Sunnyvale Farmers Market gives refugees in Utah a taste of home

Sunnyvale Farmers Market gives refugees in Utah a taste of home Photo by Jeri Gravlin


Sunnyvale Farmers Market gives refugees in Utah a taste of home

By Sheena McFarland Special to The Tribune

First Published Sep 15 2015 08:42AM • Last Updated Oct 03 2015 08:23 pm

The joy on Vumilia Evangeline's face was evident.

The Burundi refugee held a plastic grocery sack filled with butter beans, the ingredient needed to make her favorite stew.

"This feels wonderful. It feels like I'm home," she said, adding she hasn't been able to find the vegetable in the United States. She was thrilled at the thought of cooking a dish she hadn't made since she left a refugee camp in Tanzania eight years ago.

Producing small, hard-to-find, tangible memories of home is how the Sunnyvale Farmers Market serves refugees throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

The market is tucked away at Valley Center Park, 4013 S. 700 West, which is near eight massive apartment complexes largely inhabited by refugees. The International Rescue Committee's New Roots refugee farmer program started the market in June 2014.

"It's a really vulnerable area. There are some facilities issues, and there has been some damage to the park, but we're helping something really beautiful bloom in a neighborhood that sees a lot of trouble," said Grace Henley, program director of New Roots. "That is reflected in the space. You have this beautiful produce being sold in this downtrodden public space."

While that may sound like a familiar situation — think Pioneer Park and the Downtown Farmers Market — Sunnyvale is unlike any farmers market you've seen in the state.

Temporary steel barriers block off the market's entrance as staffers haul in large rubber tubs of fresh produce from the New Roots farm several blocks away. Most of the tubs have lids on them; staffers learned long ago that those waiting in line would reach for food from open tubs as the trucks pulled up.

When the market opens at noon, members of the crowd sprint to the large plastic totes, grabbing handfuls of butter beans, Thai chiles, okra and more exotic fare such as bee (small, round eggplants that look like tiny green pumpkins); roselle, a bitter spinachlike leafy green; or bottle gourds, which are thick tubes of light yellow-green and range from 2 to 3 feet in length.

Those opening minutes are filled with a cacophony of excited squeals and the fast-paced babble created when Swahili, Kirundi, Dzongkha, French and English blend together. The usual hipster clothing of plaid shirts and shoes worn barefoot often seen at other farmers markets is replaced by the bright hues of yellow, red, orange and blue textiles with prints from sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia and leather sandals.

For the shoppers there, almost exclusively refugees, the experience makes the United States feel more welcoming.

"When I came, I said, 'This is Africa,' " said Nyanya Mushoma, a refugee from central Africa. "This is how we shop in my country."

Much of the produce is native to far regions of the world, but it is grown at the New Roots farm. Refugees enrolled in the IRC's Farmer Training Program grow the produce, harvest it and make money from selling it.

"It gives families the ability to exercise their existing agrarian skills, supplement their incomes and build community all at the same time," Henley said.

The farmers market helps supplement cost of the food through a federal grant that allows the market to match up to $10 of SNAP funds each week. About 80 percent of those who shop at the market receive the assistance.

"It helps to have the price lowered to half," said shopper Tika Subedi, who is from Nepal but ethnically Bhutanese. "When you can get fresh produce like this, you feel like you are back at home."

The area, sandwiched between South Salt Lake and Murray, is considered one of the largest food deserts in Utah by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning an area that doesn't have access to fresh, affordable food.

But the Sunnyvale Farmers Market is changing that.

The market partners with Salt Lake County, which allows free use of the park each Saturday. Henley said her team has painted several of the tables at the park and does regular trash pickup before the Saturday market. She also wishes the county would restripe the small road that leads to the park to show people can park along the street side.

"It's great they allow us free use of the park, but on the other hand, it can be tough to get movement," Henley said.

The county provides workers a couple of times a week to maintain the park, but it may not be on the day of the market, said Callie Birdsall, communications and PR manager for Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation. The street may be too narrow to safely allow roadside parking, she added.

Despite those small hiccups, the market is still serving one of its purposes: helping refugees preserve part of their culture.

Albert Betoudji, a refugee from Chad, used to grow crops for his family as he pursued a career as a university professor teaching accounting and business management.

He now works in the world of customer service here in Utah, but he has been able to keep farming as part of his life in the Beehive State. He grows roselle, okra and bee at the New Roots farm and sells them at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market. Each season, he makes about $3,000 to supplement his income. His family helps as well.

"I get to teach my children how to farm just like my father taught me," he said.

He has used his accounting skills to keep meticulous farming records, detailing how much time and labor it takes to get the best crop production.

"The weather and the soil is not perfect here, but it is good to have access to these foods," he said.

The next generation of refugees, those who came to the United States as children, also find ways to engage their community at the market.

Jiriberi Bucanayandi, a 20-year-old Burundian refugee who grew up in a Tanzanian refugee camp, sells fresh produce grown by The Green Urban Lunch Box at low prices. He makes just enough gas money to get him to Salt Lake Community College, where he is studying accounting.

"This park is hidden, but it's close to many of the refugees who live in the Salt Lake Valley," Bucanayandi said. "Everything we do here, we do it for them."