Food & Drink

Food Commons Fresno taking healthy food into neighborhood using mobile produce carts

jwalker@fresnobee.com

An organization whose goal is to create and support a better local food system is stepping up its efforts to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to Fresno’s neighborhoods.

Food Commons Fresno, through its produce delivery service called Ooooby, Out of Our Own Backyards, is launching several new initiatives aimed at improving access to healthy foods, especially in neighborhoods lacking resources.

The projects include a plan to create its own line of food products, electric bicycle-powered mobile produce carts and using schools as drop-off sites for its community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program.

This year, Ooooby has begun a partnership with several Fresno Unified elementary schools to help spread the word about healthy eating. Schools, including Martin Luther King Jr., Lowell, Wolters, Adams and John Muir will become drop-off sites for its CSA boxes.

Jenny Saklar, operations manager for Ooooby, says the idea is to get families in those neighborhoods familiar with the CSA concept. Families on public assistance can use their electronic benefit transfer cards, or EBT, to purchase and receive discounts on a box of food.

Ooooby’s produce boxes start at $16 and include a mix of fresh organic fruits and vegetables. You can sign up for a box to be delivered every week or every two weeks. Or you can just try it once. They already have about 600 customers throughout the Fresno area.

“This is about improving access to these wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables,” Saklar says.

Food Commons Fresno is also partnering with Cultiva la Salud, formerly known as the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, to increase the healthy food options in some of Fresno’s most under-served neighborhoods.

Cultiva La Salud is overseeing the bike project and Ooooby will supply the produce.

Genoveva Islas, program director for Cultiva la Salud, says the bikes should be ready to roll in a few weeks and will be operated by independent vendors.

They will cruise through neighborhoods, set up at events or anywhere people gather.

Islas says the mobile produce carts will serve as a healthier option in neighborhoods where there is a heavy presence of advertising for tobacco and alcohol and convenience stores that sell cheap, unhealthy food.

“We have areas of our community that have been neglected and have not been connected to resources,” Islas says. “We hope that through projects like this we can help turn the tide.”

The bike carts will be housed at Ooooby’s former headquarters on Belmont Avenue, a former Mexican restaurant. As a testament to its growth, Ooooby recently moved into a newer and much larger building at Los Angeles and Van Ness avenues.

It’s keeping the Belmont Avenue building to use as a commercial kitchen for several food trucks and for creating its own line of products.

The new space is two-and-a-half times larger with triple the amount of cold storage space than its old building. The larger space provides Ooooby with offices, a conference room, small kitchen and the ability to continue to grow its wholesale produce business.

So far, the organization sells produce to several institutions and restaurants, including Trelio, Richard’s Prime Rib and Seafood, as well as the University of California, Merced and the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission.

Kiel Schmidt, wholesale and development manger, says Ooooby is working with at least 50 different small farmers who supply organic and conventional produce, some of which goes to its wholesale customers. It also supplies other CSA programs in the Valley.

To keep up with the growth, the organization doubled its staff to 14 employees.

“We really want to try and grow the wholesale side of the business because we have the capacity to do that,” Schmidt says.

Along with growing its CSA and wholesale business, Schmidt says he plans to start using some of Ooooby’s excess fruit or vegetables to make, jams, jellies, or pickled foods. It also has a dehydrator that it will use to dry fruit and package it for sale.

“We don’t want to waste any of the food we have, so we are trying to capture it and use it for our food products,” Schmidt says.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

Community Supported Agriculture

If you are interested in participating in a CSA, here is a partial list of some operating in the Valley:

Out of Our Own Backyards Fresno

Abundant Harvest Organics

1st Quality Produce

The Farmer’s Daughter CSA

Valu. Abe-El Produce

Farmer and the Dale

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