A&E

Straight from the farm

Local CSA brings farm products, from raw milk to grass-fed meat, to the Midpeninsula

All Christina Hildebrand wanted was a reliable source of raw milk for her daughter. But the hard-to-find product would sell out at the store almost immediately. If she didn't time her grocery shopping to coincide with delivery of the unpasteurized whole milk, she was out of luck.

So she struck up a conversation with the dairy's deliveryman and got herself added to his route. When he wanted someone to take over, Real Food Bay Area was born.

Raw milk is milk that is neither homogenized nor pasteurized -- a process of partial sterilization through irradiation or heat. The Palo Alto-based weekly service started by offering members raw milk and cream, and has since expanded to include organic products ranging from pastured eggs, sustainable seafood and whole-grain breads to beet kvass (a fermented beverage), sprouted nuts and pasture-raised meats. The most recent addition is fair-trade, organic chocolate.

"I started for selfish reasons," Hildebrand said as she recounted launching her community supported agriculture (CSA) business in 2009. Raw milk turned out to be the only kind of milk her daughter could tolerate, Hildebrand explained. Nothing else worked.

"Even when she was being breastfed, if I ate dairy, she would throw up."

After running through various alternatives -- including pasteurized goat milk -- with no success, Hildebrand did some research and bought raw milk.

"I tried her on it, and she did great," she said.

The problem was getting it. While raw milk is legal to sell in California (it varies by state), it isn't easy to find.

"It was expensive, and you had to be there the day it was delivered because it would fly off the shelves," Hildebrand said.

Frustrated, she said she got the Claravale Farm deliveryman to sell her raw milk directly. When he decided to move to Florida, he needed someone to take over his customer base and relationship with the dairy. She jumped at the chance, starting with four distribution locations and soon expanding to seven. Real Food Bay Area now has 40 locations where members can pick up their orders, including places in Mountain View, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Portola Valley.

Unlike the typical CSA that delivers weekly boxes of local produce, Real Food delivers food items that are harder to find on store shelves: soup bones and chicken heads for making broth; raw organic sauerkraut; French-style yogurt; raw goat milk; sprouted almond butter.

Hildebrand estimates that raw milk was the original draw for about 85 percent of her customer base, although many have expanded their orders as she has expanded her offerings. Everything she delivers through her CSA has to meet her standards for being organic, of the highest possibly quality and as local as possible, she said. Nothing is processed; not even genetically modified feeds for the animals.

"We do a pretty detailed investigation into practices," Hildebrand said. "We do know all our vendors and farmers very well. We don't just take anybody."

Many of her customers are seeking a convenient way to access whole, unprocessed foods that can be hard to find, even as organic foods move into the mainstream. Hildebrand's CSA is a natural match for followers of the Weston A. Price diet, which emphasizes unprocessed foods, sprouted grains and unpasteurized dairy and meats, she said. Real Food Bay Area also draws Indian families who have a culinary tradition of using raw milk, as well as people seeking pasture-raised meats and eggs from animals that haven't been fed corn and soy products.

Jocelyn Saiki, whose home is the Mountain View pick-up location for Real Food Bay Area, said that Hildebrand's CSA is a huge time-saver. Instead of driving all over -- to one location for farm-raised eggs, another for meat from a cow-share and a third for raw milk -- she now has everything right outside her door.

"She said she was starting Real Food Bay Area so people wouldn't have to do what I was doing," said Saiki, who met Hildebrand through a health and wellness group.

While Saiki said she makes many foods herself, even mayonnaise and ketchup, "I have my limits. I can't keep a cow in the backyard. This is the closest I can get to being the consumer of a farmer."

She's enthusiastic about Three Stone Hearth, a Berkeley-based community kitchen that makes meals and soups that Real Food Bay Area distributes. On a recent week, its offerings included chicken liver pâté, meatloaf, pork mole with white beans and stock made from beef or chicken bones.

"It's what I would do at home, or dream of doing at home, if I were a pioneer woman living on a ranch," Saiki said. "But I can't, because I live in the middle of Silicon Valley. This lets me eat as closely as I can to that (ideal) without food manufacturers getting in the way."

So why is raw milk such a big draw? Hildebrand said while many customers buy it for health reasons, they also like its taste.

"The taste is definitely different," she said. "It's a much richer taste."

While pasteurization gets rid of harmful bacteria, it also destroys beneficial enzymes, she said.

"Many people come to raw milk because they are lactose intolerant, but they can tolerate raw milk because it has enzymes that allow you to digest it."

Part of raw milk's richness is because, as Hildebrand put it, consumers are getting exactly what the cow produces. Most pasteurized whole milk sold in stores has had the cream separated from the milk, and just enough added back in to meet the mandated percentage of fat to qualify as whole milk. The remaining cream gets sold separately at a higher price, she said.

Though the raw milk has been labeled as "dangerous" by many food safety groups including the FDA and the CDC, Hildebrand believes that's a misconception. She said she is completely comfortable drinking milk from the four raw-milk dairies she distributes through Real Foods Bay Area.

"I wouldn't drink raw milk from a non-raw milk dairy -- they can get away with not having a really clean herd and really clean practices," since they usually rely on pasteurization to kill bacteria, she said. "We're lucky in California because (raw milk) is legal and it's being tested on a regular basis. All raw milk dairies have a clean record. They can't afford not to have clean milk."

Any raw milk dairy that doesn't pass muster with the California Department of Food and Agriculture gets shut down for several weeks, she said. Small raw milk producers can't survive such long closures without going out of business.

While Real Food may fill a niche market, it's a growing niche, said Hildebrand. She started it in the midst of the recession and for five years has been expanding on word-of-mouth, since she hasn't done any marketing.

"One nice thing about our customers: If they choose to be our customers, they will be loyal," she said. "If they're looking specifically for raw milk, or chicken feet or grass-fed beef, once they've joined us, they most likely will stay for the long term."

She said she keeps the overhead low, with a staff of four part-time drivers and one person for part-time administrative help. Hildebrand herself does the rest.

"We strive to have prices at farmers market (levels) or less," she said. "If you're looking for the same product, you won't find it at lower prices. We don't have middlemen."

When customers ask if she's going to improve her bare-bones website, she tells them that if she spends money on the site, their prices will go up. Most of them say they're fine with the site the way it is, she said.

"We don't make a lot of money on this," she said. "It's a true passion of mine. To me, it's more about being able to get these foods to our customers."

Information about Real Food Bay Area is at realfoodbayarea.com.

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