Farm Fresh Choice:
Awakening Inner City Taste Buds to Healthy Local Food

Maria meet Martha. These two matriarchs-one of a budding farm enterprise, the other of a 27-year-old after-school program for low-income, inner city children-have something new to offer each other. Maria Inez Catalan grows fresh fruits and vegetables at her farming cooperative in Hollister. Martha Cueva encourages the families in her after-school program to eat such locally grown produce. Their dreams flow together each Tuesday afternoon through a program called Farm Fresh Choice.

When parents come to pick up their kids at Martha’s BAHIA, Inc. youth program on Tuesdays, they find a stand piled high with seasonal produce. If they want to take home some of the peas, carrots, eggs, or even cactus-“nopales”-they join Farm Fresh Choice. The project, started in 1999 with $37,000 from the Food Security Grant program of the California Nutrition Network, has grown to include 100 members at three distribution sites in west and south Berkeley. While most of the families at BAHIA, Inc. are Latino, most of the families at the other two sites, Berkeley Youth Alternatives and the Youth Advancement Project, are African-American. The program links these urban families of color with ten small farms and cooperatives, many, such as Inez Catalan’s Asociación Mercado Organica, operated by African-American and Latino farmers.

“Farm Fresh Choice membership gives you access to discounted organic produce, to relationships with farmers, and to a feeling for the land on which the food is grown,” says Joy Moore, one of the co-founders of the project. Members get acquainted with their farmers through a seasonal newsletter and an annual festival. Farm Fresh Choice staff, who deliver the food to the sites, are on hand each week punching cards, answering questions, and talking up the benefits of fresh, unprocessed food grown in fields not far from home.

Here’s how membership works: The Farm Fresh Choice membership card, issued free of charge, is renewed each year. The card, with its bright logo of a person holding a bowl of fruit and straddling a scene of farms and urban buildings-entitles holders to purchase seven dollar punch-cards. The 28 punches on each card are worth 25 cents apiece. For example, a bunch of carrots, worth a dollar, takes four punches; a pint of strawberries, eight punches-all priced at wholesale cost. You don’t have to be low-income to join, but the sites are selected to target needy families.

The theory behind Farm Fresh Choice is that if people come to know the source of their food, they will appreciate the effort that went into coaxing it from the earth. As they develop that appreciation-through cultural links with farmers-their food takes on meaning and they eat better, feel better, and live better. Even the punch-card was devised with this in mind. It represents something different than the cold cash that changes hands at vast, anonymous grocery stores. Moore explains it as a seven dollar commitment to supporting a farmer’s hard work.

Farm Fresh Choice promotes eating habits whose potential public health benefits are huge. In 1990, nearly half the adults and more than three-fourths of the children below 200 percent of the poverty level in Berkeley were living in the southern and western areas targeted by the program, according to the 1999 City of Berkeley Health Status Report. In 1998, chronic disease accounted for 68 percent of deaths in Berkeley and the mortality rate from strokes was significantly higher than in the state as a whole. African-Americans had the bleakest prospects, comprising 19 percent of the population but accounting for 48 percent of deaths from stroke and 36 percent of deaths from coronary heart disease and hypertension. Diet is a factor in all of these diseases.

For co-founder Moore, Farm Fresh Choice was a way to do something for her grandson. “His odds of coming up healthy are stacked against him,” says Moore, who is African-American, lives in south Berkeley, and until recently subsisted on a typical urban diet of fast, highly processed foods. “I realized I didn’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables. For years I went to the store and bought a piece of fruit and it just didn’t taste good. No flavor. I turned off from it. Then one day I was given this nectarine from a farmer of Good Humus Produce in Yolo County, and I said, ‘Oh, my god!’. . . the flavor bursting in my mouth. I’ve never been the same since. I was reminded of what good food could taste like. Simple pleasure.”

For Maria Inez Catalan, participation in Farm Fresh Choice brought an unexpected opportunity. Most farmers wait for years to secure a spot at the popular Berkeley Farmers Market, operated by the Berkeley Ecology Center. But Penny Leff, the market manager, rewarded the Hollister cooperative by shortening its wait for a spot at the Tuesday market. Leff is on the steering committee of Farm Fresh Choice and says the Ecology Center is committed to such food security projects. Between Farm Fresh Choice and the farmers market, the Tuesday trip to Berkeley now makes good economic sense for the Hollister cooperative.

“We earn more from coming to Berkeley than if we were to sell to a wholesale company,” says Inez Catalan. “The pay is just. We also like getting to know the people who eat the food.”

When Farm Fresh Choice organizers see their inner city neighbors picking up healthy fruits and vegetables from the Hollister cooperative, they feel they’re making headway in a struggle against crippling health disparaties. “We have a long way to go,” says Moore, “but if we incorporate in our daily lives bits and pieces of this more simple way of life, we are on the path to a healthier community, physically and spiritually.”