April 6, 2012; Source: Los Angeles Times

One of the most prominent women in the farmers market scene in Los Angeles was fired from her CEO post this past week. Pompea Smith led the Hollywood farmers market since she founded it 21 years ago. During that time, she was instrumental in growing the Hollywood farmers market into the largest in Los Angeles, with over 150 vendors, and in creating a mini-empire of farmers markets throughout Los Angeles—including markets in underserved communities, a farm-to-school program, and a restaurant. She did all of this after emigrating to the U.S. from Naples, Italy in the early 1990’s.

It is not entirely clear why Smith was fired, but signs indicate that it was related to financial and management tensions. The board of directors of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), the nonprofit organization that runs the market, issued a statement saying that it was “time for a change of leadership,” and that it was “deeply grateful to Pompea Smith for her…. inspired leadership of this organization.” SEE-LA has reportedly faced financial difficulties in recent years. Essergy Consulting, the consulting firm that performed an analysis for the board in March, noted, “SEE-LA may require new levels of management and perhaps a more transformational and inclusive management style.”

Reactions from vendors at the Hollywood farmers market were mixed. Vicki Bernard, a citrus grower who has sold at the market since it opened, was conflicted, saying: “I don’t think she should have been fired, but it’s hard to say for sure without knowing all of the facts, and the board is being pretty tight-lipped. Pompea deserves a lot of credit for opening that market and making it a success. In the beginning she was a very good manager, but in later years she may have had too much on her plate.”

While an ambitious business model, the weak economy, and an out-of-date management structure may have led to Smith’s firing, we should recognize the major impact that Smith has made in the development of farmers markets, sustainable agriculture, and the healthy food movement overall. Through the success of the gentrified Hollywood market, Smith and SEE-LA were able to create new markets in low income communities such as Watts and Central Avenue.  When responding to a critique in the Essergy report that the Hollywood farmers market needs to attract a “younger, ‘hipper’ crowd” and ramp up its social media presence, the LA Times reports that “Smith responded by saying she thought it was more significant that in 2004 she led the effort to enable the electronic system of food stamps to be used at farmers markets and has been at the forefront of efforts to support sustainable agriculture and empower diverse communities.”  Although it’s certainly true that change in management can breathe new life into an evolving nonprofit, particularly in difficult economic times, we hope that Smith’s talent and experience bring fruit to new endeavors in the field. – Paula Smith Arrigoni