SAN JOSE — Somehow, urban farmers' markets have gained a great reputation they don't entirely deserve. Sure, you can get sumptuous carrots and exotic legumes grown without pesticides, but right down the aisle is often a smiling woman offering giant cookies, hot dogs, chips, cute chunks of cake and sugary sodas.

And as popular as downtown San Jose's farmers market has become, it runs through a gauntlet of bars and restaurants. How about a slice of organic lemon in that glass of wheat ale?

On Wednesday, a different sort of farmers market opened a few miles away at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, a huge public hospital.

"A Polish dog, a bag of chips and a Coke--we're not going to have that here," said John Silveira of the market which will set up every Wednesday just off the main entrance on Bascom Avenue. He heads the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, a nonprofit that organizes about 70 markets in California. Fifteen of them are at private Kaiser Permanente or federal Veterans Administration hospitals. Valley Medical is now Silveira's first county hospital to sign up.

Dozens of patients in wheelchairs or walking gingerly under their own power spilled out of VMC's massive wings in midtown San Jose to sample the market's debut. So did doctors, nurses and dietitians wearing white medical smocks. The maiden market offered a modest number of vendors -- only nine -- but nobody seemed to mind. And the first day's business was brisk.


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"Healthy again"

Sherae Martin steered her electric wheelchair to an organic falafel sandwich booth, where she and a friend bought some stuffed grape leaves. The 55-year-old San Jose woman suffers from lymphedema. The circulatory condition has flooded and swollen her legs with blood and fluids.

There is no known cure, but she has come around to thinking a healthier diet would help her build strength, lose weight and generally feel better. After a lifetime on the average, high fat and sugar American diet, the extra-healthy market inspired her to join the healthy-food movement.

"I'm going over to see the fruits and lettuce," she said. "I'm hoping this will help me get healthy again."

A few yards away, a dietitian, social worker and nurse from Valley Medical's diabetes and metabolism unit watched the growing crowd with happy anticipation. This market was trumpeted as being just what the doctor ordered for the 6,000 diabetes patients under the hospital's care. More than most disorders, diabetes attacks or retreats according to how well or badly patients eat.

Medical social worker Daljit Bhandal said a lot of her diabetic patients can't afford pricey organic foods at most supermarkets, and noted that every produce vendor at the hospital market is required to accept Calfresh, the state's food stamp program for the poor, and a federal food subsidy for new mothers.

Psychological healing

Juris Shelton, a tall handyman with a bad back and neck, had just arrived from an appointment with doctors looking into why his bone marrow is slowly disappearing. The 58-year-old San Jose resident had some Calfresh stamps to spend,

"Right now I'm in pain," Shelton said, "but I refuse to overmedicate. What I do is seek out a variety of vegetables and fruits with antitoxins. Psychologically, if you eat better you feel better, and it helps you deal with the pain better. I really believe that."

The nonprofit Health Trust of Silicon Valley has supported a range of healthy food programs for years, from urban farming in backyards to farmers markets in municipal lots and at schools. Oddly enough, county hospitals and clinics weren't participating even though their low-income patients probably need healthier food more than most.

The Health Trust wrote a $150,000 check to the hospital's fundraising foundation to start the weekly markets, but with a more ambitious proviso -- the foundation had to write up a how-to manual for other county operations wishing to open similar, affordable farmers markets.

Patricia Fisher, spokeswoman for the Health Trust, closed a brief opening ceremony by noting that the market can send patients home with more than another bottle of pills.

"You get a prescription here," said Fisher, "for a healthier diet."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.