City Hall Employee Files Complaint with the City of Houston Over City Hall Farmers Market's Lack of "Racial Diversity"

Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
The newest Urban Harvest farmers' market sets up outside City Hall every Wednesday starting at 10 a.m.
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.

Red velvet okra for sale from a local farm.
"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!"

According to its website: "Part of Urban Harvest's mission is to improve the quality of youth education in greater Houston through growing outdoor classrooms at schools."
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.

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