Bringing greens to the desert: refugee farmers sell ethnic crops, celebrate roots at Millcreek farmers market

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Women line up to pick out vegetables at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market at 4013 S. 700 West, which draws a weekly refugee clientele on Saturday, July 13, 2019, selling food grown exclusively by refugees living in Utah.

Neema Abakaki knows a fresh bunch of “lega lega” when she sees one.

Five bunches, actually — all packed up and handed to her as she shopped at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market Saturday afternoon. “Lega lega,” Swahili for amaranth, is one of the crops that remind Abakaki of home.

Born in Congo and raised in Uganda, Abakaki moved to Michigan six years ago as a refugee, a status for which her mother had fought for a decade. Now living in Utah and a first-timer shopper at the farmers market, she was excited to find cheap and fresh African greens.

The vegetables on sale were all grown by African refugees — a unique feature of the Sunnyvale Farmers Market in Millcreek.

New Roots, a subsidiary program of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), created the market nine years ago to help connect refugees who have agricultural backgrounds with local businesses and communities in Utah, said Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the IRC.

The Sunnyvale Farmers Market also brings greens and vegetables into the community, she said. The area is considered Salt Lake County’s largest food desert, which means there is limited access to fresh food.

Refugee farmers can receive training and grow crops in community gardens and farm sites through the program, with an end goal to become independent business owners, El-Deiry said.

“People start off with smaller plots of land and progressively move into larger plots of land," she said, "and the whole time we ... help them move on to their own.”

Bashire Nigarura, a native of Burundi, has achieved that goal. He’s now selling self-grown vegetables at farmers markets in Liberty Park and Sunnyvale Park.

Nigarura brought his family to Utah from Tanzania in 2007, leaving behind a refugee camp of 60,000 people.

The 50-year-old farmer remembers the 370-square-foot tent his family used to live in.

Food was difficult to come by because the camp was far away from everything else, he said.

Starting anew in America, Nigarura joined the farming program in 2008. He now grows cabbages, beans, eggplant and other vegetables on his own lot — an acre of land on a 13-acre Draper site run by New Roots.

The Sunnyvale Farmers Market strives to provide affordable products, said Sara Valerious, New Roots program coordinator. Most of the customers at the market are food stamp users, she said, and they can get $40 worth of food for every $20 they spend.

The program has grown over the years, Valerious said. It now has 38 farmers growing crops that sell to Whole Foods Market, Vessel Kitchen and several school districts as well, she said.

"A lot of people are coming in the country, and they are seeing all this new produce that they have never seen before and ... don’t know how to cook,” Valerious said. Providing ethnic crops at the market helps smooth refugees’ transition into a new environment and helps them earn additional income, she said.

El-Deiry, IRC’s executive director, said the program also shares refugee stories with the community and enriches people’s understanding of different cultures.

“It really becomes a story of unity, of humanity, of bringing people together, of honoring peoples’ agrarian roots that they come with and the value they contribute to the community,” El-Deirysaid. “It’s more than just the food itself.”