In Arizona, A Farmers’ Market Flourishes In the Shadow of the Border Fence

 Roxanna Flores, a health education advocate at the Nogales Mercado

Roxanna Flores, a health education advocate at the Nogales Mercado in Nogales, Ariz., offers a taste of her vegetarian chili to Giovanni Galeano. Photo: Lourdes Medrano

Lilia Ruiz and her husband Jose grew up on small farms in rural Sonora – an agriculturally rich region of Mexico. Much of the food their families ate was homegrown.

But after moving to Arizona 25 years ago, those traditions faded away.

“In the city, you buy all your fruits and vegetables at the grocery store,” Jose Ruiz says. “But now it’s important for us to learn to grow what we eat, to nourish the earth, to recycle, and not to waste anything. That’s what sustainability means to me.”

For years the Ruizes shopped at supermarkets, but these days they have a stall selling homegrown and homemade peppers, quinces, and jams at the Nogales Mercado.

Pickled chiltepin peppers

Pickled chiltepin peppers are some of the homemade, homegrown foods found at the Nogales Mercado in Nogales, Arizona. Photo: Lourdes Medrano

The small farmer’s market is just three blocks from the metal border fence that divides the U.S. from Mexico. Since the early 1900s the city has served as a key gateway for the northbound flow of Mexico’s tomatoes, cucumbers, and other fresh produce imported into the U.S. Only a small amount of that produce stays in the area before being shipped to other parts of the U.S. and Canada.

The Ruiz family now grows fruits and vegetables in their own backyard, and they say many of their friends and neighbors are also getting in on gardening.

“One of our neighbors came by because he wanted to start his own garden,” Jose Ruiz says. “Now he’s growing figs, quinces, apricots, and quite a bit more. His grandchildren also are very excited about the garden.”

The weekly market in Nogales started in 2013 as part of an effort to showcase locally-grown, sustainable food as a healthy alternative for local residents. It’s organized in partnership with the local Mariposa Community Health Center and funded by the USDA.

Latinos make up roughly 17 percent of the U.S. population, but in Nogales they are the majority. Santos Yescas, a local resident who helped found the market says the Nogales Mercado and other local initiatives seek to educate residents about healthy food choices in ways that are culturally appropriate.

The farmer's market, Nogales Mercado

The farmer’s market, Nogales Mercado, offers an array of locally-grown produce, baked good and handicrafts every Friday afternoon. Photo: Lourdes Medrano

“Here on the border we’re not accustomed to eating fruits or vegetables that we’re not too familiar with, like eggplant for example,” says Yescas. “To be sustainable, the farmer’s market mixes in products people look for, like flour tortillas. But they are whole wheat tortillas.”

They also keep other staples of Mexican cuisine on hand, such as homemade salsas and pickled chiltepin peppers.

Roxanna Flores, a health education advocate working at the market, hopes to get shoppers interested in dishes not commonly part of Mexican cuisine, the food choice of many in this border city.

“Would you like to try the vegetarian chili?” she asks shoppers as they pass by. “I like to encourage people to try something different,” she says.

Concepción Galindo tries Flores’s chili and seems to enjoy it. She’s holding two bags filled with watermelon, pears, carrots, garlic and onions that she bought at the market. She likes the organic produce here, but she’s skeptical about the prices.

“It’s a bit expensive,” she says.

Yescas has heard that before. The higher cost of organic food poses special challenges in an area with high unemployment and poverty rates. To attract customers on limited incomes and improve overall attendance, the market accepts food stamps and other forms of government assistance.

“We are constantly working to let people know about the benefits of buying locally, and how the money stays in the community, as opposed to when they shop at a supermarket chain,” Yescas says.

But he understands that the higher price tag of organic produce may prove prohibitive for some. One solution he often suggests to people in Nogales is planting a garden in a small plot at home – like the Ruizes have done.

Yescas recently began growing bell peppers and tomatoes in his own garden and he says his 16-year-old daughter Amanda is now eating more fresh produce, too.

“It takes little space to grow one’s own food,” he says. “And people can save money and maybe even make some in the long run.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.