A Ripe Opportunity

Free crisp, organic apples, enough to make anyone come running! But Joy Moore, co-creator of the Farm Fresh Choice program, found otherwise. “We started surveying people on the corner of Sacramento and Ashby to find out how much produce West and South Berkeley neighborhoods were eating and where they got it,” she says. “We would offer free organic apples for filling out the survey, and we couldn’t give them away! They thought organic meant it was dirty or had worms in it.”

Farm Fresh Choice and its youth staffers bring organic fruits and vegetables from local farms into neighborhoods with limited access to fresh produce. The program was born out of a 2001 Berkeley Food Policy council meeting—but food had been on Moore’s mind since 1998, when she got a job at Malcolm X elementary school working on Healthy Start, a collaborative program to improve children’s educational experience. “The two top complaints were behavior and cafeteria food. They sound so logically tied together, but we didn’t think of that then,” she says. “We were focusing on what we could improve—the food—but we didn’t know how to improve behavior through diet at that time.”

Moore added a Farmers’ Market salad bar to the bland cafeteria fare, put a garden out back, and brought in silverware, plates, and centerpieces. “We connected the cafeteria and the salad bar with the garden,” she says. Lo and behold, behavior improved. “After we surveyed the school again, we found we had inadvertently changed kids’ behaviors.”

When the City of Berkeley released its 1999 health report, citing links between low income and diabetes and obesity, Moore’s focus shifted to food security. “The food system is so important to me from a health standpoint. It’s preventative medicine, and there are serious inequities in health care,” she says. “African-Americans have higher rates of disease, obesity, and diabetes. Why are they dying sooner?” Moore wanted to develop a model to bring organic produce to low-income communities. “There was no food system serving West and South Berkeley and no fresh fruits and vegetables to be found,” Moore explains. “The only grocery store is Berkeley Bowl, and it is economically and culturally prohibitive. Even if people in those communities made a choice to eat fresh produce, they’d have to get on the bus and travel.”

The food policy council grappled with the problem of access. Former farmers’ market manager Penny Leff mentioned that in the past, farmers would put their produce in their trucks, drive into town, and hawk it around the neighborhood. “We explored the idea of purchasing a refrigerated truck, but it was $50,000 and we didn’t have any money,” Moore says. “I played with the idea of replicating that model, and then we applied for and received a $35,000 grant.”

Though their plan was to “feed the people,” education became a focal point. “Conventional produce has little nutritional value, and it no longer tastes good, so people have gotten out of the habit of eating it,” Moore says. “I remember eating peaches and the juice running down my face and onto my neck. Now you go into Safeway, and the peaches are hard as rocks. People weren’t excited about fruits and vegetables. We had to be persistent.”

After six months of surveying, Moore and her team created demand. “People would ask about us,” Moore says. “There was always a conversation about why our food tasted better.”

With the Ecology Center as fiscal sponsor, Farm Fresh Choice took shape. “We wanted to become champions of local, sustainable agriculture,” she says. “After we worked out the bugs, we started a program to train youth to sell at the markets.”

Moore developed training protocols. “This is not about selling produce. It’s about changing the health of the community,” she says. “It’s about teaching youth why nutrition is important so they will demand this food.” Moore’s model consists of everything from lectures on nutrition and disease to selling and growing fruit. “We want to train the children that there is a connection between food security and the environmental movement. We’re working to preserve the earth, but we also talk about food justice. Why is there only McDonald’s and Taco Bell in their neighborhoods? It came full circle, but we always started with food.”

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