The investigation results

Pull out your magnifying glass and trench coat folks, we’re going in to detective mode! You’ll want to get up to speed on the background of this investigation by reading my last post Greenwashing your dollars if you haven’t done so already (actually, you should just go ahead and read all my posts as they contain riveting information and insightful perspectives. #ShamelessSelfPromotion )

What we are diving in to today is whether shopping at Whole Foods for our organic staples, now that it’s been acquired by online retailer giant Amazon, is actually more expensive than shopping for organics at Safeway. Does the Whole Foods moniker “Whole Paychecks” still hold up? Let’s see!

IMG_4380First stop: Whole Foods.

I sauntered in to the Berkeley Whole Foods on Gillman St. on a sunny afternoon. As I walked in, I snapped this photo of their produce section. Notice the large sign above the refrigerated produce ‘Supporting Local Organic Farms’. Nice touch. Turns out Whole Foods has a Local Producer Loans Program. According to the Whole Foods website, they hand out $25 million a year in low-interest loans to help local producers bring their products to market. During my undercover jaunt through the aisles, I noticed this shelf-talker promoting how the loan program assisted a San Francisco-based ice cream producer. (Mmm, honey graham ice cream… ).

WF Local Producer Loan
Whole Foods in-store advertisement of their Local Producer Loan Program.

But, being the good detective that I am, I didn’t want the shelf to do all the talking so I turned to Julie, a friendly employee in the Whole Body department. I asked Julie what her observations have been since the Amazon takeover. She said that as an employee, she hasn’t seen a huge difference. Yes, there have been some price reductions, mostly in the ‘grocery’ and ‘produce’ departments (though she did point out that Tom’s deodorant prices have gone down! Get it while it’s hot!). She said that online prices aren’t competing with in-store prices, so there’s no disincentive to do your grocery shopping IRL (millennial speak for “in real life”. You’re welcome.) When I asked her about local products, she sighed, and said actually she has seen her store purchasing less local products since the acquisition. Dun, dun, duuuun!! She elaborated by saying that in fact it’s part of a bigger strategy to offer more “consistency” throughout all the stores. (But I want my honey graham ice cream!) Seeing as how Whole Foods’ pitch leans heavily on their support of local producers, I’m curious to see how this dichotomy plays out. (Note: Julie said that pulling local products off the shelves is her least favorite part of the Amazon acquisition. Thanks Julie, that goes for me too.). I continued my undercover moseying through the store, snapping photos of some of what I think of as ‘staple’ food items. Not actually needing any groceries myself, I felt oddly guilty for going in to the store, ‘snooping’ around and not buying anything. So I purchased a REBBL Mocha Elixer  (fabulous marketing!) and walked briskly to my car.

Next stop: Safeway.

It was evening time when I pulled in to the Berkeley Safeway parking lot on Shattuck Ave. The store was lit up and I was pleasantly surprised how cozy-like the inside felt compared to the impersonal coldness I often associate with major supermarkets. Flooring and lighting are key (says my inner interior designer)! You can see, much like Whole Foods, Safeway has called out their organic produce. Upon closer inspection, I found their selection to be lacking compared to that of Whole Foods, as is evidenced in my comparison chart below where organic Romaine lettuce was not offered at Safeway.


Oddly, there was hardly anyone in the store. That went for customers and employees alike. No friendly Julia to covertly extract strategic information from in the deodorant aisle. Maybe they heard I was coming and went on their break. Cover blown. Regardless, I came for the price tags and that information I successfully apprehended.

This morning I sat down to compare the evidence, and low and behold we have a winner!!! The items I price-compared included romaine lettuce, bananas, apples, packaged spinach, milk, eggs and bread. I controlled for price differences between brands by comparing the same brand at both stores (ie. Organic Girl packaged spinach and Dave’s Killer Bread), and comparing the prices of the private label products (ie. Whole Foods’ branded milk and eggs, compared to Safeway’s branded milk and eggs). Without further ado, my fellow sleuths, here are the results:


Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 10.46.27 AM

Whole Foods for the win!!! Surprised? I have to admit I was a bit surprised too. The difference isn’t a lot, but it does start to challenge the ‘Whole Paycheck’ stereotype. However, we could argue that both stores are over-priced, catering to a more affluent population and thereby limiting access to pesticide/herbicide/antibiotic/poison-free food for lower income populations. But that’s a topic for another post. 🙂




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Greenwashing your dollars: Whole Foods vs. Safeway

The big news last June was that Amazon planned to purchase Whole Foods for $13.4 billion. This acquisition rocked the grocery industry, along with the morals of many Whole Foods shoppers (like myself) who felt justification in spending the high premium for convenient access to local and organic products – a hallmark of Whole Foods’ marketing pitch. But let’s be honest. Buying “local” at Whole Foods is a stretch. However, with it now being under new management of the largest online retailer in the world, there is no longer the cloak of “but all the stores are managed regionally” to hide behind. So what does the busy conscious food-consumer do? Is shopping at Whole Foods now no different than buying organic at Safeway? Rumor has it that Safeway prices are better and consumer demand is driving more and more organic options on to their shelves.

