Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - October 12, 2012

An apple a day ...

El Camino Hospital hosts Mountain View's new Friday farmers market

by Nick Veronin

For some, finding dirt caked on the side of a bell pepper or nestled in between the leaves of a head of lettuce might be an indication that it's time to consider switching grocers. But for foodies on the hunt for fresh ingredients, it can be a sign that the greens come from local family farmers more concerned with growing things the old fashioned way than procuring pristine (and perhaps pesticide-laden) produce.

If you ascribe to the latter interpretation, it will be refreshing to discover that the heirloom tomatoes and red onions on sale at Las Hermanas' produce stand may a bit dusty and not as uniformly shaped as one might find at a Safeway.

Las Hermanas — a Hollister family farm — along with a small group of other local growers, food producers, restauranteurs and artisans — gathered together on Oct. 5 in a section of the Grant Road parking lot of El Camino Hospital for the first in a series of farmers' markets scheduled to be held each Friday through the end of the fall season.

The market was organized by the Bay Area Farmers' Markets Association in conjunction with El Camino Hospital. According to hospital spokeswoman Chris Ernst, El Camino is sponsoring the event in an effort to improve the eating habits of both its employees and the community it serves.

"As we look to the future, a lot of our focus will be on health and wellness," she said. "A fun foundation of that is nutrition."

The inaugural event drew more than 500 people, Ernst said, and featured a musician, local clothing makers, a couple of local farmers, and some hot food options. There were also informational booths on hospital programs and services, and an instructional booth on CPR.

Though the market's primary focus may be promoting healthy lifestyles, there were some salty and greasy options offered as well. I sampled a cheese steak sandwich (from Big Bite), complete with fried onions and bell peppers, along with a spicy lamb gyro (from Falafel Fresh) topped with mixed veggies and Greek yogurt. Both lunches were fried up as I watched, and both were delicious.

After lunch I stopped to talk to Gloria Chavez of Las Hermanas. Chavez said she runs the 60-acre farm with the help of her four sisters and a handful of other relatives in rural Hollister. Though the sisters have owned the farm for five years, this is their first year working the farmers market circuit.

The Chavez sisters grow watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce, squash, heirloom tomatoes, kale, celery, broccoli, jalapenos, onions and cabbage, among many other vegetables. All their produce is organic, she said.

Chavez advocates eating fresh food, saying that she has lost weight and feels healthier since she began eating her own produce almost exclusively. "At the grocery store, you don't know how long they've kept the produce in a fridge," she said. "At a farmer's market, you're guaranteed fresh produce."

The skeptic inside me is willing to acknowledge that the placebo effect could have played a role in my judgment of the head of romaine lettuce, three heirloom tomatoes and one green bell pepper that I bought from Chavez for $3.50. However, I must say that the greens were fresh and crispy and the tomatoes extra sweet and succulent.

If the market suffers from any major weakness, it is that it's bit green behind the ears. A couple of shoppers noted that the market seemed small. Ernst said the promising first-day turnout and the enthusiasm she observed in the market's patrons left her optimistic that the event will continue to grow. El Camino officials have plans to expand the market by bringing in more farmers, food trucks and other local merchants in the weeks to come, she said.

The new market also increases the accessibility of fresh fruits and vegetables for local low- and fixed-income residents. The market accepts EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, so people on state assistance can purchase produce from the farmers, who often only accept cash at other farmers markets.

"Even those who are on support should be able to have fresh produce," Ernst said.

The location of the new farmers market may prove easier to access for those residents of Mountain View's more southerly neighborhoods — such as Blossom Valley, Martens-Carmelita, Cuernavaca and Waverly Park — especially those who walk, bike or rely on public transportation.

And, of course, it's pretty convenient for El Camino Hospital employees.

"We got excited!" Bernadette Garcia and Jeanne Terrell exclaimed — almost simultaneously — when asked what they thought upon hearing about the market.

"You don't have to go after work," Garcia said, explaining that she is often tired after working long shifts at the hospital. "You can get what you need now and then go straight home."

The market will be held every Friday this fall, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in parking lots A and B of El Camino Hospital, 2500 Grant Road, Mountain View.

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