One morning in January, during a downpour of rain, people were gathering beneath a tent at Urban Adamah in Berkeley to be assigned numbers so they could load up their shopping bags with free produce and staples. Loaves of day-old Acme bread were on the first table, items like yogurt, milk and eggs on the next. Bags of pre-cut lettuce and vegetable platters from Whole Foods and tubs of salsa were also on offer, as were prepackaged salads from Urban Remedy.
Finally, there were two long tables of produce harvested on the farm that morning: bunches of dinosaur kale, green onions and cilantro, watermelon radishes and Tokyo turnips, all of it in milk crates, all of it grown just footsteps away.
“I’m in between jobs at the moment, and rather than buy less healthy food, to get free organic produce is an amazing thing,” said customer Amy Gemme, who was accompanied by three children (two hers, one a friend’s).
Last month Urban Adamah reopened its free Wednesday farm stand, where it gives away the bulk of its harvested produce to people in need, along with other foods donated by community partners. The stand had been closed since August 2016.
While this particular day happened to be rainy, the stand is normally set up in the open, and people often linger and socialize after picking up their food. An informal survey of farm stand recipients some years ago found that around 30 percent identified as Jewish.
“One idea that inspired the farm stand is the [biblical] mitzvah of ‘pe’ah,’ that you should leave 10 percent of your field to allow people to harvest from it, and we decided to flip this on its head,” said Kat Morgan, operations manager of Urban Adamah. “While we allow staff to do one harvest a week for their Shabbat meals, 90 percent of what we grow is given away.”
The history of the farm stand starts in 2011, when the organization began donating produce to local nonprofits that support people in need. The next year, one of the Urban Adamah fellows suggested doing the same thing right on the farm. Since then, the farm stand has given away over 60,000 pounds of organic produce.
A lot has happened in the intervening years, and the farm stand has become more than just a food giveaway.
In the early days, it was Morgan’s job to spread the word about the farm stand and establish community partnerships. Sometimes just 12 people would show up, but once the giveaway caught on, the number eventually jumped to around 120. When people showed up for the food, Urban Adamah folks also surveyed them about what else they’d want to see provided.
That’s how free yoga classes and acupuncture treatments became regular offerings, as did legal aid advice, health screenings and help registering for SNAP benefits and other social services.
“We also had a person who worked with exotic bugs who would come once a month to show the bugs to the children,” said Morgan.
When Urban Adamah moved to its new Berkeley location on Sixth Street, the farm stand went on hiatus, as did all of the services that went with it. But there were more than a few people who had come to rely on the farm stand for a good portion of their household’s food.
“We entertained all sorts of options as to how to keep it running,” said Morgan. “We even had a law office willing to be our distribution center. But we just couldn’t figure out how to make it work.”
It’s only been a month since the reopening, but people already are hearing about it.
Katie Myszka, office and farm stand manager, said she had reached out to a number of partners to help spread the word, including the Lifelong Medical Center, neighboring UC Village, where there are diaper give-away programs and other services for graduate student families, and the Alameda County Health Department. But it happens more organically, too. Morgan said someone on the bus with a bagful of produce will often report to others where it came from.
While the food “shopping” starts at 11 a.m., people start queuing up at 10 to get a randomly assigned number. The giveaway lasts as long as the food does.
For Urban Adamah staffers and fellows alike, the farm stand is a favorite way to share the farm with the broader community.
“It’s become evident to me that this is about a lot more than just getting food,” said Morgan. “It’s also a space where people can access green. There are plants and liveliness and a sense of community. One couple has met through the farm stand, they are now living together, and jobs have been found. So many types of connections have been created.”