I smell an investigation!!

I’ll present here for you, my devoted audience of maybe two (thanks for reading Mom!), some information I’ve dug up on our two challengers: Whole Foods vs. Safeway.  I’ll then venture out in to the wild to do some hands-on investigative journaling and report back my findings in my next post. Nancy Drew would be so proud.


Whole Foods Market An American supermarket chain that specializes in selling food products without artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats. It has 473 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

As mentioned above, Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon; the deal made final in August of 2017. The pledge to lower prices on best-selling grocery staples (think eggs, bananas, lettuce, apples, etc.) was upheld as promised and markdowns can be seen in stores nationwide. Amazon is also reportedly working on integrating a discount for Amazon Prime members who will receive “special savings and in-store benefits”. CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, Jeff Wilke, said, “We’re determined to make healthy and organic food affordable for everyone. Everybody should be able to eat Whole Foods Market quality – we will lower prices without compromising Whole Foods Market’s long-held commitment to the highest standards.” Sounds good to me, but as we know, in our world of capitalism, anytime prices are cut, someone somewhere is picking up the tab. In this case, it seems like local brands are bearing the greatest brunt. Higher costs for shelf space, elevated minimum-sales requirements and new fees to have third-party hosted product demos are making it impossible for many small businesses with items on Whole Foods shelves to turn a profit. Lindsey Rosenberg, the CEO and founder of Cherryvale Farms, a supplier of baking mixes to Whole Foods told Business Insider, “It’s a whole new level of challenges for small brands. It’s either go big or go home now.”

While we may be saying a sad good-bye to our favorite local goods at Whole Foods (though I strongly encourage you to seek out other retailers that carry local brands), one thing set to remain intact is the 365 Everyday Value brand which is Whole Foods’ product line of low(ish) cost “natural” and organic goods.

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 4.41.47 PM
Whole Foods online landing page. Get your passion while it’s fresh!

Also sticking around is the feel-good ambience Whole Foods is famous for. I have to admit, I love the Whole Foods shopping experience. Perfect looking produce stocked high, lots of natural lighting and soft green tones, wide clean aisles and friendly employees who seem to always be standing right behind me when I have a question.  It’s an art, really. But nothing speaks more to the Whole Foods marketing and design experience than their current homepage. I mean, who doesn’t want to ‘find their passion’ while picking up the groceries?


safeway logo

Safeway An American supermarket chain founded in 1915. It is a subsidiary of Albertsons after being acquired by private equity investors led by Cerberus Capital Management in January 2015. As of 2014, Safeway had a total of 1,335 stores in the United States and 195 in Mexico with its partnership with Casa Ley.

Couched as your everyday neighborhood market, Safeway is actually part of the 3rd largest grocery retailer by market share (first is WalMart with 14.5% of market share, second is Kroger with 7.17% and then Alberstons with 4.5%, according to GlobalData Retail, 2016). Taking a page from the Whole Foods playbook, in 2005 Safeway launched their own line of organic products, O Organics. This includes items like meat, eggs, dairy, produce, coffee and other prepared snack foods. Their claim is “to make high quality organics affordable and accessible to everyone, everywhere”. Sounding familiar? It’s a similar story to Whole Foods in that with the current supply and distribution model of these huge retail chains, there isn’t any room for small local farmers and businesses to get in to the game. Media Strategist Ali Hart put it well, “This sad fate of the American farmer does not bode well for the small organic players who have paved this path from niche to mainstream with innovative approaches; they created the demand that Safeway is now intent on meeting.”

Ok, good to know, but in the big picture buying organic is still better than buying conventional, right? And if we don’t have time, access or money to shop at a local famers market, which of these two food-retailing behemoths is the better option for good pricing and quality?

Don’t worry team. Jessamyn Wead is on the case. Stay tuned as the story is revealed…

Sprouting justice: a new kind of food certification

It’s been two weeks since my visit to the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco’s Mission District (you can read up on that post here). Much of the produce handed out at the Sunday Free Farm Stand comes from donations of leftover veggies from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which takes place every Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday at San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building. Despite all of the hype about the Saturday Ferry Plaza Market being one of the nation’s most lively and scenic markets,  I admittedly haven’t been out there to see what all the fuss is about. So this morning, I decide to boldly go where thousands have gone before and headed west across the Bay Bridge.

