This special focus on health begins with a look at healthy eating offered to us by Asian farmers at winter farmers markets. Chizu Omori shares her story raising chickens, which provides a healthy diversion from urban living. Also, a new report details how Medicare could pay for medical interpreting for 2.5 million elderly U.S. residents who speak little or no English. And finally, a profile on Dr. Holly Peng with a focus on cross cultural family medicine. —ed.
BY SUSAN KUNIMATSU
Seattle is a haven for fresh fruits and vegetables and the people who love them. Long summer days graduate to a temperate autumn. A mild coastal climate and sunny eastern plains yield a scrumptious array of garden, field, and orchard crops that can be picked this morning and on our tables tonight. A world of ethnic culinary traditions and an interest in healthy lifestyles create an appetite for fresh local produce.
But “fresh” and “local” cannot be taken for granted. The act of growing things to eat may seem simple, but farming is a business subject to the demands of land and fuel costs, regulation and the market. Most supermarket foods come from large factory farms or wholesalers, traveling an average of 1,500 miles from harvest to shelf.
Local farmers markets help connect field to table. The Pike Place Market originated as a street market where farmers sold direct to the public, to avoid the cost of middlemen. Before World War II, Japanese farmers were a strong contingent on Pike Place. In the past decade, farmers markets have multiplied; this year there are nearly 30 in Seattle’s neighborhoods and suburbs. Southeast Asian farmers, arriving in Washington during the 1980s, were able to establish and sustain small farms by selling directly to consumers through farmers markets, where they are a distinctive presence today.
On a sunny Saturday morning, the parking lot at the University Heights Center is lined with white vinyl canopies housing some 50 farmers and food producers from all over Washington State. The spaces between the rows are packed with shoppers. Neng Va Cha Garden is one of a half dozen Asian vendors. All have a similar setup: folding tables are loaded with vegetables: beets, carrots, kohlrabi, onions, basil, bok choy, chard, red and green spinach rubber-banded into one-dollar bunches. The floor of the stall is crowded with big colorful bouquets of flowers, $7 to $15 depending on size. Sunflowers, dahlias, chrysanthemums and lilies stand in black plastic cylinders.
Neng Cha, a slender man of 30, handles a steady stream of sales and questions about the vegetables. His mother, Neng Dou, a tiny woman in a bright purple jacket and blue shirt pulls flowers out of the van backed up to the stall and arranges them in bouquets, binding the cut ends in a plastic bag and rubber band. She works ceaselessly to keep the cylinders filled. Most of the vegetable sales are $1 or $2; flowers are the big ticket item. A man in a plaid shirt, jeans, and an expensive watch is shopping for his wife’s birthday. He wants to buy an oversized bouquet right out of Neng Dou’s hands. Neng Cha asks $20 and they bargain down to $18.
Neng Dou and her husband, Neng Va Cha were farmers in Laos. They arrived in the United States in 1980 and resumed farming in the early 1990s in Woodinville. They have since acquired land in Carnation, Monroe and Sultan; some 100 family members work these farms. Neng Va Cha was one of the original vendors when the University District market opened in 1993.
During the summer growing season, the Neng clan works 11- to 12-hour days, seven days a week. They will start as early as 6:30 a.m. to harvest produce, load the van, travel and set up. Even if they sell out, they can’t leave until the market closes, arriving home in Monroe around 4 p.m. to several more hours of field work. The cycle repeats in a different neighborhood each day of the week.
The University District market is the oldest of six managed by the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance. All vendors are from Washington and sell food products that they make or grow themselves. Associate Director Karen Kinney says they try to assemble a balanced group of farmers, ranchers, fishers, bakers, cheese and jam makers that will offer shoppers variety in a well-rounded “market basket.” Besides product line, farmers are chosen for their years farming and selling at the markets, and their potential to grow the next generation of farmers on which the markets depend. While Asian farmers’ produce favors certain cuisines, Kinney feels that flowers are their signature product.
“Their incredible bouquets have made flowers accessible to people who can’t afford a florist,” she states emphatically. “And the color adds so much to the appearance of a market.”
Of the 140 vendors in the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, 12 to 15 percent are Asian. The Alliance does not recruit specific ethnic groups and offers all vendors informal training in business practices. They have added a session with a Hmong language interpreter to their annual vendor orientation meetings.
While most neighborhood farmers markets are seasonal, some stay open year-round. The Neighborhood Farmers Winter 2007 Markets are at University District, open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and West Seattle, open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. www.SeattleFarmersMarkets.org.