At every People’s Nite Market, founders Valeria Hernandez and Jovanna Lopez estimate they give away about $463 worth of fresh produce.
The People’s Nite Market on San Antonio’s West Side celebrated its final event of the year on Dec. 13. Vendors displayed soaps, jewelry, honey, and herbs at the Avenida Guadalupe Association’s El Progreso Hall. A table by the front entrance was covered with baskets of carrots, limes, onions, peppers, and more; it emptied steadily throughout the evening as people filled grocery bags with fruits and vegetables.
Hernandez and Lopez launched the People’s Nite Market three years ago at La Villita. At every night market, they bring in food vendors and a DJ to give the place a party-like atmosphere. At the Dec. 13 market, Hernandez and Lopez wore blinking Christmas light necklaces and hugged people as they came up to say hi. Both have roots in San Antonio and moved back home from Los Angeles and New York City, respectively.
They saw a need for a farmers’ market on the West Side.
“We came back and saw there wasn’t a lot of programming happening in these [Westside] neighborhoods,” Hernandez said.
Both Hernandez and Lopez consider themselves “food activists.” Hernandez became a vegan after she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and she encourages others to make healthier dietary choices. Lopez is a master gardener who works with students at IDEA-Monterrey Park charter school in their community garden, which has already yielded thousands of pounds of produce in 2018.
Hernandez said the People’s Nite Market moved to Avenida Guadalupe on the West Side of San Antonio to bring produce to a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as a place where community members live more than one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. The closest grocery store to Avenida Guadalupe is the H-E-B on South Flores Street, 1.3 miles away. For residents without cars, that distance can be an obstacle to getting fresh food.
“It truly is activism,” Hernandez said. “We both grew up poor, with government cheese and the whole bit, so this comes from personal experience.”
People’s Nite Market partners with local wholesaler River City Produce to buy fresh vegetables and fruit as cost-effectively as possible, but Lopez said they also try to get local farmers to bring their produce. A few have attended People’s Nite Market events, but most have moved on to farmers’ markets in places like the Pearl where shoppers place more value on organic products, Lopez said.
“We had to go back to [offering wholesale produce], which is not a bad thing,” she said. “People in this neighborhood don’t care about organic produce. They want accessibility.”
Hernandez said many people who frequent farmers’ markets like the ones at the Pearl will sometimes show up at People’s Nite Market and leave disappointed.
“[They will] ask if it’s local, which farmer grew it,” she said. “They get really turned off when we say we got it from a wholesaler.”
Rudy Montelongo and his wife, Lisa, sell jams, cured meats, and honey from their ranch in Pearsall, southwest of San Antonio. The couple has been working with People’s Nite Market since its inception in 2015, Montelongo said. His parents grew up in the same neighborhood as Avenida Guadalupe Association, and his grandfather owned a gas station where the Guadalupe Theater now sits.
“What I like about [selling in] this neighborhood is we bring products to them that they haven’t had in a long time,” Montelongo said. “They tell us that.”
“In the old days in this neighborhood, there used to be little fresh meat markets and grocery stores within two blocks of each other,” he added. “But it’s not like that anymore.”
Though People’s Nite Market only runs during the fall, Hernandez and Lopez have seen steady attendance. They estimated around 100 people have visited each night market in 2018 (they scheduled eight total from September to December). Though people will call and ask Hernandez and Lopez for advice on how to start their own markets, they’ve yet to see similar operations pop up.
“I think people think they’re big moneymakers, and it’s not like that at all,” Lopez said. “What you see here is going to pay the DJ and that’s it. We’re back to even. With the produce, sometimes we break even and sometimes we take a loss.”
The two organizers also received a grant from Woodforest National Bank this year – $10,000 to support their 2018 scheduling, and another $10,000 for 2019. They were able to hire one employee, pay themselves a little bit, and rent space from Avenida Guadalupe. Hernandez said they will most likely have a similar schedule next fall, but she hopes to expand the project by 2020.
“Hemisfair has expressed interest,” she said. “So has Sunset Station. So we’re looking to regroup this year and expand.”
Hernandez said they still plan on doing various pop-ups during the spring.
Rosa Ramirez, the director of operations for the Avenida Guadalupe Association, said she’s seen an increased interest from the neighborhood in these night markets.
“People come out and it’s like a family,” she said. “I like the fact that people can come and buy fresh vegetables and be able to hang out. Even after being here all day, I don’t mind staying an extra three hours.”