Standing on the outskirts of the Ferry Plaza Market was like looking down on to a bustling beehive – shoppers buying fresh produce from the vendors, families with strollers meandering from sample table to sample table, joggers leap-frogging their way through the crowd, and throngs of people lined up at the prepared food stands to get a taste of SF’s famous foodie-friendly cuisine – all happening against a backdrop of glistening bay waters and old-time jazz buskers playing their hearts out for tips and accolades. The hype is real.

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, San Francisco


So into the masses I went, bopping along amidst the herd of tourists and market goers. One of my first stops was to catch a bit of David Little from Little Organic Farm give a cooking demo on how to turn his tomatoes and dry-farmed potatoes in to a sumptuous meal. (Dry farming: refers to crop production during a dry season, utilizing the residual moisture in the soil from the rainy season. Dry farming is not a yield maximization strategy; rather it allows nature to dictate the true sustainability of agricultural production in a region.) Rad!

Moving along down the busy walkway, my gaze fell upon a sign hanging in the corner of a modest produce stall: “Food Justice Certified”. I’m familiar with the different organic and fair trade certifications, but this was the first time I’d seen anything about food justice certification. Interest piqued, I decided to inquire within.

Standing across the table piled with jars of delicious looking jams, Barrett “Bear” Boaen, farm manager of Swanton Berry Farm generously gifted me over a half-hour of his time to talk about the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). AJP is an organization working to promote farm and food labor equity through the creation of the Food Justice Certification program, a set of standards laid out in attempts to codify “social justice” in organic and sustainable agriculture.

From the AJP website:

We provide farms and food businesses with technical tools to improve work and trade practices from farm to retail, including extensive toolkits and templates, one-on-one technical assistance, and a stakeholder-driven certification program for high bar social justice standards — Food Justice Certification (FJC), the gold standard for labor and trade practices in North America. We support and partner with third-party certifiers and worker organizations that carry out the certification and inspection process for the FJC program. Food Justice Certified products can be found on grocery store shelves, farmers markets, CSAs and roadside stands. We maintain a Social Justice Fund, through which five percent of all grants received are set aside, and a portion is used to subsidize certification fees through our cost share program for small family farms and independent retailers and cooperatives that have excellent labor practices, but are experiencing economic hardship.

Swanton Berry Farm stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Bear explained that as a Food Justice Certified farm, Swanton Berry Farm pays their farmworkers fair wages, offers health insurance, permits unionizing, and provides their workers with well-maintained housing among other things. He described how on many small-medium sized farms, farmworkers are often paid by “piece rate“. A system whereby workers get compensated based on the number of bags or buckets they pick of whatever product they are harvesting at the time. This oftentimes leads to workers not taking breaks and literally running themselves to points of extreme exhaustion. In this scenario, it’s possible for farmworkers to earn less than minimum wage depending upon the rate being offered and the complexity of harvesting the produce. Bear said that farmworkers paid through the piece rate method can only sustain the intensity of the labor for roughly 4 – 7 years before their bodies start to break down. “What do they do when that happens?” I asked. Bear’s straight-lipped silence told me everything.

Swanton Berry Farm is one of two farms that is Food Justice Certified in California. On one hand, I wanted to yell HALLELUJAH!! It’s about time that there is a system in place to hold farms and businesses accountable for treating their workers justly. On the other hand, I felt like screaming WTF?! Only TWO farms??? C’mon California, we can do better. Props to you Swanton for leading with your morals and serving as a model for other small farms to hopefully follow suit. All my berry bucks are now and forever more going into your (and your farmworkers) hands.

But that’s not all folks!

In addition to Swanton treating their workers fairly (which is abhorrent that this is the exception and not the rule), they also mindfully steward the land on which the farm sits. Of the 200 acres they cultivate, strawberries are planted on just 20. The other acreage is used to grow a variety of different crops, allowing for more nutrients to naturally build up in the soil while also utilizing the symbiotic relationship of companion plants to increase yield and prevent disease. For example, Bear said that by planting collards and green beans together, they get 1.7 times the yield than if they were to plant each crop separately. Seems like magic, but really it’s just letting nature work through her perfect design. Feeling immense gratitude for Swanton and AJP, I bid Bear and crew adieu and disappeared back in to the masses of tourists.

