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California Grown: an exploration of Berkeley's organic growth

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JULY 23, 2012

Anyone who has gone for a stroll in Downtown Berkeley on a summer Saturday has invariably come across the Farmers’ Market that draws droves of locals every week.

The stalls, laden with the season’s ripest tomatoes, sweetest strawberries and other bounties of the season, offer almost entirely organic fare, and that’s just how Berkeley residents like it.

In fact, over the past 30 years, the city has grown into a local hub for organic, sustainable, locally grown foods, with three farmers’ markets a week throughout the city, one of which offers all organic foodstuffs.

But not all food in Berkeley is the same. As much as local agriculture is a part of the city, so are corporate supermarkets and fast food.

So what does that mean for the residents of a city that is lauded as one of the most progressive food cities in the country?

At the very least, it means that everyone has a choice, from the farm, to the table and everywhere in between.

What is local?

The journey of an organic white peach destined to end up in a bag lunch or dessert dish in Berkeley begins about 80 miles away in Yolo County.

In the middle of a verdant green valley, off a country road aptly named “County Road 22A,” Guru Ram Das Orchards produces some of the finest peaches and plums around.

Owner Didar Khalsa planted an orchard on his hillside plot of land in 1980, during which time he would trek from his then-home in Reno, Nev., on weekends to tend the trees.

As local, organic and sustainable produce has become more sought after, Khalsa’s operation has expanded, and he eventually built a home on the flat top of the hill. Khalsa attributes much of his success to selling in Berkeley.

“I have such great loyal customers in Berkeley, having gone to the same markets for 22 years,” Khalsa said on a sunny afternoon this spring. “The percentage of people who buy in Marin is about one-fifth of what it is in Berkeley, so you just feel more loved and appreciated in Berkeley.”

And while produce growing 80 miles may sound like too great a distance for it to be considered local, Khalsa said farming in the East Bay is impossible because of high land prices and the Bay Area climate, which is why “local” can’t exactly mean the food was grown in your backyard.

Forty-one of the vendors at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets are located within 100 miles of the city. Similarly, the Berkeley Student Food Collective — a co-operative store across the street from campus on Bancroft Way offering “local, organic, fair trade and humane” foods — only sells products grown or made within 150 miles.

Trini Campbell, who owns Berkeley Farmers’ Market staple Riverdog Farms with her husband, Tim Mueller, attributes the growing interest in local, organic and sustainable foods to both the economy and people’s health concerns.

“People don’t eat out as much,” Campbell said. “They want to eat at home more, so they’re buying their own food to eat at home. People are also concerned about pesticides and their possible effects. (Organic) is just better for individual health and community health because it supports local farms like ours.”

Organic options on a student budget

The UC Berkeley community has countless choices when it comes to eating, many of which are organic, despite the perception that organic is always too pricey for a student budget.

Although Cal Dining, which runs food service in the residence halls and in most locations on campus, serves conventional favorites like pizza and chicken fingers, it also offers locally sourced organic products as well as the biggest all-organic salad bar in the country.

Cal Dining features between 27 and 33 percent organic foods, according to Cal Dining Executive Director Shawn LaPean. As a result, along with a whole host of other awards, Cal Dining was named a Real Food Pioneer by the Real Food Challenge, an organization that aims to build a healthy, fair and green food economy at universities nationwide.

“We try to bring as many organic options as we can to our students while being financially responsible,” said Ida Shen, assistant culinary director for Cal Dining. “But it’s a balance, so we also have Tyson breaded chicken tenders because we can afford it, and we couldn’t bread that many chicken tenders for our students.”

Student organizations like the Berkeley Student Food Collective and the Berkeley Student Cooperative seek to make it easy for students to find local, organic and sustainable meals without having to break the bank.

“I got a salad (from the collective) for $2 yesterday,” said Kate Kaplan, a UC Berkeley sophomore and outreach coordinator for the collective. “But the mindset that people have is that fast food is so much cheaper and easier.”

All of the Berkeley Student Cooperative houses provide food for their residents during the fall and spring semesters — paid for as part of residents’ rent — and the options provided to the students are largely organic.

According to cooperative Food Service Coordinator Andrew Kearns, buying local, organic and sustainable food fulfills three of the co-op’s main priorities — supporting local businesses, equitable nutrition and equitable distribution of food.

“Supporting what’s environmentally conscientious is the backbone of co-op living,” Kearns said.

Expanding the future of organic food

In the spring, the farmers’ markets in Berkeley became battlegrounds in the fight against genetically modified foods as food activists fought to place Proposition 37 — the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act — on the November ballot.

The act would force food producers to label products that include genetically modified ingredients, and Rachel Pachivas, a regional coordinator for the Label GMOs campaign and a Berkeley resident, said the farmers’ markets were among the places the campaign received the most signatures to secure the act’s place on the ballot.

“People at the farmers’ markets were very willing to sign,” she said. “At one point, we had a line of people at our table, which was really nice.”

The campaign received almost a million signatures, nearly double what it needed.

However, Pachivas said Berkeley has room to grow in terms of fully committing to local, organic and sustainable foods and, as part of the campaign, said she hopes to raise awareness about the merits of choosing those foods over faster or “easier” options that may not be healthful.

The campaign has reached out for endorsements from the members of Berkeley City Council, and it remains to be seen where the city’s representatives will weigh in on the matter.

Regardless of politics and distance, organic continues to grow as an option in Berkeley markets and restaurants, which is perhaps the most telling indicator of how the city wants to eat. Everybody eats, everybody makes a choice about what they eat, and those decisions continue to shape Berkeley’s ever-changing food identity.

Christopher Yee is an assistant news editor.

JULY 26, 2012

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