If you’ve put in your eight-plus hours at the office, fought the traffic home, picked up your kids from childcare, no way are you going home to prepare a gourmet meal.
Like millions of others, you may just head for the McDonald’s just down the street—it’ll fill up the kids, even if it’s not the healthiest food, and you won’t even have to leave the comfort of your car.
But if you’re among those whose youngsters attend one of four Berkeley sites where Farm Fresh Choice has a stand at your daycare door, you may snag some squash or broccoli that you can throw in a pan with a little leftover rice, or toss onto a pizza crust—and skip that happy meal.
“We try to combine convenience and access” to fresh fruit and vegetables, said Tiffany Golden, co-manager of Farm Fresh Choice, an Ecology Center project that grew out of the Berkeley Food Policy Council a few years ago.
In south and west Berkeley “there’s not enough access to nutritious foods,” Golden said, pointing to a study the city did a few years ago showing a critical disparity in health between African Americans living in the flatlands and Caucasians living in the hills. African Americans suffer disproportionately from hypertension and diabetes, diseases that access to healthy food can impact, Golden said.
Farm Fresh Choice workers do not ask customers to make radical changes in their diet.
“We honor the cultures of the people that we serve,” Golden said.
Recipes are available such as Joanna’s West African Greens or Martha’s Mayan Dumpling Soup and staff will often cook up a delicious-looking dish that comes with enticing, familiar smells, to encourage people to take advantage of the fresh produce.
The low-cost veggies—they’re from the Farmers’ Markets, but generally cost less because of arrangements with the farmers—won’t be accompanied by lectures about McDonalds. There’s no judging here.
“People know McDonalds is going to kill them,” Golden said, underscoring that what people need is access to healthy choices and ideas for healthy easy-to-make meals.
Farm Fresh Choice is not the only option: Spiral Gardens operates a fresh produce stand each Tuesday and Saturday at Oregon and Sacramento streets. The produce also comes from the Farmers’ Market and is sold at cost.
Daniel Miller, one of its founders, agrees with Golden: “Many of the health issues (in South and West Berkeley) are caused by a lack of access to fresh, affordable food,” he said.
Spiral Gardens is more than a produce stand. It’s a nursery where volunteers and a couple of employees grow seedlings—and even raise chickens. When people come by to choose a plant—most are edible and grown organically—they get their gardening and compost questions answered.
There’s also a mini-farm where gardeners grow vegetables and herbs. They split the bounty between volunteers and the seniors who live next door. Spiral Garden volunteers also pick the fruit from residential trees, sharing it with the owner and homeless shelters.
Programs such as Farm Fresh Choice and Spiral Gardens are important tools in the battle against local hunger, said Kate Clayton, chronic disease program manager with Berkeley’s Public Health Department.
There “definitely” is food insecurity in Berkeley, Clayton said. Food insecurity, as defined by the Alameda County Foodbank is “the lack of nutritionally adequate, safe and culturally acceptable food, available through non-emergency sources at all times.”
Poverty is relatively invisible in Berkeley because the very poor are spread out in the flatlands, Clayton said.
“We don’t see extreme pockets of poverty,” she said, but added that in southwest Berkeley “there’s not access to grocery stores for miles. And with housing prices, low-income folks are living on the edge.”
At the end of the month, a lot of people have to choose between buying food or paying the rent. Alameda County Food Bank fills in the gap with bags of groceries and free meals for some 40,000 people in Alameda County every week, according to Allison Pratt, director of policy and services at the Alameda County Food Bank.
Wednesday afternoon neighbors and daycare moms came by artful display of fruits and vegetables at the Farm Fresh Choice stand at San Pablo Park that Martha Briceno and Joanna Kuunivor had put together. Sung Makawatsakul, pushing her toddler in a stroller, got a basket of ripe, organic strawberries. She lives nearby and also shops at Spiral Gardens. Solange Bainbrige was picking up her son from childcare and took home some fresh fruit.
Then there were the five youngsters 7- to 9-years-old from the summer park program, about to make stir-fry. The kids picked out zucchini, garlic, potatoes, cilantro, cabbage, celery and, uh, mushrooms. (They didn’t really want the mushrooms, but their instructor convinced them to give it a try.)
Before heading inside the center to prepare their feast, one of the children, Carrington Williams, declared proudly: “We’re going to cook it for all of the children.”
Low-cost fresh food and vegetables can be found at the following locations:
Fresh Farm Choice on Tuesdays:
Bay Area Hispanic Institute for Advancement: 3:30-6 p.m., Eighth and Virginia streets
Berkeley Youth Alternatives: 3-6 p.m., Bonar Street and Allston Way
Young Adult Project: 3-5:30 p.m. Oregon and Grant streets
Fresh Farm Choice on Wednesdays:
San Pablo Park, Frances Albrier Center 3-6 p.m., Park and Oregon streets
Sprial Gardens, Sacramento and Oregon streets.
Wednesdays: 3-7 p.m.
Saturdays: 1-5 p.m.