Window on the Ecology Center

Long Days, Longer Nights

The big yellow truck usually arrives a little late to the Derby Street Tuesday Farmers’ Market. A casual shopper might raise an eyebrow, thinking these late arrivals got up late or took a long lunch break. In reality, the Berkeley market is part of a tightly scheduled two-day marathon. After docking the truck next to the fish vendor at the end, Xee Thao and her father Tong Thao quickly set up a tarp shade tent and unload boxes of peppers, basils, lemon grass, sinqua, eggplants, and other fresh vegetables, ready to start selling at their second market of the day.
Twenty-year-old Xee and her parents farm about ten acres of mixed vegetables near Fresno. Originally from Laos, the family moved first to Thailand and then to the US in 1986. About 12 years ago, they started farming in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. They sell at three farmers’ markets a week, two in the East Bay on Tuesdays and one in San Francisco on Saturdays. On the September day I talked with Xee, their market tables were piled with over 20 different types of vegetables, from okra leaves to fresh peanuts and Indian beans, with lots of squashes, eggplants, and cucumbers in between. Xee gave cooking suggestions to customers, weighed their purchases, and answered my questions, all while her father took a much-needed nap in the cab of the truck.
Tuesday market days start early Monday morning. Along with a helper or two, the family begins picking soon after sun-up, two or three boxes of each item. Throughout the day, produce gets shuttled to a rented cooler. In the evening, they retrieve everything from the cooler, and then Xee and her mother Lou Vue wash and bundle the produce, finishing close to 3 AM. Tong helps but he usually takes a break for a nap, to be ready for driving. Shortly after they finish, Tong drives the loaded truck up Highway 99 while Xee sleeps in the passenger seat. The first market, at the El Cerrito Plaza, starts early, so Xee and Tong set up right away and begin selling.
The El Cerrito market isn’t as big as Berkeley’s, but Xee says it has more Asian shoppers, and the family sells more hot Thai chilies and squash leaves. Usually Xee and Tong have a chance to eat a hot meal from one of the vendors at the Plaza before the market ends at 1 PM. Everything left goes back into boxes and gets loaded into the truck along with the poles, tarps, scales, and tables, and Tong drives to Derby Street where they unload, set up, and sell for another five hours. While Xee and Tong sell produce, Lou and a helper tend to the farm. The Berkeley Market ends at 7 PM. By 8 the truck is all packed, and father and daughter hit the long road to Fresno, usually arriving home about midnight.

The Great Paint Debate

When Jill Stapleton took over as the Ecology Center’s store manager in February, she could not have predicted that paint would become the store’s biggest seller—and a conundrum to some Center staffers. Last year, the store became the only Northern California distributor of American Formulating Manufacturing (AFM) paints, and demand, driven by the manufacturer’s web site and by word of mouth, has been intense. The store strives to carry products that benefit both human health and the environment—and that’s where the conundrum comes in.
More people suffer from chemical sensitivities now than ever before. This is partly due to an increase in indoor air pollution, caused by potentially toxic chemicals in building materials. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, levels of some common organic pollutants “can be two to five times higher inside homes than outside.” Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, the most common kind of pollutant in paint, have been linked to eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, even cancer. Most paint VOCs are emitted during application or in the following 24 or 48 hours as the paint dries. But even when the paint is dry, small amounts of VOCs continue to volatize, a process known as “off-gassing.” California law now limits the amount of VOCs in paint, but the legal level is still high enough to cause problems for many people with chemical sensitivities, especially since some compounds are substantially more toxic than others.
AFM Safecoat paints are designed to safeguard human health, with ingredients carefully chosen for low toxicity. AFM paints contain low, or no, VOCs, and some can even seal in off-gassing from previous layers of paint—a unique combination that makes them tremendously popular. Stapleton says, “I would guess that at least 30, maybe 40 percent of the people coming into the store are here specifically for the paints.” Even better, says Stapleton: “It’s almost universally the first time they’re coming in.” AFM paints account for more sales volume than any other single product.
But there is a drawback: AFM paints are petroleum-based, and thus depend on oil extraction. AFM does produce an all-natural line of sealers, but the paints’ primary objective is to meet the needs of human health at the point of application, not the needs of the environment or people in oil-producing nations like Nigeria.
There are alternatives. The Ecology Center also distributes paints from Auro, which makes petroleum-free, plant-based paints and sealers. Many contain no VOCs, and the ingredients list for each product is available online, allowing customers to work around known chemical sensitivities. Some paints are so harmless that leftovers can be composted in the backyard.
Milk paints, derived from the milk protein casein, are also fully biodegradable and nontoxic. Milk paint recipes used to be passed down from generation to generation. Stapleton hopes to start carrying a line of milk paints soon.
But neither plant-based nor milk-based paints can block off-gassing from previous layers of paint. And to many people, that is the primary advantage of AFM Safecoat. “The people who come in here are very concerned about indoor air quality,” says Stapleton. “We see lots of new families, new babies, people with chemical sensitivities.” Which is why, despite the availability of a more ecologically sustainable option, most customers choose AFM paints.

