Mid-day on any given Sunday small groups start to assemble at Parque Ninos Unidos on 23rd Street and Treat. The young with piercings and reusable bags talk on the grass as the old with paper sacks or plastic containers sit on a park ledge. The 30-somethings, slim and dressed with the eclectic panache of the hip, appear to have money but they too clutch empty canvas totes.
Soon all of the bags will be filled with the cornucopia of vegetables laid out on the white, canopy-protected tables a few feet away: red chard, mixed greens, daikon radishes, arugula, peppers – sweet and hot. Another table has seedlings, handed out to encourage urban gardening.
Yes, most come for the Free Farm Stand’s complimentary, often organic, food but those who frequent the market also mention the ritual of community. “This is my heart, my church and my trip to my groceria… All wrapped up in one,” said Loren Bondurant, a 27-year-old Mission administrative assistant and artist, who has used the stand for years and helps out when needed.
Although need is not a requirement, the stand is intended for those who don’t have access to organic produce, said Dennis Rubenstein, a soft-spoken man with a white beard who is known as Tree. “We are encouraging those who have a need because they can’t afford this kind of wonderful food to come,” Tree wrote in an e-mail. “However, in this business you can never know who is in need or not… I am concerned about food justice.”
Tree has lived nearby for nearly 40 years and founded the stand in 2008. “We try to be more than a food assistance program,” he said. “We are trying to inspire people.”
Although he must move from a St. Paulus lot at Eddy and Gough where produce is grown, he insisted that the Free Farm Stand would continue. Other farmer’s markets as well as local gardens supply the stand, but he would also like to find a lot nearby to farm.
Those at Sunday’s giveaway, talked about the Free Farm Stand in terms that would make it difficult to replace. Freddi Kirchner, a realtor who lives around the corner, acknowledged that she can survive without the giveaway, but calls it theater and “a religious experience.”
The idea is that people who use the stand will eat better and be inspired to build their own garden and then share their surplus vegetables with neighbors, Tree said, but he acknowledged, “there is a lot of need out there.”
As Jay Simpson, a 26-year-old Mission resident puts it, many there are trying to figure “out how to pull the strings in the right order.” Simpson, a web designer who moved to the city last May, lives off the Farm Stand and food stamps when he is between jobs.
“I’m sure it’s not all that uncommon,” Simpson said of his situation.
Out of 30 people who were interviewed waiting in line for food on a recent Sunday, one third had either been on food stamps or are receiving social security checks. Others were immigrants, “without papers” one said shyly.
It’s too soon to tell whether the recent cuts in food stamp benefits will increase the number of people lining up for free food. Those cuts went into effect on Nov. 1 and the state estimates that they will mean $11 to $36 a month less for the 50,325 San Francisco residents who get food stamps.
But overall, the number of people using the stand has grown from about 125 a week when they first started giving out numbers in 2010 to more than 186, Tree said. “One day we were up to 200,” Tree said.
Allison Holt, a 41-year-old Mission resident who works part-time teaching autistic teens experimental video, said she has been underemployed for two years. At different times she has stopped coming when she probably should have, but “I didn’t want to lean on these guys so much.”
Holt has been on food stamps, but was cut off because she made too much money in unemployment.
“After that I just gave up,” Holt said of the state-wide food assistance program. Now she visits the stand when her budget gets tight and she’ll help bust down boxes or whatever else is needed.
Eva, a 57-year-old cancer survivor on social security who asked not to be identified by her last name, visits the stand for economic and health reasons.
Eva’s landlord just raised the rent on her Bayview apartment, leaving her with only $200 a month to spend on food. That’s not enough to pay for the organic vegetables she needs to stay healthy, she said.
“The purer it is the better,” Eva said as she waited in line with 49-year-old Jose Contreras, who uses food from the stand to feed his family of six.
Tree said that other food assistance programs make giving and getting free food too complicated and inefficient.
“Our system doesn’t work,” Tree said. “That model leaves out people.”
Now in its fifth year, the operation faced a challenge in the fall of 2011 when the Health Department tried to shut it down after receiving four complaints. Those who use the Farm Stand rallied around Tree and with the help of others, he figured out a system to make the market more orderly. Anyone who arrives gets a number and the their numbers are called out in groups of ten.
On two Sundays in November, the market ran seamlessly. About 12 volunteers, most wearing white gloves, stood behind tables passing out the produce. A half-dozen helpers moved between tables reloading boxes of food.
“They don’t necessarily know what they’re getting,” said Rosemary, a volunteer as she handed what looked like a white zucchini to one person who looked at the vegetable with curiosity.
During the first round, mostly locally and organically grown vegetables are distributed. These come from Tree’s farm now located at Gough and Eddy in a lot owned by St. Paulus Church that Tree must now leave by the end of the year. Locals will also drop off produce or lemons from their gardens.
In the second round the baskets are filled with produce that Tree and his volunteers are able to pick up from other farmer’s markets including those at Stonestown and the Ferry Building.
More seniors and immigrants appear in the second line. That is partly because many are still at church during the first round, said Carmen Lopez, a 68-year-old Mission resident.
“I enjoy the food,” said Zoila Hernandez, a 59-year-old Mission resident, who has been picking up produce from the Free Farm Stand every Sunday for more than two years. “And I make a new friend — Gustavo,” she added referring to Gustavo Ochoa, a 23-year-old guitar playing Mission resident, who started volunteering nearly two years ago.
Maria Cortez, 88, said she began traveling to the stand from the Tenderloin a year ago. She showed a reporter the espazote seedling she picked up, but when asked why she comes to the market she pointed to Tree.
Lydia Chávez contributed reporting.