by Renee Macalino Rutledge
Move over ice cream truck. At St. Martin De Porres Elementary School in North Oakland, students released by sound of the final bell rush from the school yard to greet fresh fruits and veggies at the community produce stand that promotes food justice for all.
Some of the kids help run the stand while others gather ‘round for free samples or a glimpse of the weekly cooking demonstration.
The produce stand is made possible by Phat Beets Produce, which also organizes two certified weekly farmers’ markets, spearheads urban gardening programs, and distributes a weekly “Beet Box” filled with pesticide-free, organic, and locally grown goodies for $15 to $25, with discounts for food stamp recipients and WIC customers who benefit from a supplemental nutritional program for women, infants and children.
In an effort to promote equal access to healthy, affordable food, Phat Beets Urban Food Systems Coordinator, Max Cadji, connects the dots between vacant land, farmers, institutions, and neighboring, low-income communities.
According to Cadji, Phat Beets works in harmony with Oakland’s various community-centered agriculture programs to support social businesses, small farmers, and farmers of color.
“We are all in the struggle together and compliment each other’s work,” Cadji says. “We are a farmer-centric organization, so we are working with both urban and rural farmers on a weekly basis. We also don’t limit our work to food. We are active in supporting the creation of resilient communities across the board.”
Critical to this work is teaching Oakland youth how to garden, grow their own food, and change their diets to improve health. In 2010, Phat Beets partnered with Children’s Hospital obesity prevention program to create the Healthy Hearts Youth Garden, the first clinic-based vegetable garden in the nation.
“The youth garden program is a cornerstone of our edible parks initiative,” Cadji says. “The garden also hosts the Fresh Fellows program, a food justice and landscaping program for youth suffering from diet related illness that are part of the Healthy Hearts Clinic at Children’s Hospital Oakland.”
Phat Beets hosts a farmers’ market at the Children’s Hospital on Tuesdays, where patients of the Healthy Hearts Clinic receive $2 “Beet Buck” vouchers and hospital staff will soon have the option for online ordering and delivery of farmer’s market goods.
Projects in the works include a kitchen incubator program for local micro-entrepreneurs, as well as the creation of a 10-acre incubator farm, in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee and PUEBLO, to settle landless people on prime agricultural land.
In the meanwhile, one of the organization’s cornerstones, the Beet Box, continues to grow.
“We started the Beet Box two years ago with five members and we now have we over 250 active members with about 125 boxes being delivered each week,” Cadji says.