Summer event brings community members together to share food, activity, culture

Visitors to the Mercado del Valle in Odell line up for freshly made vegetable smoothies. Photos courtesy of Gorge Grown Food Network
Visitors to the Mercado del Valle in Odell line up for freshly made vegetable smoothies. Photos courtesy of Gorge Grown Food Network

By Stu Watson

Now in its fourth year, the Mercado del Valle in downtown Odell is the most visible part of an effort to connect low-income residents of the upper Hood River Valley with fresh, local foods.

Started by the Gorge Grown Food Network, the market germinated through the able assistance of young college graduates working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Anna Osborn, Hannah Ladwig, Allison Vandenberg-Daves and Alyssa Melendez have taken the reigns for a year each.

“After living here, I got familiar with the food system and saw that a lot of ag workers and their kids were eating highly processed foods,” Hannah recalls of her work with the market in 2015. “I saw the people who were picking our food couldn’t afford to eat it, and I thought this was something I could work with for Gorge Grown.

” The market spent its first few years at Mid-Valley Elementary School, but it now pops up at Atkinson Drive in downtown Odell, next to the Wy’east Community Church.

The market’s time slot is designed to meet shoppers at a time that fits with their busy work lives. The Hood River Farmers Market runs midday on Saturdays. The Mercado del Valle, by contrast, is from 4 to 7 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays from June to September.

For farmer and booth operator Michaela Ballinger, that is a huge plus.

Allison Reyes shows off some fresh kale she will be taking home.
Allison Reyes shows off some fresh kale she will be taking home.

“The best selling point about the market is that it’s in the evening,” says the owner of Stepping Stone Farm in Mosier. “I sell mostly vegetables, but some fruit. It’s great people and good conversation. It’s not the worst way to spend the afternoon.”

Some markets are mostly about food— and Mercado del Valle dishes that up at booths such as El Gallito, run by Vitalina Rodriguez. There is also fresh salsa from Gloria Dennis of La Mexicana Carnicería Market in Odell.

But as Hannah observes, Mercado del Valle may be more about a venue to let community members—many of them Latino—meet, greet, eat, celebrate, dance and connect with community resources.

“Every week there’s special events, from yoga to Zumba to a waterslide,” Hannah says. “There’s all of these awesome things. It’s more than a market. It’s a community gathering space to do these awesome activities.”

Two years ago, Hannah organized a health fair as part of the market. Providers tested blood pressure and linked people to various health care agencies.

Hood River Public Library operates a table, as does One Community Health.

The Oregon State University Extension Service shows people how to prepare foods on sale from market vendors. Extension agents identify a food of the month, then gear instruction to that item—perhaps radishes one month, or onions when they are being harvested.

A vendor sells her wares at the Mercado del Valle.
A vendor sells her wares at the Mercado del Valle.

The Mid-Valley Folkloric Dancers provide entertainment, and the St. Francis House organizes children’s activities.

As the market adjusted its open hours—from midday, to afternoon, to evening—it saw a shift in the mix of people and what they wanted from it.

Hannah says small farmers backed away, but community food sales tables expanded.

Alyssa says it is a great way for home gardeners to sell excess harvest.

“We’ve got two community tables, and they’re thriving,” she says. “It’s first come, first served—people bring plant starts, eggs, whatever they have—and it’s perfect if they’re not ready for a full booth, but want to test their product.”

Community sellers share 10 percent of their proceeds with the market, rather than paying the $25 fee for a booth.

For farmer and booth seller Michaela, the Mercado is not funding an early retirement. But she believes in the evening hours and other benefits.

“I do it more on principle than for financial reasons,” she says. “It’s a pretty quiet market.”

That said, she is heartened by the growth of a complementary market at the Mt. Hood Town Hall as another opportunity to bring fresh food to residents of every corner of the county.

Amy Gray, who started that market in 2016, says it was intentionally slotted on the second Thursday of June, July, August and September. It runs from 4 to 7 p.m.

“We were trying to fill a need, not take an audience,” she says.

Michaela says she is not sure what the future holds for the Mercado.

“It’s been a slow start,” she says. “But it’s great that everyone is making an effort to get out of downtown Hood River.”