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Dallas City Hall’s red tape is squeezing out an Oak Cliff farmers market

Exorbitant fees are discouraging small business owners from participating.

By Dallas Morning News Editorial

Cliff Farmers Market
The For Oak Cliff Farmers Market had a soft launch in early April. The next market day will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 7 at the nonprofit’s campus at 907 E. Ledbetter Drive in Dallas.(Jaren Collins/Courtesy of For Oak Cliff)

Chameka Barras savored success when she made walnuts taste like taco meat. Her vegan nachos were a hit last summer at the Cornerstone Baptist Church neighborhood market in South Dallas, where they sold out the first time she brought them. She returned with her nachos a second time and sold out again.

“And these people are not vegan or vegetarian — they’re meat eaters,” she says with pride.

Barras wants to bring the dish, prepared in a commercial kitchen, to the new farmers market that the nonprofit For Oak Cliff launched last month. The monthly market is a big deal for south Oak Cliff, a food desert with some of the worst health outcomes in Dallas County. It’s also a big deal for Barras, who recently left her hospital job to devote herself to her small business preparing healthy meals.

But she can’t crack Dallas City Hall. Whether it’s an established business or a fledgling one, this city can seem determined to find a way to smother enterprising spirits in red tape.

For Oak Cliff’s administrators sought a permit for a farmers market — also known as a neighborhood market in Dallas city code — but could not get one because of the nonprofit’s location, said Julianna Bradley YeeFoon, the group’s director of food justice. The 10-acre campus at the former Moorland YMCA sits in a residential neighborhood, and farmers markets are not allowed in single-family districts per city rules.

So the city gave For Oak Cliff a special event permit. That’s a problem for vendors like Barras who sell temperature-controlled food. They have to get their own temporary permits from the city’s Code Compliance Department, and those permits are good for up to 14 consecutive days.

Barras said she was looking at shelling out almost $250 in fees every month for one market day.

“I won’t make any profit,” she told us. “I will basically be giving away free food.”

She filed her paperwork with the city and was confirmed for an appointment with Code Compliance, but she skipped it. She said she decided not to participate because she can’t afford the fees.

Bradley YeeFoon told us she is frustrated by the permitting issue. The fees wouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle if For Oak Cliff had received a farmers market permit. State law caps fees for farmers market vendors at $100 annually, and vendors — including food preparers — can participate in any farmers’ market in the city that issued the permit.

A lot of people are invested in helping the For Oak Cliff market succeed. The Dallas County health department secured a $157,000 federal grant to pay for the initiative for three years in partnership with community organizations. For Oak Cliff is hosting and promoting the event, and other groups are contributing by recruiting vendors, training farmers and collecting data. Parkland is providing health screenings.

The For Oak Cliff Farmers Market had a soft launch in April with a handful of vendors. The plan is to eventually grow that number to 24 vendors, with at least seven farmers selling fresh produce. The next market is on May 7.

But food vendors like Barras are stuck until For Oak Cliff finds a workaround. Bradley YeeFoon said she and some of her partners met with a city official with the Office of Special Events this week to discuss the matter, and while the official was well-meaning, she offered no short-term solutions.

“A hundred percent of our vendors are Black and brown community members who live in south Dallas County. …The city has their racial equity plan, but when the rubber meets the road, how do we actually work through barriers?” Bradley YeeFoon said. “When we’re told the ordinance can’t allow it, is that the end or are we actually in partnership to make this work?”

We asked the city about For Oak Cliff’s permitting situation. A spokeswoman replied with general information about farmers market and temporary event permits.

The Dallas City Council and city leaders talk big game about equity goals, but we want to know what they will do today to meet an underserved community’s basic needs. Will the council find a way to lower the fees for the For Oak Cliff food vendors? Will it quickly review the ordinance to see how it can remove unnecessary roadblocks for this farmers market and others?

The residents of southern Dallas want better food options and more economic mobility right now, and they have grant money and people lined up to do the heavy lifting today.

If Dallas City Hall won’t help them carry the load, then it should at least get out of the way.

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