Right along the Duwamish River is a vibrant and resilient neighborhood named South Park, which is full of passionate, caring, and hardworking community members who are dedicated to creating a space for connecting and celebrating the gifts the neighborhood offers. At the center of these efforts is Cultivate South Park, a non-profit resident-led organization that creates innovates solutions in issues ranging from food, to environmental, housing and economic justice.
Staying true to its roots in centering community needs, Cultivate South Park has facilitated food distribution, created a free market where neighbors can have access to culturally relevant foods and has created opportunities for neighbors of all ages to learn about food systems, urban farming and more. These efforts are especially important because South Park has no grocery store, making it a food desert.
According to Crystal Brown, executive director and a five-year resident of South According to Crystal Brown, Cultivate South Park’s work to build community resilience has grown considerably in recent years. Prior to the pandemic, Cultivate South Park was organizing local food distribution twice a week. The group increased their efforts to once the pandemic began impacting the community.
“The neighborhood out here stepped up and right away,” Brown said. “The local coffee shop here, Resistencia, and our group started offering free hot breakfast every day, which a lot of people took part in because there were a lot of people who were either dependent on school meals or were dependent on all sorts of services that got disrupted. So for our neighbors who could use food, we started offering hot breakfast in the mornings and that was open to students, families – anybody who needed it.”
After witnessing the success of the hot meals program during such a critical time, Cultivate South Park tapped in the Urban Fresh Food Collective. The collective is a partnership with Resistencia Coffee, Seattle Parks and Recreation, and local community groups, to address community members’ needs around food accessibility.
“We just kind of hit the ground running as a neighborhood,” said Brown. “We were able to use some of the funding and the grants that we had, and we were able to ask our neighbors what they needed. The first Covid-19 Christmas that we had in 2020, we recognized that we needed to make two types of distribution boxes for the community. One of them was the Latinx box, which had more culturally relevant foods. The other box had traditional produce and pantry items. We let the community choose what they wanted, and all the food was used.”
Getting community feedback and implementing the feedback was no easy task for Mónica Perez, the Director of the Urban Fresh Food Collective and longtime resident of South Park, Despite the challenges of the pandemic, she was able to successfully meet community needs through the Christmas food distribution, which resulted in supporting over 200 residents.
Monica continued to manage the weekly food distribution program under the Urban Fresh Food Collective with hopes of expanding the efforts to reach more community members, increase access to culturally relevant foods, and build community.
In the summer of 2021, El Mercadito was born. Spanish for “little market,” El Mercadito started as a mutual aid farmers market that provides free fresh culturally relevant produce every week from its location behind Resistencia coffee shop. The farmers market also shared space with local farmers that were selling their own produce. Some people may be hesitant to have a market that has free food available and food for sale, but Cultivate South Park saw it as an opportunity to collaborate and support local businesses and food systems.
“Some of the farmers offered a sliding scale cost on their produce and we had people that would buy from different vendors of the market, and they would come to our mutual aid part of the market,” Brown said. “They would come and grab a few things like lemons and fruits that were not offered at our vendor’s tables. So
, it ended up being a really beautiful collaboration.”
As the weather got colder, El Mercadito began to slow down but will be making a As the weather got colder, El Mercadito began to slow down but will be making a comeback as a winter market, starting the first Saturday of February. As of 2021 they had an average of 14 local vendors, which includes farmers, community members, food trucks and other small businesses. They hope to expand the market to be year-round and to encourage community members to be vendors as well.
“We recognized how unique and beautiful our culturally diverse and inclusive our market was so our goal is to get a year-round market, that will be like anyone can come,” Brown said. “A mom who makes tamales can come and we can help her get her business license and she can sell what she makes. Currently, we have a wonderful vendor down there that makes pupusas. So, it’s just really cool to be able to represent everybody, and everybody has something special that they identify with culturally, and being able to share that with the community is really beautiful.”
Another program Cultivate South Park runs through the Urban Fresh Food Collective is the Urban Innovators youth program that provides youth the opportunity to gain experience and learn about local food systems. This program has aided in reclaiming a long history of farming to the area. For that reason, Marra Farm was the perfect farm to collaborate with.
Marra Farm was established in 1997 and is located in South Park’s Marra-Desimone Park, it has a total of 39 garden plots, 24 greenhouse plots, and three large tract plots.
“There were some really beautiful opportunities to involve youth in Marra Farm,” Brown said. “So Marra Farm is a community farm. It’s also a P-patch, and we were able to do food education and urban farming education there, getting community members in touch with farming, nature, composting, and infusing art with that as well.”
This year they expanded their urban farming and food education programming by including adults. These programs give community members the tools to help fight food insecurity by learning how to grow their own food.
“Not only for youth but we also had an adult program this summer, where people who expressed food insecurity were able to come and learn how to do urban farming in whatever space they are in,” Brown said. “They were taught how they can grow things even if they love in a home or apartment.”.
The Urban Innovators program empowered youth this past year to build their own campaign around trying to get a grocery store in the South Park neighborhood.
“The neighborhood of South Park is like an island and by that I mean, we are cut off from any other neighborhood by freeways, industry, and the river, said Brown “So, we have no direct connection to any other neighborhood in Seattle. If you need to go get groceries yourself, you couldn’t rely on what we’re now providing twice a week. You would have to go to either West Seattle, Burien, or Boulevard Park.”
Traveling outside of the neighborhood isn’t just a physical barrier but the limited groceries stores also creates a problem around accessibility to culturally relevant foods that are affordable. This is an issue that Cultivate South Park is working tirelessly to address, and they are working toward organizing a year-round El Mercadito and creating a grocery store that reflects the community’s cultural diversity.
When asked what readers can do to support El Mercadito and the work that is being done at Cultivate South Park, Brown said: “Come to El Mercadito, especially our upcoming winter market. If you can’t make it this winter than over the summer, come and visit the El Mercadito because you’re not only going to get a wonderful collection of vendors and really beautiful farmers produce but there are also very lovely restaurants and small businesses to support.”
To learn more about Cultivate South Park and support their work, visit cultivatesouthpark.org.
All photos provided by Cultivate South Park.