Phat Beets Produce launches the Beet Box CSA program

Juan Pablo Perez (far right) of J&P Organics at the farmers' market outside Children's Hospital Oakland. His farm in Monterrey is one of the Beet Box providers. Photo courtesy Phat Beets Produce.

Juan Pablo Perez (far right) of J&P Organics at the farmers' market outside Children's Hospital Oakland. His farm in Monterrey is one of the Beet Box providers. Photo courtesy Phat Beets Produce.

For North Oakland residents who don’t live near a farmers’ market, there’s now a new way to purchase organic produce. Phat Beets Produce, a volunteer-run collective that aims to connect small farmers to urban communities, is now taking orders for their “Beet Boxes.”  Each Beet Box contains 11 to 14 seasonal fruits and veggies, all fresh and pesticide-free, which can be picked up starting this January at five Oakland locations. This model is also known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and it is Phat Beets’ first try at running a large-scale CSA.

The program not only helps give the Oakland community access to healthy food, but also helps a group of under-supported small farmers, said Max Cadji, co-founder of Phat Beets Produce. “There’re a lot of really great small farmers out there that don’t have a very good market,” said Cadji. “Sometimes they have huge losses when they are selling to wholesalers. ” The participating farms are no larger than 40 acres, and many are under five acres because they are only a subsidiary business of their owners.  The majority of the farmers, whose produce includes onions, avocados and mushrooms, come from California cities like Fresno, Salinas and Monterrey.

Phat Beets’ website lists all of the group’s collaborating farmers, who are also members of Agricultural and Land-based Training Association (ALBA), a Salinas-based organization that supports disadvantaged farmers who are often immigrants. For example, according to his profile on the site, farmer Miguel Cisneros is a truck driver in Salinas. Originally from Mexico, he works over 60 hours every week driving a tractor on a lettuce farm. In his remaining time Cisneros grows vegetables and fruit on a 3.7-acre field, hoping to make money from this endeavor, but he barely breaks even. The profile says he hasn’t been able to sell his produce at farmers’ markets because he only speaks a little English. The only option left for him is to sell to an organic produce distributor who often pays only half the market price.

“Miguel told me that he doesn’t make back at least a little money from his farming this year that he’s going to have to give it up,” said Josh Neff, a volunteer at Phat Beets Produce.

“The market has always been one of the difficulties for small farmers,” said Will Scott, another farmer who works with Beet Box. Scott has been farming organic food for about 30 years. His farm in Fresno is about 40 acres, where he now grows stone fruits, grapes and vegetables. He’s able to sell at West Oakland and North Oakland famers’ markets and to some Bay Area restaurants. But still, he has found it economically challenging to be a small farmer who doesn’t have access to big contracts. “Fuel prices were so high and there was no profit, ” Scott said. “It’s painful once you get to harvest time.”

Cadji said Beet Box is an opportunity for farmers to have their produce sold even before they come to the farmers’ markets. The group’s goal is to eventually sell about 200 boxes per week.

While helping small farmers market their products, Cadji said the program also aims to support people in Oakland’s neighborhoods who are suffering from diet-related diseases. He said that with each Beet Box sold, a $2 coupon that can be used in three farmers’ markets in North Oakland will be given to doctors in community clinics for distribution. Collaborators include several clinics at Children’s Hospital Oakland, including the Teen Clinic and the Healthy Hearts Clinic, an obesity prevention program with more than 360 young patients.

Phat Beets co-founder Jennifer Matthews is also a pediatrician at the hospital. She believes that social criticism about obesity plays a significant role in “shaping kids images of themselves.” But some of her young patients struggle with weight gain despite being given advice about healthy eating. “I counseled my patients on how to eat better and exercise,” said Matthews. But, she added, “Most of the time, when my patients returned for a follow up, they were heavier.”

Matthews realized that one of the reasons for her patient’s weight gain was that many low-income Oakland neighborhoods are flush with high-calorie, but nutritionally deficient, food options. In order to inspire patients to explore healthier food places and provide them with a convenient venue for buying produce, Mattews and Cadji, along with the Arlington Farmers’ Market manager Brett Benner, came up with the idea of a farmers market right outside the entrance of the Children’s Hospital. It’s been held every Tuesday since June, 2009.

The idea of starting a take-home produce box is the group’s attempt to expand their program; Cadji said it’s difficult to make the farmers’ market alone financially viable. Before introducing the Beet Box this winter, Phat Beets had already tried a similar nine-month program, in which participating doctors and clinic administrators would buy the produce boxes themselves and give vouchers to their patients. Five to ten boxes were sold each week. “It worked out really really well, so I thought ‘Let’s expand it,’” said Cadji. “It allows our program to be more sustainable and it’s good for everyone.”

Each Beet Box costs $24 and a half share is also available at half the price. Seniors, low-income residents and Electronic Benefit Transfer (a public assistance benefits distribution system) users may get a reduced price by contacting the organization at csa@phatbeetproduce.org or 510-689-3068. Visit Phat Beets’ website to order a box and learn information about the five pick-up locations in Oakland. Pick ups will start on January 8.

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