A Family Affair

On a Monday night late in September, the kitchen at the Berkeley’s Men’s Shelter felt as warm and inviting as on Thanksgiving Day. Members of the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative—an Ecology Center-sponsored organization—had gathered to cook and serve an organic dinner to shelter residents. Collaborative staffer Beebo Turman, her two daughters, and their friends prepared the meal, using produce from area gardens. Beebo and volunteer Bryan Whyte sang a duet as they cooked the stir-fry, while daughter Brenna Turman razzed them about getting the song stuck in her head. “It’s all in the family,” said Beebo’s other daughter Laurel with a smile.
The collaborative, which comprises 28 Berkeley-based school, youth training, and community gardens, was launched in 1995 to provide urban space for residents to grow their own organic produce. The group puts on a dinner for the Men’s Shelter every other year. This year’s dinner included a stir-fry made with organic broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, bok choy, bell peppers, and onions, rice, spaghetti squash with brown sugar and tarragon, salad, bread, and Asian pears for dessert. The shelter donated a ham.
The food was a resounding success, and many of the diners especially appreciated that the meal was organic. “I think that’s great,” commented Joe Villagomez when told that the food came almost entirely from local gardens. After dinner everyone seemed pleasantly lethargic, and some of the men chatted with collaborative members about the gardens.
Fruits and vegetables grown in the school gardens are planted and harvested by students, and all the produce goes into their cooking classes, while produce grown in community gardens is used by individual gardeners and their families. “If you garden next to someone, you share soil, water, friendship, and ideas. That can be very unifying,” said Beebo.

Dueling for Diets

Carlos Guerrero arrives late in the afternoon to the Bahia School Age Program, an after-school childcare center in West Berkeley. After a full day of work, Guerrero is glad to see his children, but he’s also excited because it’s Tuesday, which means he can pick up organic fruits and vegetables from the Ecology Center’s Farm Fresh Choice Program. He quickly fills his box with greens, fruit, and eggs, and then grins when he realizes it will barely hold the last item, a fresh cantaloupe.
This is how Guerrero has gotten his produce every week, every month, for two years, along with 65 other mostly minority families who use the Bahia Children’s Program. Each Tuesday Farm Fresh Choice co-coordinator Karina Serna picks up fresh produce and eggs from the Berkeley Farmer’s Market and delivers it to Bahia, where she and two young helpers resell it at wholesale prices. Call it a redistribution of organic wealth—Farm Fresh Choice provides working families with access to fresh produce they would not otherwise have, at three Berkeley locations. Programs like this would not exist if voters in October’s special election had approved Proposition 54.
Farm Fresh Choice began after a 1999 report by the City of Berkeley Public Health Department tied together census data, sampling, and public health information to find a higher prevalence of diet-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes among the Latino and African-American populations in South and West Berkeley. The report likened the differences between Berkeley hills residents and those in South and West Berkeley to the disparity between rich and poor in third world countries.
It wasn’t hard to see that South and West Berkeley residents lacked ready access to healthful food. City of Berkeley Nutrition Specialist Joy Moore, an Ecology Center veteran, surveyed the area and found plenty of liquor stores but no major groceries. Recognizing the link between fresh food and good health, Moore founded Farm Fresh Choice. According to Bahia Children’s Program director Martha Cueva, Farm Fresh Choice works because the parents can get their shopping done as they pick up their children. “The major issue is the time constraint. Many have two jobs…  Here we provide practically everything. They just have to go out and get the milk and the meat.”
Had something like Prop 54 been passed before 1999, Farm Fresh Choice likely would not have been possible. Called the “Racial Privacy” initiative by its campaign chairman, University of California Regent Ward Connerly, but known to its detractors as the “Information Ban,” Prop 54—defeated in the October special election by 64 percent of the electorate—would have prohibited any government agency, including public health programs, from collecting or using racial data. The City of Berkeley Public Health Department would have been barred from carrying out the original study, and Moore admits she may never have been galvanized into action without it.
Even as an established program, Farm Fresh Choice could have been threatened. The program is funded by a collection of public and private agencies, including a City of Berkeley block grant that specifies it must reach a certain number of minority families. Paradoxically, Proposition 54 would have barred the city from using such statistics when deciding whether to renew the grant—nor could it target health outreach efforts toward those who need it most. It would have caused “a basic information shut-down,” says Moore, and according to co-coordinator Christine Cherdboonmuang, it would have “made it harder for us to get support as a program…and it [would have taken] away some of the tools we have to create justice in our community.”
“This part of the population is under-represented, has gotten fewer of the resources, has gotten less opportunity,” says Moore. She believes “the one thing we can agree on is that there is still racism,” and Proposition 54 would have made it harder to determine its scope and fight its effects. Farm Fresh Choice works for Guerrero: “I just feel comfortable buying here…it is more healthy for my family,” he says. If it were to disappear, he feels the cumulative impact on the Latino community would be huge. “In our country…we always thought that meat was the best thing to eat, and it’s not,” he explains. “You can’t change everybody at once, but they [the parents] see it every week, they think about it, they think about their kids too.”

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