As I sit down to write this, I can’t help but to think of the many hands that touch our food before it reaches our plate; so many backs bend and brows sweat in order to make available the produce that sustains us. I walked away from the Ferry Plaza with a greater appreciation for the hardworking folks who spend their days in the field, as well as for those who support the fair and equitable treatment of our farmworkers. From here on out, I’ll be looking for the Food Justice Certified brand and directing my dollars there. I hope you will too.

Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certification.


Op Ed: Let’s call Trump’s SNAP budget cut proposal what it really is – a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Outraged by the Administration’s new budget proposal that includes massive cuts to many of the programs in place to protect human and environmental health, I wrote this handy-dandy Op Ed (my first ever!) to the SF Chronicle. It highlights my thoughts on Trump’s proposed cuts to SNAP, our nation’s food-aid service currently feeding 40 million Americans. Enjoy…

Let’s call Trump’s SNAP budget cut proposal what it really is:  a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Not all weapons of mass destruction come with a launch code; some are neatly written up as policy, aiming to slowly and deliberately take down their target. Earlier this week, the Trump administration laid out the blueprint for their latest assault on America with the proposal to slash billions of dollars to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. The cut, which would start out by eliminating $17.2 billion from the budget in 2019, and continue to reduce the entire budget by 30 percent or $214 billion over the next ten years, would hit low-income families with children the hardest. As a Master’s student of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, I find Trump’s proposed changes to SNAP to be a dangerous threat to the health and wellbeing of our nation.

The hallmark of Trump’s new proposal is what the USDA is calling “America’s Harvest Box”, consisting of shelf-stable foods such as cereal, peanut butter, milk and canned vegetables. For SNAP recipients who receive over $90 a month towards food purchases, nearly half of their monetary benefit would be replaced with this pre-packaged box of commodity foods. Not only does this proposal violate the recipient’s freedom to make personal dietary choices – which can be shaped by cultural preferences, or religious and medical requirements – nutritionally speaking, the items suggested for the Harvest Box are processed foods known to contain high amounts of sugar, a major contributor to Type II diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 30 million children and adults in the United States are affected by diabetes. That’s 1 in 11 Americans. People with diabetes have health care costs that are 2.3 times greater than those without diabetes. The estimated total cost to the American public for the treatment of diabetes and prediabetes is $322 billion. Research has shown that diabetes is more prevalent in food-insecure households. It is unconscionable then, to prescribe this ‘one-size-fits-all’ food box to anyone, let along the population most at risk for developing this disease.  Furthermore, removing choices from SNAP beneficiaries whose lack of income already limits their opportunities and options, is not a solution to the problem. It detracts from ongoing efforts to increase participation in the SNAP program and improve nutrition outcomes for low-income Americans.

While the Trump administration’s stated goal is to reduce federal spending, their tactic to target low-income Americans is not only vile, it’s flawed. Lowering the SNAP budget and replacing dietary choices with a box of commodity goods will only impose more stress and poor health upon our nation’s most vulnerable populations, invariably driving up healthcare and social service costs. Instead, I urge the administration to get behind programs that will increase access to fresh produce for SNAP recipients. We’ve already seen pilot programs such as the Healthy Food Purchase program and Farmer’s Market Promotion program achieve success. Both programs have been shown to increase healthy food consumption and improve health for low-income Americans. Not only do healthier people have lower health care costs, they miss fewer days of work, lessening the need to rely on programs like SNAP. The Healthy Food Purchase pilot program, put forth in the 2008 Farm Bill, incentivizes the purchase of fruits and vegetables, whereby for each SNAP dollar spent on fruits and vegetables, participants receive 30 cents added to their balance. The Farmers Market Promotion program supported by the USDA, awards grants to local food markets which boosts their economic viability, translating in to more fresh produce that is accessible and affordable to a wider community.

The most promising action we can make is to increase the access to fresh produce for SNAP recipients; to limit and dictate what those receiving the benefits should eat not only detracts from this goal, it undermines the strength of this program and threatens the health of our nation.

Trump's 2019 Budget Proposal
From the Washington Post: The Trump administration is seeking to cut the Department of Agriculture’s discretionary budget by $3.5 billion, or 15 percent, while also slashing by $17 billion the funds available to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). The budget would also reduce federal crop insurance subsidies and cut spending for conservation programs and foreign food aid. Trump’s budget hits poor Americans the hardest.

Dirty Hands

My ongoing crusade in to the local food system here in the Bay area landed me just a few miles from my home in Berkeley this past Sunday at the UC Gill Tract. I’ve visited the Gill Tract once before to hear Miguel Alteri, professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley and recent inductee in to Kyoto’s Earth Hall of Fame, speak about peasant farming and traditional foodways. This visit, however was the first time I had the opportunity to meander through the lush garden beds and learn a bit about the highly politicized past, present and future of this land.

