Balvina Ramirez has long had an interest in growing her own food but simply didn't have space in her apartment. Things changed when she got involved with Fresh Approach roughly five years ago.
The nonprofit's community garden in East Palo Alto gave Ramirez the room she needed to grow organic fruits and vegetables in an affordable way to feed her family, and its classes gave her tips on incorporating more healthy options into her diet.
"With Fresh Approach, it's made a big difference economically because I have a big plot of land. I grow a lot of things. And also they give me coupons that I can spend at the farmers market," Ramirez said in Spanish through a translator.
Fresh Approach is a nonprofit focused on expanding access to healthy, locally grown food throughout the Bay Area. They offer nutrition and cooking classes, a community garden and mobile farmers markets. The group also runs the East Palo Alto Community Farmers' Market, which has operated in the city since 2007.
"Fresh Approach has a spread of different program areas encompassing food security and food access, nutrition education and community gardening," said Andy Ollove, Fresh Approach's food access program director.
Although Fresh Approach works throughout the Bay Area, in East Palo Alto all of its program areas come together, Ollove said, calling it "a real hub of activity."
Ramirez, an East Palo Alto resident for the past 23 years, is involved in a wide range of Fresh Approach's offerings, including shopping at the farmers market, taking classes, serving on the group's Community Ambassadors Board and growing food in the community garden.
During the warmer months, Ramirez goes to the garden daily to check on her crops, while in the winter time she pops by three to four times a week. She usually stays for at least an hour, sometimes three or more. Working in the garden not only saves her money but also connects her with the natural world and is an outlet to reduce stress.
"It's had a huge impact in many different ways. First, that it saves me a lot of money, growing my own vegetables, and it gets rid of stress — I can go gather fresh vegetables and I can work in my garden when I have time," Ramirez said.
The Collective Roots Gardening Program, located at 1785 Woodland Ave., gives participants the chance to grow their own organic food, while also providing resources such as gardening classes, free seeds, community composting and a tool lending library.
Fresh Approach also provides access to healthy foods and supports local farmers through the East Palo Alto farmers market. Discounts are available for lower income shoppers, giving them the chance to buy fresh produce from local family farms, something that is often out of reach financially.
"Something we try to center is providing food assistance with dignity — allowing for an effort toward individualization and cultural relevancy, so the food is special to the people receiving it. It's not just sustenance, it's filled with human care," Ollove said. "There's no reason that the best food available, that's grown right here in our own county and nearby counties, can't reach folks who don't have access to it. We think it's just a way to imbue dignity into the hunger relief ecosystem."
During the pandemic, Fresh Approach also has been distributing boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income households. The boxes are designed by Fresh Approach nutritionists and include recipe instructions, nutrition resources and advice for budget-friendly healthy eating. The nonprofit plans to use this year's $10,000 Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund grant to help continue the program.
A major part of Fresh Approach's work is pairing food access with nutrition education through its VeggieRx program, which is a series of classes that give participants knowledge and resources about home cooking and healthy eating, Ollove said.
Those who participate in VeggieRx also get vouchers to use at local farmers markets, so they can pick up fruits and vegetables to apply the skills they've learned in class at home.
The workshops Ramirez has taken have helped her learn how to select healthier options and add more vegetables to dishes she already makes, as well as gaining insight into how to access high quality food that is typically more expensive.
"Everything is healthier and fresher," Ramirez said. "I can go to the farmers market and buy things that are fresher and have a different taste than those at the store."
While Fresh Approach works to introduce participants to new food options, it also aims to provide ingredients that are familiar and culturally relevant, Ollove said. That means offering items like nopales, a type of edible cactus, in East Palo Alto, where a large majority of the population is Latino.
"I've never heard of a food bank giving out nopales," Ollove said. "That just comes from being embedded within the community and knowing where the food is going, as well as being receptive to getting feedback and hearing from community voices about what they'd like to see."
In her own community garden plots, Ramirez said she is able to grow the ingredients that are most useful in her own cooking. Some of her favorite items to grow have been cilantro, tomatillos, broccoli and chiles. She also helps grow crops in the garden at East Palo Alto Charter School, where she has harvested radishes, sweet potatoes and corn.
All of her work has meant that over the past year, Ramirez said she hasn't had to buy very much produce, instead making meals with what she's grown herself.
"It has made a huge difference for me and my family," Ramirez said. "Hopefully they will make more spaces to give more opportunities to other families so that, like me, they can benefit from eating healthier and having their own vegetables."
The annual Holiday Fund charitable giving drive is in full swing, with a goal of raising $500,000 for local nonprofits serving children and families. For more information about the Holiday Fund and to donate, go to PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund.