It was a bright Friday morning and the long line comprised of excited community members with their shopping carts snaked around the Watts Empowerment Center, the building that through the years became a beacon of hope and safe place for the youth in the community.
The expectant and cheery shoppers gathered for the first ever Farmers’ Market and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at the outdoor basketball courts, facilitated by Justin Mayo’s Red Eye Inc, a non-profit organization that runs the Watts Empowerment Center. With weekly food donations from Amazon and Whole Foods who committed to giving 8-12 pallets of nutritious, healthy food and organic produce, Red Eye will be able to feed up to 1,500 families in the community of Watts. Food Finders, a Long Beach based non-profit stepped up to help with the food distribution logistics. When food banks are often inaccessible to residents due to their location, having a Farmers’ Market in the middle of the community is a godsend. Storing all future food donations posed a challenge initially. After the call to action went out so Red Eye could purchase a 40 ft refrigeration unit, they were able to raise $80k in just two weeks. The behemoth refrigeration unit now sits beside the outdoor basketball court. The cooler not only stores healthy food options and organic produce for the weekly Farmers' Market, it also serves as a canvas for graffiti artist MuckRock who made a mural on the cooler with the community’s help.
At the market, members of the community were able to put whatever they wanted in their shopping carts. There was no money involved. All food items and the large array of new clothes were free for the community. I caught up with Laronda while she browsed through some jeans and kimonos. Chuck L. and Victor Kennedy, two Watts residents and friends of 40 years were filling their carts with oranges and potatoes. It took about sixty volunteers to set up the market, many came from the community of Watts while others, like Ike Nichols from Chicago. Derrell Smith, who has only been a resident of L.A. for 5 months, and is now the host of Mad Good Food on Tastemade, was also working hard lifting boxes and crates to make sure all stalls were always filled with fresh produce. Sometimes it takes a village to feed a village.
I spoke briefly with Yang, a community volunteer and Red Eye’s first hire from years back, about Red Eye’s Impact in Watts. Aside from numerous Youth Mentorship Programs, delivering meals to the elderly and disabled in Watts, After School Tutoring, STEM Media Lab, Sports Leagues and Anti-Bullying Classes, over the years, the Watts Empowerment Center became the heartbeat of the community.
Founder, Justin Mayo’s passion has given many residents purpose and opportunity in the Watts Housing Projects. There’s still a lot more work to do in a community where the average age is 21 and the largest age group is 10 years old and younger. Watts has the youngest population of any neighborhood in Los Angeles where over %50 of the youth drops out of school. According to LAPD stats, within a 2-mile radius of the Watts Empowerment Center’s safe haven, there are about 7000 gang members. The youth need role models, direction, opportunities and guidance. While the Farmers’ Market was in full swing Marveon,17, was volunteering at the hygiene products section giving out sanitizers and personal care products to his neighbors, while Davyeon,12, a deep eyed youngster, was the “music supervisor” in the DJ booth under the guidance of LJ, program director at Red Eye. Davyeon shared with me his dream to become a sound engineer and he knows that as long as he stays close to the Watts Empowerment Center and away from the streets, there’s an opportunity for him.
Red Eye is all about solution and action. With their weekly Farmers’ Market, they will feed over 1500 families and will introduce the community to healthy food options while continuing to develop partnerships that will benefit residents of all ages in Watts.