Berkeley resident awarded $10,000 grant for work with Ecology Center

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Berkeley resident Dante Kaleo is no stranger to serendipity.

Kaleo, a 22-year-old youth program assistant at Berkeley’s Ecology Center, received word Tuesday that he was one of five recipients of the Levi’s and Super Bowl 50 Fund Rookie Playmaker award — a $10,000 grant given to young leaders at Bay Area nonprofit organizations.

“I actually didn’t know anything about it,” Kaleo said, adding that the Ecology Center’s development director, Jacinda Abcarian, informed him of the award and helped him apply for it. “I just sent it in and thought it would be cool, and if we got some grant money for our program, it would be awesome.”

According to Jason Trimiew, vice president of community relations for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, the Rookie Playmaker award is part of the host committee’s efforts “to help close the opportunity gap for low-income children, youth and young adults in the Bay Area” and honors leaders ages 13 to 24. Trimiew said Kaleo’s commitment to teaching his community about healthy foods through his work at the Ecology Center made him a prime candidate for the award.

Kaleo described his initial involvement with the center as a “fluke”: A friend told him about its Farm Fresh Choice program, which Kaleo then joined in 2011 as a summer intern through YouthWorks, a Berkeley employment program aimed at residents ages 14 to 25. After that summer, the Ecology Center hired him as a staff member.

Working with Farm Fresh Choice, Kaleo educates low-income East Bay residents on nutrition and seeks to provide them with affordable produce by coordinating with the Ecology Center’s farmers’ markets.

“We buy from the farmers’ market and … we’re able to build relationships with the vendors that allow us to buy for wholesale rates,” Kaleo said. “When we sell the produce back to the community, we’re not trying to sell it at any price or make any money off it, essentially. We’re just selling it for what we buy it for, or enough just to make enough money back so we can keep doing it every week.”

Aside from his work with Farm Fresh Choice, Kaleo is also a member of the Ecology Center’s Berkeley Climate Action Coalition and helped with the Yes on D campaign for a Berkeley “soda tax,” which voters approved in 2014.

Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, said Kaleo’s leadership stood out to him when Kaleo spoke at the convening ceremony of the 2015 Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference in Oakland.

“He’s been a food justice leader in our community and has really demonstrated the power of young people to effect change in our community,” Bourque said.

With the $10,000 in grant money, Kaleo plans to help expand the Youth Environmental Academy, which offers paid internships — focused on environmentalism and sustainability — to people ages 14 to 22. Ultimately, Kaleo said, he aims to use his position in the community to promote equity.

“I just want to be a role model for myself and my community, and the way I want to do that is just by continuing the type of work that I’m doing and figuring out how to expand that and how to make the conversation more inclusive,” he said.

Andrea Platten covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @andreaplatten.