My guides for the afternoon included my dear friend, gardener extraordinaire and mushroom foraging bad-ass, Bryan Bramlett along with the Gill Tract’s hard-working and deeply committed Farm Manager, Jon Hoffman.

The land the Gill Tract sits upon is owned by the University of California. I won’t go too far back in to the history of the land, but rest assured it follows the all too common story of colonialism and development. Interesting to note, however, is that UC Berkeley is a land-grant university, which means that it was established and funded by the US government to focus on agricultural teachings and research (who knew?!). So it was to my surprise to learn that the UC stonewalled a proposal put forth by faculty and students for the creation of a center for sustainable urban agriculture throughout the 90s and early 2000s. All the while, plant genetic research on corn was a booming Berkeley activity, and the land which originally spanned about 100 acres, was slowly being parceled off for development (high-rent housing, stores, experimental agriculture, etc.). #hmmm

This is where the story heats up. Ready?!

On Earth Day 2012, over 200 community members cut the chains to the fence surrounding the remaining acres of undeveloped land to “illegally” break ground and plant food. My kind of rebels! This became known as the Occupy the Farm movement.

The stated intent of the participants was to establish a sustainable farm to provide food to the local community. Participants argued that such a farm could play an important role in educating the local community about sustainable agricultural practices while helping to establish food sovereignty in the local community. The organizers emphasized that their intention was to create a working farm, rather than simply occupy the land.

There was backlash from the University which included engaging the police who at one point brought out bulldozers in an attempted threat to level the occupation. However, the occupation persisted and conversations with the University to establish the Gill Tract as a community supported farm ensued. The next year, 2013, the University entered in to a 10 year agreement to preserve the land for agricultural use, establishing the Gill Tract as a part of the formal agreement. Yay!

Miner's Lettuce
Miner’s lettuce aka winter purslane is an amazing wild superfood, high in Vitamin C!

But the struggle is ongoing. Ironically, the UC sold a piece of land bordering the Gill Tract to Sprouts, which recently erected a giant supermarket featuring “farm fresh produce”. I’ll tell ya, it doesn’t get much fresher than walking down the rows of red and yellow chard, loading your basket with food that was moments ago drawing nutrients from the soil, and all the while snacking on the Miner’s Lettuce popping up between the beds. As Bryan and I snacked he showed me around the BioMass Beds which utilizes a technique called hugelkultur to build up rich, healthy soil in which to grow nutritious food. Bryan, like almost all the folks who work with the land at the Gill Tract, is a volunteer. Depending upon the day of the week, the weather, or the events happening at the farm, there may be anywhere from 2 to 60 volunteers picking, pruning, digging, watering, etc. During my 2 hour visit, I met at least five of the nearly two dozen people I saw coming and going. There was a couple who stopped by to pick produce for the Berkeley Food Pantry (stay tuned for more on that), and a mom with her toddler daughter simply roaming through the garden, observing the the magic to be found amidst the kale forest and under strawberry leaves. There was also a group of volunteers hard at work plunging giant forks in to a recently cleared bed in preparation for a new planting cycle. That’s where I conducted my interview with Jon: knelt over the beds, forming rich earth in to a 3 foot wide row with a handmade wooden frame, speaking the story of the farm in to the soil as we moved along.

He asked if I wanted the 15 minute or the 2 hour version of the Gill Tract story. I opted for the 15 minute (which went for nearly an hour) and promised him (and myself) to come back without my recorder for a day of gardening and storytelling. Jon talked about the Occupy the Farm movement described above, as well as his extensive and in my opinion, heroic background in sustainable food production and education. He said that the Gill Tract is a place for all people – all colors, genders, faiths, and abilities. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Jon, “Why do you garden?” His response, half-jokingly: “instead of burning down banks, I decided to grow food”.

It seems that engaging in the act of growing healthy, wholesome, organic food for the community, one can find themselves ironically at odds with the law. But if you’re going to dip your hands into some dirty business, these are the best kind of dirty hands to have.


When you’re a gardener…


The second chapter to my visit to the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco’s Mission District happened by accident, but turned out to be another inspiring and affirming story of our local food system at work. Turns out the secret garden I mentioned in my last post has a name: All in Common Garden. Guided by my instructions to find the purple painted fence, and motivated by the hope that I might meet the Free Farm Stand’s founder, Tree, I set off to find this mysterious garden. Conveniently, it is was just two blocks from the Free Farm Stand and open for visitors. So inside I went!

