Farm Fresh Choice has a stealthy modus operandi: snag kids on their way home from school, when they might otherwise be tempted to head to the nearest convenience store to load up on Funyuns and Sprite, and offer them a healthy snack.
Since 2001, the program has been setting up weekly farm stands at three Berkeley sites selling—at cost—organic or pesticide-free produce grown by local independent farmers. This January, Oakland caterer HuNia Bradley joined the team as co-manager. She wryly describes her qualifications this way: “I raised my two children vegetarian, so I had to learn how to compete with McDonald’s and Taco Bell.”
In fact, she says, she not only convinced her own kids—now in high school and college—to skip the fast food, but soon their friends followed suit. “Everything I made was more flavorful and more bountiful that they didn’t want to go there, and they influenced their friends to change their diets,” she says. Her home cooking’s popularity soon grew into a catering and personal chef service she dubbed HuNia’s Divine Soul Kitchen. “The cornerstone of my business was to introduce to the primarily African-American community a healthier way of eating,” she says.
Bradley calls her cooking style “vegetarian soul,” specializing in reinvented classics like greens cooked without meat and barbequed tofu instead of chicken. Currently, she whips up 200 school lunches a day for the ASA Academy in Oakland, and is also frequently asked to provide meals for church health ministries, as well as events sponsored by groups like the American Heart Association.
Bradley says her own conversion to healthy eating happened as a college student. She felt low on energy, and when she complained to a friend, the friend suggested that maybe it had to do with all the meat in her diet—she was used to eating heavy breakfasts with plenty of bacon. “I laid off the bacon, and I was like, ‘There is a difference,'” she recalls. “I totally became a vegetarian once I was pregnant. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really have to do better because I don’t want my kids to have what runs in my family—high blood pressure and diabetes. I realized there was a direct correlation between what I was eating and how I was living.”
She firmly believes that healthy eating has a broad impact on the community well-being, not only in terms of preventing chronic illnesses but in enhancing its collective “behavior and attitude.” Not only do well-fed kids perform better in school, she says, but “If you eat bad food you tend to have more headaches, you don’t feel as well, you’re grouchy and grumpy. If someone steps on your toe you have a different reaction if you have a whole community of folks not feeling well.”
The trick to getting students to try healthy foods, says Bradley, is catching their attention. If you can get them to at least try the fresh produce, she says, “It’s a done deal.” That’s something she’s witnessed many times in her experience preparing school lunches for the ASA Academy. “It started off with students saying stuff like ‘Ugh, where’s the meat?’ and then ‘Oh, my gosh, these pears are delicious!'” she recalls.
Bradley says that one of her goals for Farm Fresh Choice is to supply students with many samples of fruits and vegetables in season—right now that would be things such as squashes and celeries—and also to show how they can prepare these foods at home. Although it might sound hard to cook on a street corner, Bradley says that portable kitchen devices actually make it pretty easy to demonstrate the basics. “We can do vegetable stir fries, we can lay the foundation for soups, we can do some pretty awesome salads right on the spot. Given the right situation, we can do a version of a smoothie,” she says.
In addition, she says, Farm Fresh Choice supplies students with practical information about where their food comes from, how to shop for produce and how to read labels. For example, she says, since not all peanut butter is created equally, how can you find the one that’s best to eat? “We are training young people around food justice and getting them to look at food systems and how they operate, and really understanding why bad food is cheap and good food costs more, but it’s better for you in the long run,” she says.
Getting young people to taste new foods is only half the battle—the other half is winning over their parents. “We pass on our eating habits to our children” says Bradley, and often, those habits are based on convenience and fatigue. “A lot of it’s habitual—like they come home from work and they don’t have time to make all that stuff, so they stop by McDonald’s or somewhere real quick.”
She’s had to battle with parents of the students at the ASA Academy who swear that their children will never eat certain foods that she’s already seen them happily devour that day at lunch. She chuckles at the mention of the furor raised by Jessica Seinfeld’s book Deceptively Delicious, which advises parents to hide pureed vegetables in the kinds of junk foods kids like to eat, like sneaking spinach into brownies. Bradley says she’s never gone to such lengths, but it’s pretty easy to subtly add vegetables to a meal, for example, by mixing shredded carrots into taco filling. “And then after they’re done, you say, ‘That was such and such,'” she explains.
The important thing, she says, is to start getting kids used to a variety of tastes early, before peer pressure about food kicks in. “Once they start filtering other people’s opinions it becomes a challenge,” she says. “But if their taste buds have already been hit, they’re like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about—I like broccoli. My mama makes it like this, and it’s delicious.'”
For families with hungry kids, she says the best snacking policy is to provide a no-limit supply of fresh fruit and veggies. As she told her own kids, “You don’t have to ask for fruit or a vegetable—just go and have at it and I’ll keep it coming.”
Farm Fresh Choice keeps the produce coming Tuesday afternoons outside of the BAHIA School, Berkeley Youth Alternatives, and the Frances Albrier Community Center at San Pablo Park. Bradley points out that they could use new volunteers between the ages of 15 and 21 to help out at the booth and participate in cooking demonstrations. While learning about healthy eating and food politics, youth can gain experience in public speaking and building community. “We’re always looking for a few good folks,” she says.
You can find out more about the Farm Fresh Choice program, including a list of its farms, suggested recipes, and schedule at www.ecologycenter.org/FFC.