The Mercado del Valle is more than just a farmers  market. It is a vibrant, culturally diverse, mini food festival in downtown Odell, the epicenter of farming in the Hood River Valley. Imagine a mariachi band, children dancing traditional Baile Folklórico, handmade tamales, elotes, Banda Misteriosa 360, and a bike-powered smoothie maker. This community gathering is the manifestation of years of collaborative work and community building.

Mercado del Valle, started in 2014 by Gorge Grown Food Network, has several goals: create a community gathering space; increase access to fresh, healthy food; celebrate Latinx culture; provide educational events, cooking demonstrations, and information to improve health; and support small business development.

In 2018, Gorge Grown hired community organizer Joel Pelayo to help engage the Latinx community. Joel is co-founder of Raíces Cooperative Farm, a program of The Next Door Inc., which provides organic gardening education and small business development services to members of the Spanish speaking community. Joel grows and sells produce like tomatoes, chiles, garlic, and tomatillos. He also mans the Mesa Comunitaria (Community Table) where gardeners can drop off their produce to be sold at Mercado. Joel has been a Community Health Worker through The Next Door for more than 20 years. He is also co-chair of the Community Advisory Committee of the regional Columbia Gorge Health Council and he believes that food is a cornerstone of health.

This year, Gorge Grown partnered with Hood River County Library District to contract Yelitza Boots, bilingual outreach specialist, to run the Mercado information booth, process transactions, promote the market, schedule events and recruit musicians. One of Yeli’s favorite parts of the job is passing out “power of produce” (POP) tokens: anyone under the age of 13 receives a $2 token to buy fresh fruits or vegetables, plus a stamp in their POP Club passport book. This gets young people excited about trying new things like radish and kale. Funding for POP is provided by Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital.

One in three residents of the Gorge worry about where their next meal will come from

The regional Community Health Assessment, conducted by PacificSource Coordinated Care Organization and the Columbia Gorge Health Council in 2014 and 2017, illuminated the fact that food insecurity is one of the primary issues impacting health in our region, particularly for vulnerable populations. Increasing food access is a top prio-rity in the regionally recognized Community Health Improvement Plan. Staffing for Mercado del Valle is funded, in part, by PacificSource.

Mercado del Valle is a beautiful reflection of the Hood River Valley’s Latinx community. About 40 percent of the population of the Gorge is Latinx, with an even higher percentage in towns like Odell. At Mid Valley Elementary School, 81 percent of the students identify as Latinx.

Many of the Latinx residents of Odell work in the agricultural sector as farmworkers or fruit packers for large distributors. Ironically, food insecurity among farmworkers is high: a survey administered by the Columbia Gorge Health Council found that 53 percent of farmworkers do not have enough to eat.

Mercado shoppers can use various forms of currency to access the produce they otherwise might not be able to afford. Gorge Grown’s Veggie Rx program enables healthcare providers to “prescribe” vouchers to food-insecure patients for fresh veggies and fruit. The “SNAP Match” program provides an extra $5 to shoppers using EBT (formerly known as food stamps). Women who are pregnant or have young children can use their WIC vouchers to purchase food, too.

“I believe Mercado benefits the community in all ways. People come to support each other. It brings people of all ages together. We get to know our neighbors, our farmers and our community organizations. There is a sense of joy through music, art, and laughter. At Mercado, we’re living in the moment,” said Yelitza.

Yelitza and her colleagues staff a pop-up library at the Mercado where they encourage literacy and a lifelong love of reading. The Mercado is the perfect place to offer a variety of library services ranging from an assortment of bilingual library materials for checkout to a summer reading program for kids and teens. In a town with no public library and limited resources, the pop-up library provides access to learning, which can be a positive force for equality of opportunity, for personal development, for economic advancement, and for social transformation.

More than 70 youth participated in the summer reading program this year, which offered prizes for reading books through the summer. The program is important in preventing the summer slide, which is a decline in reading ability and other academic skills that can occur over the summer months when school isn’t in session. The pop-up library and musical performers at the Mercado are supported by the Friends of the Library and the Hood River County Library Foundation.

What’s next? Our dream is to find a permanent, covered location to hold the market year-round. We picture makers’ space where small businesses can get a solid start and use shared kitchen space. We envision food trucks showcasing Mexican cuisine with traditional dancing and crafts, and ultimately, a safe, celebratory space where people can connect and really get to know each other. Odell residents have also identified three related project to strengthen Odell’s food system: a community garden, a shared food storage facility, and a community crop swap when gardens are overflowing.

The Mercado del Valle already serves as a touchstone in Odell, designed by and for community, and it has a lot of potential to grow. We hope to see you there again next June.

If you would like to support the market, get more involved in your local food system, or find out more please reach out. www.gorgegrown.com

Sarah Sullivan is the executive director of Gorge Grown Food Network. Gorge Grown’s mission is to build an inclusive and resilient food system that improves the health and well-being of our community.

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