Upon entering the garden, I started having flashbacks to the 1993 film The Secret Garden (I know I’m dating myself). After stepping through a precarious-looking large metal gate, I meandered through a shaded tunnel of bamboo and stepped out in to a glistening sunlit sea of green with flowers blooming, birds chirping and not a human soul in sight. I stood for a second to take in the sight and then reached for my phone as is the custom these days. I snapped some photos, but truthfully it felt almost sacrilegious to pull out my image-absorbing high-tech gadget in such the pristinely humble home of Nature. Fortunately my affront wasn’t noticed when I spotted two people inside the greenhouse. I walked up to the open door and said, “Hi, are you Tree?” The white-bearded man in his soil speckled overalls replied in an almost hushed voice, “I am”.

And thus my conversation with Tree began.


Naturally, one of my first questions was how the idea of Free Farm Stand came to be. Mind you, the whole time we talked, Tree was nestling flower seeds into small starter trays. He told me he’d been involved in growing and giving out food for decades, but recently had the desire to hand out flowers to the community. A different, yet still very potent kind of medicine.

Tree’s response to my initial question still has my wheels spinning. It was so genuine and humbling that I felt it would be an injustice to paraphrase. With Tree’s permission I recorded our conversation, and have written out his reply:

“In 2008 there was a big movement. You know, Michael Pollan was writing and there was a lot of interest in ‘growing local’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’. I was in between projects and I had been gardening for a long time. I had been giving food away with different food programs or shelters or things like that, and I thought that this [movement] was something I related to and I had been doing: growing food locally. So I had the idea of combining two projects: growing food and giving it away, and encouraging neighbors to grow food as a way of addressing hunger. In other words, I thought that this would be a good way of educating people and getting people to think about growing some of their own food. So, that was the original idea…”

He trails for a second… pauses… and then shares this:

“I say that, but the original idea behind everything is that… the world is a messed up place right now in some ways. And if you care about things, what do you do about it? What I believe, is it’s a spiritual problem. We need to address bigger issues, although immediate issues of hunger and housing need be addressed as much as we can, but we won’t solve the problem unless we solve the larger problem – which is a very deep problem – of dealing with greed and capitalism, which fosters greed and a mentality of scarcity. So behind it all [the Free Farm Stand and All in Common Garden] is a shortcut way of bringing people together to think differently. I don’t want to sound like an Apple advertisement, but we need people to think differently in how they interact with each other. So the idea of giving things away for free and sharing resources is to understand that there really is an abundance in the world. You learn that when you’re a gardener, that there’s so much abundance if you do things the right way in a sustainable manner. And if you share things with people instead of trying to sell things to people, that promotes a different mindset which leads, I think, to a community of people that are behaving differently than just being robots and having jobs and surviving and… things like that. So that was behind the thinking.”

Thank you, Tree. You’ve just inherited a new lifetime fan.

Our conversation went on and Tree talked about the many community gardens that have closed around the city, a sign he believes, that the ‘real’ local food movement of growing and sharing food was just a fad. Now we see restaurants touting “Locally grown, Locally raised” and charging a hefty premium, rendering locally grown food largely inaccessible to many locals.

Shortly after that point in our conversation, we had a visitor join us in the greenhouse. A young boy, maybe 3 or 4, came up to the doorway followed by his dad who was encouraging him forward. Eli had a question about the mushrooms growing in the garden. Were they poisonous, he wanted to know. You see, just as I had stepped through the purple fence that day, so too do many passer-bys. No invitation or reservation required. There are no individual plots in this garden, no fencing or borders. Anyone is welcome to stroll through, eat a tomato, sit and watch the birds and/or pick up a shovel and participate in the fun of maintaining the garden. Eli and his dad were just stopping through to see what was new in the garden, and the funny shaped fungi sparked little Eli’s interest. Future Farmer of America, we can only hope. I also met Francesca and Sarah, two volunteers who help out at the garden. Sarah was adding mulch around a bench beneath the giant avocado tree. She said she wasn’t that interested in volunteering at the Farm Stand, but felt that by helping out in the garden, she was getting her ‘zen time’ while also giving back to her community.

‘When you’re a gardener, you learn that there is so much abundance around you.’

So true. I saw the evidence of this abundance not just in the stalks and leaves spilling out of the garden beds at All in Common, but also in the abundance of vibrant community spirit, joyful laughter and genuine camaraderie amongst all those involved. I realize that not everyone has the time or desire to grow food, however I think there are many ways to ‘garden’ and create sustainable, healthy abundance in our lives. Just as Tree was searching for a way to do something about an issue he cared about, there are lots of opportunities for us to cultivate change in our own way.

So grab a shovel, and get going!

