Written by Annie Lu
Every time I reflect on my experience delving into the Food Systems Minor engagement project this past summer, I remember how deeply our food systems impact our communities, and I feel my academic work reinvigorated with renewed purpose. During that summer, I had the distinct privilege of expanding my understanding of food systems from a theoretical classroom concept to a lived experience through the culmination of not one but three internships, each intertwining with the others to give me a taste of how policy, business strategy, and on-the-ground advocacy come together to shape our food production, distribution, and access.
While I hadn’t originally intended to commit to three positions in one summer—balancing the time commitments meant working 13 out of every 14 days—I was ultimately able to find a common thread that connected these different components of food systems work, which made the whole experience remarkably rewarding. Though my internship with Fresh Approach served as my official Community Engagement Project, my involvement with each of the three organizations gave me its own special perspective.
My first position was as the Communications Student Assistant with the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI) on-campus. In this role, my responsibilities were to produce the Student Opportunities and BFI News newsletters, design informational materials, and generally assist with communicating the work of students, researchers, and collaborators to both the broader community and to policymakers. This position allowed me to consistently interact with the foremost academic and policy research being produced from UC Berkeley. In particular, I enjoyed learning about the projects that evaluated the effectiveness of CalFresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), on equitably reaching target communities, as this knowledge directly applied to Fresh Approach’s activities.
The second position was as a Strategic Marketing Intern for Capay Mills, a small farmer-owned and operated business from Capay Valley that grows and mills heirloom Californian grains into fresh flour. Through assisting with sales on weekends at the Oakland Temescal Farmer’s Market, I realized the difficulties with and necessity of educating the public on how their food is produced. Generic commercial flour that costs about $0.70 per pound, for example, is only so cheap because it externalizes the remained production costs, negatively impacting both human health and the environment. Therefore, to make better choices, we need to empower ourselves with the knowledge of what we’re really putting into our bodies while supporting local, small-scale farmers who aim to make tangible changes to the status quo.
Lastly, I worked with Fresh Approach (FA), a nonprofit organization that aims to improve access to healthy, fresh, and local produce through a network of education and outreach operations within low-income and underprivileged communities throughout the Bay Area. As FA’s East Bay Food Equity & Outreach Intern, I had the opportunity to carry out a number of on-the-ground activities, including teaching free nutrition education classes, tabling at community health fairs to provide free resources like cookbooks and dietary guideline brochures, and getting women and families signed up to use free WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service) checks at farmers’ markets. I even got to represent FA and table for donations at Jack Johnson’s Berkeley leg of his Summer 2017 tour!
I loved how the FA tasks and events varied each week, providing a sampling of the multitudinous ways in which community-oriented support can uplift people. WIC, for example, provides eligible families with a $20 check each summer to spend on fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets throughout California. FA steps in to assist in communicating these benefits to actually get families signed up. To accomplish this, FA hired bilingual interns like myself to translate how to use WIC in Spanish, Mandarin, and Vietnamese to participants. This kind of thoughtfulness struck me as a seemingly minute detail that is actually a very important step in addressing the structural barriers to good food access.
Of all of the different types of tasks, one of my favourite activities with FA was working with the Freshest Cargo truck. FA operates two food trucks that supply organically grown produce bought at wholesale prices from farmers and drives to neighbourhoods that do not historically have access to farmers’ markets. The truck offers all produce at an additional 50% off for those with CalFresh. Partnerships with community organisations at particular sites further breakdown economic barriers: at the Civic Centre stop on the truck’s Richmond route, students of the free Literacy for Every Adult Program (LEAP) courses earned “LEAP dollars” which were printed bills resembling Monopoly money that could be spent as dollars on produce at the Freshest Cargo truck. The crowd at this location was always lively and ready to take advantage of our 1-hour stop for their weekly grocery shopping. Popular items during the summer were baskets of fresh berries, nectarines, kale, and heirloom tomatoes. Folks also bought up the occasional bunch of lavendar, bouquet of flowers, or bag of brown rice as they told us what meals they were getting ready to prepare for loved ones.
For me, there was no better feeling than seeing someone’s expressions light up as they sampled a sweet cherry or apricot bursting with peak summer ripeness. This job reminded me of the power in good food to to bring us together. People frequently commented on how the produce brought them back to their childhood days as they picked out fruits to bring to family or friends. Good food is a universal language, and I feel so grounded when I get to see its power and effects taking shape.
The opportunity to be welcomed into different communities to connect folks through delicious and healthy fruits and vegetables was truly transformative. It breathed meaning into my studies within the classroom, and reminded me of why it is intrinsically meaningful and absolutely necessary to hone food systems reform on ensuring access to affordable, local, seasonal produce. I’m deeply grateful to the staff at FA for their inspiring passion and relentless efforts which helped me to understand the critical role of disseminating access to good food and resources at the ground level. Without this component of getting communities informed and connected to their best options for personal health as well as a better food system that uplifts one another, the work of academics and small-scale farmers would not be able to generate a fully equitable system that benefits all.
I know that the impacts of these experiences will continue to shape the ways that I study and engage with our food systems. I’m continuing to volunteer with FA and work with BFI throughout the school year, and I look forward to continuing on this endlessly fascinating deep-dive into one of my greatest passions in life, having gained confidence from each of my summer positions that meaningful reforms are well underway.