Photo depicting a group of individuals gathered around a sign that reads "El Mercadito." Shelves of food stand behind the group.

The Urban Fresh Food Collective Tackles Food Insecurity in South Park

by Amanda Ong

Since 2018, the Urban Fresh Food Collective has been making fresh food accessible to South Park, one of Seattle’s food deserts. What started as a passionate group of South Park residents has now become a team of leaders committed to honoring the community through its various programs. They remind us that despite Seattle’s seemingly progressive reputation, there are still neighborhoods without easy access to fresh foods. 

“We don’t have a grocery store here in South Park,” Executive Director Crystal Brown said in an interview with the Emerald. “And we’re also cut off from direct access to other neighborhoods, because we’re cut off by highways, the river, and industry. For a lot of families in South Park, getting to the grocery store is a trek, because there’s not one in their neighborhood, and their entire neighborhood is cut off.” 

Surrounded by the Duwamish River, cut off by State Route 509, and partitioned by State Route 99, South Park residents have limited access to fresh foods. Brown says the surrounding highways have made South Park the most polluted neighborhood in Seattle. There is no greenbelt, and at one spot, you can even get an unobstructed view of both highways at once, with cars closing in on the neighborhood at 70 miles per hour. 

A branch of the nonprofit organization Cultivate South Park, the Urban Fresh Food Collective’s mission is to “increase access to healthy food in South Park by mobilizing our neighborhood’s resources, such as our farm, residents, businesses, and community members.” The collective started by serving community dinners, which were put on hold due to the pandemic, though they have recently started to return. 

Now, members distribute fresh food and groceries every Tuesday and the first and third Fridays of the month for low-income families and individuals living in Seattle and King County, with pickup in the South Park neighborhood. They also deliver food boxes twice a month to low-income families that have physical issues, elders living alone, and families with illnesses such as COVID-19 or any other that puts them in quarantine. 

Photo depicting a group of individuals organizing and creating grocery bags to deliver to low-income families.
Volunteers distribute fresh food and groceries every Tuesday and the first and third Fridays of the month for low-income families and individuals in South Park. (Photo: Mónica Perez)

The South Park neighborhood is over 40% Latino but has historically been home to a number of different communities. “South Park and near neighborhoods are rich, [with] diverse members,” Mónica Perez, executive director of the Urban Fresh Food Collective, told the Emerald. “We guarantee fresh produce, which includes fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and culturally appropriate groceries.”

For many in South Park, barriers to healthy food access can be high, especially for families in the area. Brown says some families will make just $50 over the limit for food stamps and struggle thereafter to find solutions. “Before the pandemic, some families relied on breakfast and lunch provided at the schools for their kids,” Brown said. “There are members of our community who don’t have housing right now, but they are members of the community. And so a lot of access for people really did shut down with the beginning of the pandemic.” 

The Collective has various programs to address food security issues. It provides classes on urban farming and other resources around food. Its teen programs include food job training, including a “barista brigade,” where youth learned how to be baristas. One of its most fruitful programs has been El Mercadito — the local farmers market it brought to the South Park neighborhood in 2020. 

“The Mercadito was born in uncertain times when COVID-19 hit, and, sadly, underserved communities must become their own supporters due to the lack of cultural understanding of the government system,” Perez said. “However, we have an amazing team with values and skills that connected and keep supporting minority groups, including the Latinx group who worked together with their own resources to approach a list of needs and resources.” 

Perez says the farmers market has a personal touch to it that brings out the character of South Park. When you go to the grocery store, you might not know the story behind what you’re buying, but the farmers market is local, and shoppers meet the vendors face to face.

“We always strive to have some sort of performing artist or DJ [at El Mercadito] that we would pay to bring more life to the market as well,” Brown said. “And then our big market was Dia de los Muertos, where people were able to view a really beautiful celebration by the community.”

El Mercadito even features local, South Park-based vendors, like La Matriarca Woodworkings. The Collective’s ethic toward building from the local community reflects the organization’s origins. It was founded by partnering with neighbors who were already involved in food distribution at various scales, some simply running pantries outside of their homes. At the beginning of the pandemic, when everything shut down, the Collective collaborated with these neighbors to start serving hot meals and to give away Safeway gift cards.

“The Urban Fresh Food Collective was born out of really just a collection of neighbors that just jumped in and started feeding the community,” Brown said. “On a grand scale, when you start with what’s close to home, when you start trying to make that more collaborative [space], that just has a trickle effect.” From there, the Collective has continued to grow, and has even expanded some of its services beyond South Park to other surrounding communities.

“The Collective does not build community; we really believe that communities have been here,” Perez said. “We love to say that we are here to remember, recognize, and honor all our histories and who we are. … Our program model proves that communities thrive when work is led by people with the same background and life experiences as their communities and people around them.” 

To get involved or volunteer with the Urban Fresh Food Collective, call or message Mónica Perez at 206-731-9937 or email For more updates, follow El Mercadito on Facebook and Instagram.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: El Mercadito was created by a group of volunteers in 2020, after the pandemic hit and left many residents of South Park facing food insecurities. (Photo: Mónica Perez)

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