Tree @ All in Common Garden


For the Community, By the Community: The Mission District’s Free Farm Stand

Because I’m a terrible Millennial and knew nothing on the art of blogging, I reached out to my dear friend Zoe Schiffer (writer extraordinaire, check her here) to show me the ropes (i.e. What exactly is a blog? How do I get one? And what do I say?? … halp!). When talking through my blog assignment, she turned me on to a farmer’s market she had seen a while back in San Francisco’s Mission District. What was unique about this market was that everything was sourced locally (some produce grown in neighbors’ back yards), offered to the market as a donation, and given out to the community entirely for free. No EBTs, IOUs, proof of income or lack thereof. Free fresh produce. For the community, by the community.

I had to know more.

So last Sunday, I pulled up to Parque Niños Unidos on the corner of 23rd and Treat Ave. Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting to see what I’m about to describe. For those who are familiar with the Mission District, you will know that it is a neighborhood brimming with the colorful sights and sounds of its Latino roots, but is also caught in the midst of tough transition as the tech industry moves in, cost of living sky rockets and the economic divide becomes all the more apparent. But here, in this tiny corner of the city, thrives a small community paradise. Fresh green grass to roll in, a colorful jungle gym with lots of little bodies squirming playfully through the tunnels and chutes, a small community garden full of healthy looking produce and flittering butterflies, and a bustling line of folks making their way down a row of canopy-covered tables stocked with all sorts of leafy greens, wholesome veggies and loaves of bread. Welcome to the Free Farm Standfree farm stand

I made my way over to the gentleman who appeared to be managing the line. Quite possibly the most pleasant person I’ve met this century, Nathan spent the next half-hour giving me the full run down of who, what, when, where and how the Free Farm Stand works, all the while overseeing the distribution of numbered tickets to newcomers, organizing them in to specific time slots in which to go through the line to collect their produce. Brilliant!

Nathan explained to me that the Free Farm Stand was started about 9 years ago by a man living in the neighborhood named Tree. Tree was growing vegetables in his backyard and saw a need in the community for access to fresh produce. So he rode his bike out to the corner of 23rd and Treat and started handing out his veggies. Over the years the project grew; other neighbors with gardens started pitching in their extra food, volunteers joined the effort and began collecting excess produce from the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market, and local urban farms like Alemany Farm set aside crates of fresh, organic vegetables specifically for the Free Farm Stand clientele. Today, a team of over 60 volunteers oversee the entire Free Farm Stand production; from the vegetable procurement and storage, to the weekly installation and management of the market. It is apparent from the camaraderie among the team, the first-name-basis relationships between the volunteers and clientele and the overall feeling of warmth and community surrounding the Stand, that this is a labor of love for everyone involved.

During the winter months, when the produce is less abundant and people aren’t out and about as much, the Free Farm Stand provides fresh food to around 80 guests. In the summer months, they can serve up to 175 guests in 3 hours. While standing there with Nathan, I saw families come by, grab a number and then head to the jungle gym until their time slot was called. Moms and dads, speaking different languages, gathered on the edges of the sand while the kids did what kids are meant to do: play together. There were two gentlemen who came by to grab a number, one in a wheelchair being pushed by the other, looking a little disheveled but laughing heartily and giving friendly regards to the volunteers. I caught a toothless grin from the man in the wheelchair and couldn’t have felt more at home.

The Free Farm Stand runs on an economy of ‘giving that which you have to give’ – whether that be produce, transportation, time, etc. – putting in to question the notion of needing money in order to be prosperous. Whether that is a feasible model to apply to our food system at large is a separate issue. Nevertheless, the Free Farm Stand is a beautiful example of a local food system providing healthy, nutritious produce by utilizing the tools and resources readily available.

Just when I thought my interview was nearing the end, Nathan asked, “Have you been to the Secret Garden?”

Secret Garden, did you say??

Just two blocks down from Parque Niños Unidos, hidden behind a tall purple wooden fence, is a small community garden. Open on Sundays to anyone who wants to plant, mulch, eat, stroll, sit or hang out in the greenhouse with Tree, as I wound up doing for a good part of the next hour. The conversation had in that greenhouse was the cherry on top of my mind-blowing Free Farm Stand experience, and the topic of my next blog post…. stay tuned!

Free Farm Stand

Open Sundays 12pm – 3pm

Parque Niños Unidos, 23rd St. and Treat Ave., San Francisco.

Teaser for the upcoming post… Secret Garden.




The Blog Assignment

While the idea of starting a ‘food systems’ blog has been percolating in my brain for a while, the impetus to sit down and get the project going came in the form of a class mid-term assignment: divine academic intervention. The class, mentioned previously, is called Sociology and Political Ecology of AgroFood Systems, taught by Kathy De Master. It’s focus is on exploring the nexus of agriculture, society and the environment and implores us, the students, to question how might societies create ecologically, socially and economically regenerative agricultural systems in ways that foster justice, equity and respect for diverse cultures and farming practices. Hello heaven, I have arrived!!

