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Farmers’ market offers learning, eating

By Ben LumpkinDaily Planet staff
Wednesday May 23, 2001

Shirley Richardson-Brower, executive director of the Berkeley YMCA South Branch, had just finished thanking a group of elementary school children for accompanying her to the Berkeley Farmers'’ Market Tuesday when she thought to add one last gentle reminder. 

“Don’t eat them all,” she said. 

The children smiled up at her then, revealing lips and tongues stained with the red juice from fresh strawberries and cherries.  

When Richardson-Brower reminded them they were supposed to take some of the fruit home to their families, a few managed the impressive feat of nodding vigorously while continuing to chew. 

These south Berkeley youth have spent months reading up on the benefits of organic fruits and vegetables as part of the YMCA’s Golden Dream Learning Center after-school program. They’ve done a nutritional comparison of some of their favorite brands of potato chips, learning that not all potato chips are created equal. On Tuesday, Richardson-Brower brought 20 of the program’s 45 participants to the farmers market to experience fresh, organic fruits and vegetables in all their earth-scented, juice-dripping glory. 

Penny Luff, co-manager of the Berkeley Farmers'’ Market, said Tuesday that the sheer pleasure of tasting fresh fruits and veggies offers a powerful nutrition lesson to young children because it will keep them coming back for more. 

The YMCA youth weren’t the only grade-schoolers learning that particular lesson Tuesday. Some 25 students from LeConte elementary school’s 21st Century Learning Center after-school program were perusing stands stocked with peaches, apples, carrots, onions, cabbage, lettuce, asparagus, olive oil, chutney and hot sauce, to name just a few. 

The youth were charged with picking up fresh ingredients for spring rolls they planned to make in a cooking class later this week. With a $1 million grant from the California Nutrition Network, the Berkeley Unified School District has built four new school gardens in the last couple of years and hired cooking and gardening instructors to work at each of its 12 elementary schools.  

“We’re having a good time and tasting lots of stuff,” said LeConte Farm and Gardening Coordinator Ben Goff, known to most LeConte students simply as “Farmer Ben.” 

Goff tends the gardens and farm animals at LeConte elementary school, as part of that school’s effort to teach its students where food comes from and why it matters. 

In an urban setting, “to pull a carrot out of the ground and wash it and eat it (is) something that most kids have never fathomed,” Goff said. 

“I think it’s important for everybody to know where their food comes from,” he added. “If you know where your food comes from, then you pay attention to what kinds of things you’re putting in your body.” 

For LeConte fourth grader Demario Tolliver, at least, the lesson seems to have sunk in. Asked why he prefers organic fruits and vegetables, Tolliver said: “They’re much bigger, and they’re not sprayed with chemicals, so all that chemical stuff is not going into your body.” 

But organic or not (not all the food sold at the market is organic), Tolliver tasted every little thing he could get his hands on Tuesday. He asked the farmers why some cherries were sweeter than others and what gave a particular honey its unusual flavor. 

“You get to see a whole lot of fruit and vegetables that you haven’t seen before, and you get to learn about farmers that have been farming for like 20 years,” Tolliver said between bites Tuesday. 

Or sixty years, if you happen to swing by the cherry and apple stand of John Smit. 

Smit, 71, has been farming 160 acres in San Joaquin County since he emigrated to the United States from the Netherlands as a boy. In the little town of Linden, not much has changed in all that time, Smit said. The first four-way stop went in last year, at the intersection between Highway 126 and Highway 12. 

But Smit, who has been a part of the Berkeley Farmers'’ market since in it began in 1987, said he’s noticed a decline in people’s understanding about what it takes to keep supermarkets stocked with food. 

“A lot of people have no clue,” he said. 

That’s part of the rationale for the elementary school field trips to the farmer market and, in June, to nearby farms, said Melanie Okamoto of the Food System Project, a group that has helped the Berkeley school district design and operate its nutrition and gardening programs. 

“We’ve really been able to link the schools to the local farms so kids can connect what they’re doing in the (school) garden with farmers who are growing the food,” Okamoto said. 

Luff said giving Berkeley residents a taste of the farming way of life is part of what the farmers market is all about. Most of the small farms that contribute to the market are family owned and operated, she said. This helps create an intimate and welcoming atmosphere on market days that’s a far cry from the cart-cluttered supermarket, with its piped-in Muzak and conveyer-belt check-outs. 

“People just walk in and it’s kind of like their shoulders drop and they start smiling,” Luff said of the market. 

Malcolm X elementary school student Shukura Mays, part of the YMCA group visiting the market Tuesday, said she might bring her mother to the farmers market soon. 

“The food is better, and it doesn’t come in a lot of bags,” Mays said. 

The Berkeley Farmers Market is open every Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Derby Street, between Milvia St. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. On Saturday’s the market runs from 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Center Street between Milvia and Martin Luther King.