trying to fix it, partly through an expanded farmers market that opened this month.
Between now and the end of September, the Rosa Parks Farmers Market will be open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The market is not new, but it is larger than it used to be and is in a different location. Formerly, it was at the Beatties Ford Road Health Department. John Levin, a Health Department manager who oversees the market, said they moved it next door to Johnson C. Smith University to make it more accessible.
“People who come to our market can walk here or ride their bike here. There’s plenty of parking and it’s closer to a more dense population, so it’s more convenient to the community,” Levin said. “It’s on bus routes, it has good sidewalks, good connectivity to the community. So we think it will grow.”
This week, the market bustled with shoppers and farmers displaying an array of fruits and vegetables on tables under a large tent—something the former location did not have. Reese Gambell traveled from Lynchburg, South Carolina, to sell fruits and vegetables from his family’s farm.
“The produce I brought today are onions, blueberries, red potatoes, squash, corn and cabbage,” Gambell said. “The onions and red potatoes are 75 cents a pound. The blueberries are $5 for the large and $3 for the small pints. Corn is $1 an ear, and cucumbers are $1 and my squash is $1 per pound."
Across from Gambell, JCSU students Jania Rodriguez and Mayra Parrilla sell organic vegetables, grown at the school.
“Last week we sold out of the kale, basil, lettuce, cucumbers and the squash,” Parrilla said.
Rodriguez added, “This location is better because it gets more of a view to passing residents and easier for people to say, 'something’s going on let’s stop.'”
Sitting on a wooden park bench in the middle of the tent, Mattie Marshall said she drove nine miles to get here and is pleased with the expansion and diverse turnout.
“I love it, I love it, I love it,” Marshall said. “I’m just going to take my time and get some nice vegetables and stuff.”
Sitting next to Marshall is former Superior Court Judge Shirley Fulton. She lives just down the street.
“It’s a big step for people to have an opportunity for fresh food and that’s something we’ve been asking for,” Fulton said. “There aren’t any grocery stores. There is one way down the road, but not one in the immediate vicinity.”
In addition to offering healthy food choices, the upgraded market has flowers, baked goods and local honey. There’s a small area for children to play under the tent. There are also demonstrations on things like CPR training and weekly healthy cooking. That’s where market Chef Njathi Kabui comes in.
“I’m cooking black beans with plantains and eggplant with a brown organic basmati rice, deboned chicken with fresh onions and herbs from my garden,” Kabui said.
Kabui is doing a larger meal today because it’s Juneteenth, a celebration of the day enslaved Africans in Texas learned they were free -- more than two years after the rest of the country. A crowd gathered under a separate tent to listen to speakers and African drummers. As District Judge Alicia Brooks looked on, she said she thinks the market will make a difference in this predominately African-American community.
“I think it’s a huge deal to have it,” Brooks said. “It offers healthy options. It teaches our community about taking care of our own health, that we can produce things in our own community that are healthy that not only enrich our body, but our spirit.”
For now, six farmers are here. They don’t have to pay to sell their crops here, something Health Department officials hope will be an incentive for more farmers to come to the market. They also expect the number to increase as more fruits and vegetables ripen. They say they hope to expand the market’s reach so residents here will have healthier food options.