The assignment is as follows: visit different farmer’s markets, urban farms, grocery stores and food pantries in the Bay Area and engage with the workers, vendors, customers and ambience of the place. Describe your experience and observations of each place, draw comparisons and reflect on how these places represent different facets of our food system.

Challenge: accepted!

So, the next handful of posts will recap my journalistic endeavor to highlight some of these food-source sites from the Bay Area; a literal journey through the local food system. Welcome aboard!

The bigger picture

It dawned on me over 10 years ago while in a rural village in Guatemala. I got into a conversation with a local woman regarding food. She told me that her family eats primarily beans with a few herbs she finds growing wild around her home. Although her husband worked at the nearby corn plantation, all the food produced there was bound for the US and never made it back home to feed the hungry bellies of their children.  That’s when I knew.

Our food system is flawed.

As time went on, I started thinking more and more about how is it we can have such sophisticated systems of food production and distribution, yet have so many people without enough to eat? I began asking questions and that’s when I discovered permaculture, an agricultural design practice that uses principles based upon mimicking what is seen in nature. It’s a whole-system approach to growing food and reconnecting people to the land that is both sustainable and regenerative. I visited different permaculture farms, took workshops and was blown away by the abundant and beautiful food that was coming from these farms. Why can’t we feed the world this way?

This is the question that has led me to graduate school.

I am now half-way through my first year of a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition at UC Berkeley. I toyed with many different paths and approaches to go about seeking answers to my question, and landed on Public Health as a way to examine food systems as the bridge that connects human health and agriculture. Only six months in to my studies and I’ve discovered a mountain of information, research and ideas dealing with ways to improve our food system; and this is only the tip of the ice berg. I’ve also discovered there are many mind-boggling complex systemic, political and economic structures at play which have led to and perpetuate our current state of food system obscurity.  This should be fun… heh.

Truth be told, I can’t get enough. I find myself shouting at the articles I’m reading (sometimes profanities, sometimes in exaltation) and scribbling in the margins of books “WTF?!? Why don’t we fix this?” or “OMG! Yes! Yes! Yes!”. My heart breaks when I learn about the food being served to our children in schools, which is undoubtedly contributing to the rise in childhood obesity (nearly 19% in the US). And then it swells to the point of bursting when I hear about communities coming together to reclaim, regrow and remember their traditional foodways. One such reading assignment from my class on ‘Sociology and Political Ecology of AgroFood Systems’ led me to discover Freedom Farmer’s Market here in Oakland, Ca.

“The Freedom Farmers Market is a niche market that connects African American agricultural producers together with African Americans and other consumers lacking access to culturally relevant, locally grown fresh & healthy food. In addition to a chance to meet some of California’s Black farmers we have activities like; the Crowder pea shell off, sweet potato pie tasting, watermelon eating, and poetry contest, healthy soul food demos, nutrition workshops, live music by local artist, dancing and chess. The Freedom Farmers’ Market supports the idea of freedom to choose affordable local food and freedom to access legacy food grown by Black farmers.”

I learned from the readings and from the guest lecture by one of The Freedom Farmers Market founders, Gail Meyers, that this market was inspired from the work of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer

I was familiar with her name, but it wasn’t until taking this class that I learned her story and what an incredible human being she was.

There is so much to be said about the work she did for the civil rights movement, but one of her efforts really struck me: The Freedom Farm Cooperative, founded in 1968. Against tremendous adversity, Fannie Lou Hamer set out to establish an agricultural cooperative built on 680-acres in Mississippi. Freedom Farms included a pig bank, Head Start program, community gardens, commercial kitchen, a garment factory, sewing cooperative, tool bank, and low-income, affordable housing to support the needs of African Americans who were fired and evicted for exercising the right to vote. Freedom Farms offered these sharecroppers and tenant farmers educational and retraining opportunities including health care and disaster relief for those who wanted to stay in the Mississippi Delta.

(Insert: “OMG! Yes! Yes! Yes!”)

As I go through this journey of discovering the stories and truths behind our food system, I find there is so much I feel obligated to share – like the often untold story of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative. Information is power and so I hope to share with you my discoveries through this academic journey and invite you to share your thoughts as well.

With that, I bring you ‘Beyond the Plate’. Dedicated to the Fannie Lou Hamers of the world. May we all eat well and be happy.

“Sometimes it seems like to tell the the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”

Fannie Lou Hamer