Every Wednesday, Rosa Linares gets up before dawn to harvest vegetables from her son’s suburban Maryland garden. Wearing headlamps, she and her daughter-in-law carefully pack enormous tubs and plastic bags with corn, mint, purslane and a cloverlike herb called chipilín, all popular ingredients in Central American cuisine.
Linares trucks her haul to Crossroads Farmers Market, in a neighborhood off University Boulevard on the border of Takoma Park and Langley Park. Even before the market opens, customers are lined up to get these staples.
This kind of hard work is nothing new for the 65-year-old market entrepreneur who grew up in El Salvador as the eldest of 11 children.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a girl,” she said. “I often went to the fields to help my father. Now it helps support me here.”
The community market where Linares and others sell their produce is part of the Crossroads Community Food Network, a Takoma Park-based nonprofit group that seeks to provide access to fresh, healthful and affordable food to people whose budgets would not normally stretch to include the higher prices charged for organic, locally grown produce. The market attracts a large Latino crowd from the low-rise apartments in the neighborhood, but there also is a rich immigrant mix from West Africa, the Caribbean, Vietnam and China.
What sets Crossroads apart from its more upscale Sunday cousin on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park is its focus on closing the income gap.
Crossroads accepts coupons from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children service. It is also the first market in the country to offer Fresh Checks, an incentive program that adds additional funds to the SNAP nutritional benefits when they are spent on fresh produce at the market. At Crossroads, the client’s dollars are matched up to $15.
On average, Crossroads serves more than 100 participants an hour. “So far this season, we’ve had approximately 3,450 visits from 1,300 customers,” said Michelle Dudley, the manager for Crossroads Programs.
And those numbers go up every week.
Ecolomilia Barreda from Hyattsville was first in line on a recent Wednesday. On this day, $20 was debited from her SNAP account and she was given $15 in Fresh Checks to spend at the market. “It’s better for us,” she said. “Especially for our 6-year-old, who is learning better eating habits.”
The Crossroads incentive model has been so successful that it has been replicated at 500 markets in 30 states. Congress endorsed the idea in the 2014 Farm Bill, which included $100 million to help double food assistance for low-income shoppers at farmers markets. The House Agriculture Committee recently hosted a Crossroads field trip for Capitol Hill staff members.
“I think they were impressed that the system was running so smoothly,” Dudley said. “It’s important for government officials to see how a low-income mother like Barreda uses her food stamps at a farmers market.”
The word has gotten out that this is a great place to shop. Total sales nearly doubled in 2014 from the year before, and cash sales quadrupled. Among the steady customers are older Americans who are given $3 in food tokens for just showing up. They are part of what Crossroads calls the Senior Rush — the 65-and-older crowd that market organizers recognize are needy, but may not receive federal nutrition benefits.
Beyond good, healthful food, Crossroads is also selling nostalgia to many Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants.
“People from all over the world can connect with the idea of the outdoor, traditional marketplace,” Dudley said. “At Crossroads, you can sit down, eat lunch, listen to live music, watch a cooking demonstration and talk with your neighbors. We have something for everyone, from Guatemalan coffee to ecoganic Swiss chard to free-range meats and eggs to pupusas.”
Nancia Sical was a home economics teacher in her native Guatemala. She joined her family in the United States in 2000. Like Linares, Sical is a graduate of the Crossroads Microenterprise Training Program, a certificate program that helps Montgomery County residents start or grow a food business. Nancia’s antojitos, or snacks, attracts a large lunchtime crowd for homemade tamales, carne asada, roasted corn and plantains.
Sical lives five minutes from the market — and the charcoal grill where she fulfills orders nonstop.
“Sometimes I think if it rains, we’re going to have bad day,” she said. “But our customers keep showing up.”
Despite the demand for her food on market days, Sical makes her living as a housekeeper.
“I love to cook,” she said, fanning the fire in the hot midday sun. “My dream is to own a small restaurant where I can sell home-cooked fresh food every day of the week.”
Skirble is a freelance writer.
Crossroads Farmers Market, at 1021 University Boulevard E., Takoma Park, is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Nov. 18.