By now most East Bay residents are familiar with CSAs, or community-supported agriculture — consumers subscribe to a farm and receive in return boxes of organic, seasonal produce.
Oakland-based nonprofit Phat Beets Produce has been running one such CSA for six years, but they’re now taking the concept one step further. Phat Beets is now offering The Cultured Case through what they call a CSY, or community-supported youth program. Subscribers receive jars of preserved and pickled vegetables, all made by Oakland youth taking part in Phat Beets’ Fresh Fellows program.
Founded in 2007, Phat Beets Produce connects small-scale farmers of color to urban communities through the creation of clinic-based farmers markets, school farm stands, youth market gardens and community kitchens.
Fresh Fellows was started two years later, along with help from a doctor at UCSF Benioff Oakland Children’s Hospital. It teaches youth from the hospital’s Healthy Hearts Clinic who are at risk for diet-related illnesses about healthy eating, cooking and gardening.
The program takes place at Phat Beet’s Youth Market Garden, a shared free urban garden that produces over 3000 pounds of produce each year. The food is shared with the neighborhood as well as the community at the Healthy Hearts Clinic. (Hence the name “clinic-based farmers market.”)
Some participants get so much out of Fresh Fellows that they have attended the program repeatedly. This was the case with Lorena Ramos, an 18-year-old from Hayward, who now heads up the CSY as well as Phat Beets’ catering company, We Cater! Collective. Other Fresh Fellows participate in the catering company as well.
“Given that we had some youth who had done the program two or three times, it was clear they wanted to get more involved and also find a means of income,” said Alyssa Cheung, Phat Beets’ office manager.
One popular item in The Cultured Case is kimchi. Cabbage grows year-round, so the fermented Korean pickle is made frequently. Ramos said that even though she is half-Korean, she did not learn how to make kimchi until recently.
“I grew up eating it, but not making it, as my mom doesn’t make it,” she said.
Her grandmother, on the other hand, did make homemade kimchi, but Ramos didn’t especially love the smell of her recipe. So she set out to make her own version. Ramos found a recipe online, began experimenting to make it her own, and soon began giving kimchi-making demos at local farmers’ markets with the Fresh Fellows. It is now included in The Cultured Case.
Phat Beets is marketing The Cultured Case to its 175 CSA members, but one doesn’t have to be a CSA member to join the CSY. The two programs are being kept separate separate because the pickles need to be stored separately in a cooler, and it’s too complicated for Phat Beets to put icepacks in its CSA boxes.
Subscribers receive an email at the beginning of the month, listing everything that’s available. A recent list included seven kinds of pickled vegetables: brined okra, “Kale Yeah! Kraut,” Curtido Spicy Kraut (Salvadorean spicy cabbage relish), two kinds of kimchi, ginger beets and mustard seed sauerkraut. In addition, subscribers could order a variety of mustards and chile pastes. While most of the krauts and kimchis are made by Fresh Fellows, some of the sauces come from small women-owned businesses in Oakland.
All produce for the items comes from Phat Beets farmers markets, some of which are leftover from the markets and some of which are “cosmetically challenged.”
The jars can be picked up at several Oakland destinations, such as Impact Hub, UCSF Benioff Oakland Children’s Hospital, Destiny Arts Center and the Phat Beets office in North Oakland. Subscribers also pay a deposit for the jars and return them each time when picking up a new batch.
While the staff of Phat Beets has supported the undertaking so far, “the goal is to make it [an independent] company,” said Max Cadji, a founder of Phat Beets. “Eventually we want them to be running their own company with minimal support from us. We don’t want them to just be laborers, we want them to be managing it, too.”
Another goal is for the business to become profitable. “We’re always trying to figure out what the most fun and profitable way to make money is, as we don’t like writing grants,” said Cadji. “If we can make revenue from this to avoid writing grants and reports, even better.”
Ideally, Cadji envisions hiring a manager for the program to provide programming and structure. In the past, Phat Beets has worked with youth who have just left juvenile hall, or have participated in the Oakland Restorative Justice program. “Having a youth coordinator would help them create recipes and provide the support they need to be successful,” said Cadji, as opposed to them “showing up, shredding cabbage and checking in for five minutes.”
Cadji said that four Fresh Fellows are now working for the catering company, and there’s a need for the graduates of the Fresh Fellows to earn money.
“We have plenty of catering gigs, and one former participant was managing our Twitter account, and another our spreadsheets.” The next step, Cadji said, is for participants to learn how to approach retail stores to sell their products. “We’re trying to get them [to learn] all aspects of a business.”
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