BERKELEY, Calif. — “Free samples! Free samples!” a woman proclaims as we pass her fruit stand at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, organized by the Ecology Center here in and just north of the University of California sprawling campus.
Underneath a bright blue sky, cradled in between a grocery store to the east and a busy road to the west, about 25 tents cover a veritable utopia of fresh produce, flowers and baked goods.
Customers and vendors alike, as well as the music of performers along the sidewalk, one playing a mandolin, another singing and playing the guitar, create a unique atmosphere in an otherwise ordinary Thursday afternoon in north Berkeley.
In addition to the more typical fare of fruits and veggies, eclectic selections include a knife-sharpening stand and artisan honey.
However, the most notable part about this farmers’ market isn’t the wide range of goods sold, but the attention to the environment and sustainability displayed by all of the vendors.
“We’ll extract them [the bees] actually use them to create the honey versus a lot of the exterminators will just kill the bees which is why they’re going extinct,” Jenna Dragonetti of Miss Bee Haven Honey said.
This is largely due to the Ecology Center’s dedication to eco-friendly vending, which is displayed in rules that prohibit vendors from using plastic bags, which can potentially be harmful to the environment. “I think the more we can rid of plastic the better,” Dragonetti said.
But this isn’t close to all that the Ecology Center does for Berkeley and the local community. Through a number of environmentally conscious outreach programs, the nonprofit is taking action to provide jobs for Bay Area youth.
Farrah Jahangir, a local teenager who works with the Ecology Center’s Youth Environmental Agency, said, “Our first thing is to basically reach out to the community with more information on the big soda, the soda tax and the reasons why the soda tax actually took place.”
The nation’s first tax on soda went into effect in Berkeley in 2014, charging one additional cent per fluid ounce. A study conducted by the American Public Health Association found that the tax saw a 20% decrease in soda drinking among Berkeley residents.
As Jahangir and her colleagues hand out free water to people passing by, she added,, “Also we’re here to promote…that drinking water is the best solution, rather than drinking other sugary products and sugary drinks that are out there.”
Jahangir said she has become better-informed about potential dietary problems. “I had no clue about the epidemic of type 2 Diabetes in the Bay Area,” she said in reference to the effects of heavy soda drinking on residents
Other vendors at the farmers’ market were supportive of the Ecology Center’s youth program’s hiring of teens.
“I’m a teen service librarian, so I’m down with helping teens,” Jack Baur, a worker at the Berkeley Public Library, said. He arrived with a cart full of DVDs and books waiting to be checked out. Not only does the Ecology Center help supply youth with jobs and raise awareness of healthy eating, but they also work to assist the community in more universal ways, such as by promoting recycling. “The Ecology Center supplies recycling bins all over Berkeley, and there’s tons at our school,” Jahangir said.
The nonprofit has taken things a step further for Berkeley and the Bay Area at large by accepting food-assistance cards, which allow those with lower incomes access to the farm-fresh food.