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Bringing together farms and urban neighborhoods

By Kurtis Alexander, Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday July 17, 2002

Over the last year, three alternatives to high-cost, natural-food supermarkets have surfaced in Berkeley. 

While these new food markets may not be as trendy as a chic and tidy whole foods store, but like the (what) they offer a colorful arrangement of organic and locally-grown produce. And the prices, locals say, aren’t as steep. 

“There’s a perception that this kind of food comes only at a high price,” said Joy Moore, a founder of the new food emporias. 

“We’ve tried to eliminate this barrier and make this nutritious food available to communities that don’t normally get it.” 

The new food markets come to three locations in south and west Berkeley: Eighth and Virginia avenues, Allston Way and Bonar Street and Oregon and Grant streets. 

Every Tuesday afternoon a diverse selection of fresh fruits and vegetables is spread across folding tables. The markets are the brainchild of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, and evolved from a $40,000 state grant aimed to ensure adequate food supplies and boost nutrition. 

The organizers accept cash but encourage customers buy a $7 punch card to help pay the cost of bringing the food to these neighborhoods. 

“The primary food stores in these areas are liquor stores,” said Christine Cherdboonmuang, co-coordinator of the Ecology Center program, dubbed “Farm Fresh Choice.”  

“These are the lower income areas that statistically have higher rates of chronic disease and that’s why we’ve focused our attention here,” she said. 

This week neighbors and organizers gathered to celebrate the one-year anniversary of their flagship market in west Berkeley. 

“I come here just about every Tuesday. I can ride my bike here,” said Margo Schueler, who walked off with a big bag of organic beets. 

Cashier Julio Reynaldo Estevez said that accessibility was the goal of the program. Basing the markets at schools and childcare centers, where many people are bound to go, was an another way to make the market more convenient for neighbors, he said. 

Additional low-cost food markets are in the works for other parts of Berkeley, according to Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center. San Pablo Park and Malcom X elementary school are possible sites, he said. 

The secret behind the program’s unusually low prices is simple economics with a little goodwill thrown in. 

“We buy are produce wholesale and sell it at wholesale prices. We just don’t make any profit,” Cherdboonmuang said. All of the produce comes from growers at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, so the local agricultural community benefits as well, she said.