Connecting the Dots


In 2004, Marin Organic’s executive director HelgeHellberg was visiting the organization’s member farms when helanded at Peter Martinelli’s Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas. As hetoured the abundant fields, Hellberg noticed some large zucchinislying on the ground, clipped off the vine. When he asked why theyhadn’t been harvested, Martinelli replied that there was no marketfor zucchinis that big, and so they were destined to be worked backinto the soil. Distressed at this beautiful organic food going towaste, Hellberg asked for the veggies, dropping them at a nearbyelder-care center, which was thrilled by the gift.

In researching further, Hellberg learned that up to 20 percentof U.S. food crops don’t meet market standards for size, shape orcosmetic perfection, and thus end up either plowed under or fed toanimals. “But if you look at the energy and care it took to growthat food,” Hellberg says, “there’s a much wiser way of usingit.”

As he considered who could benefit from these discards, heremembered discussions with local schools that wanted to includefresh organic produce in their offerings, but found it difficultwith budgets allocating just over $1 per child per day. At thoselevels, Hellberg says, schools are “almost forced to buypreformulated” synthetic foods that are often “high-sugar, high-fatand don’t even taste very good.”  Plus, Hellberg notes,there’s growing evidence that this type of diet contributes toproblems such as obesity, ADD and decreased learning ability.

So he talked with area schools and farmers, and from thatcreated the Marin Organic School Lunch and Gleaning Program.Participating schools receive free, slightly imperfect produce(called “seconds”). In return, they buy additional food from memberfarms at regular prices; the seconds lower the schools’ totalcosts. Marin Organic transports the food from farms to schools in adonated biodiesel-powered truck.

In less than three years, the program has delivered 100,000pounds of local certified organic products to over 40 Marinschools, camps and community groups, which in turn feed 12,000children each week. The project also helps local organic farmersdiversify their income, nurturing both their survival and a healthyrural environment. Supporting farmers is especially vital now, withthe United States losing an estimated 400 family farms a weekbecause of economic pressure and development.

Hellberg hopes this program can be a model for othercommunities, and sees it as an example of how we can turn apparentproblems into opportunities. “We just need to connect the dots morewisely,” he advises.

For instance, he points to the Straus Family Creamery’sinnovative system for converting its cows’ methane, a harmfulgreenhouse gas, into energy that powers its organic dairy. Anotherexample is Marin Organic’s new Marin Climate Initiative, which haspartnered with the Marin Carbon Project to explore ways that localfarming practices can help solve global climate change. Increasingthe stored carbon in all the world’s agricultural land by as littleas 1.6 percent would significantly reduce the atmosphere’s currentexcess carbon dioxide (CO2).

Also vital to Hellberg is nurturing the connection between thepublic and farmers, deepening our shared understanding of “thecritical importance of local and organic agriculture.” Thus, MarinOrganic offers farm tours, education programs, food events and afarmers market. He also encourages consumer support of certifiedorganic, with its third-party verification of practices, to helpensure that “we’re all literally on the same page.”

This season, Marin Organic plans to gather with communitymembers and farmers to savor local organic food at its HolidayFarmer Dinner. Held at the MarketBar in the Embarcadero’s historicFerry Building in San Francisco, half the proceeds go to MarinOrganic. Hellberg likes the intimacy of these dinners. “You reallyfeel part of that community, that family,” he says.

“It’s actually those relationships,” he adds, “to each other,our farmers, our land and our soil, which will be the key for oursurvival as a society [for us] to come out of this economic crisisand create a system where we see how abundant everything really is,when we let nature guide us, and apply our creativity and beautifulminds to problem-solving within nature’s system.”

 Marin Organic’s Holiday Farmer Dinner is held onSaturday, Dec. 13, at the MarketBar. $50 per person; no-host bar.For reservations, call Marin Organic 415.663.9667 or go to [http:-/ ]

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