by Ken Katz
The Saturday before last, fourteen months after picking up my very first Bounty Box–as a worldwide pandemic loomed–I decided that volunteering in the Grand Lake Bounty Box booth was the very best way to get some first-hand knowledge as to what it takes to assemble a large quantity of local seasonal produce boxes week after week. It was also the perfect opportunity to interview AIM’s Community Program Manager, Vanya Goldberg, when she wasn’t otherwise occupied weighing potatoes, assembling boxes, or offering suggestions to Kanchan Armstrong, the new Grand Lake Bounty Box Site Lead, and volunteers Jasmine White and Connie Tillman.
Vanya says that most of her life has involved gardening and horticulture, including a stint at UCSC’s Farm and Garden at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems and years of subsequent employment in agricultural education and advocacy. In her current position at the Agricultural Institute of Marin, she is chiefly responsible for coordinating the Bounty Box program at the three AIM markets that are participants–San Rafael on Thursdays, Grand Lake on Saturdays, and Clement Street in San Francisco on Sundays.
Vanya’s work starts early each week when she reaches out to the farms that supply the produce to determine what’s available at what price point. Typically, that means contacting seven to nine suppliers–some of whom, like the produce, are seasonal. With all the requisite information in hand, Vanya starts figuring out the best balance at the best price. Typically, she’ll include the makings for a salad, greens, an herb, a hearty vegetable. and generally two fruits out of the eight to nine items. Every other week, a bag of top-quality mushrooms are included from E & H Farms. This time of year, the variety and quality of produce are at their very best.
For the Grand Lake Market, $30 full-price or $15 half-price EBT boxes have to be ordered online no later than 8:00 am on Wednesdays. By 9:00 am, Vanya will be phoning her sources to place orders for specific quantities of each product to be delivered to the Grand Lake Market. Saturday mornings, after the canopy and banner are up and all the necessary equipment is in place and the boxes are assembled, staff and volunteers are dispatched with dollies to collect that day’s goodies.
After that, packing the boxes is almost like an assembly-line procedure. That particular Saturday, we started with broccoli, worked our way through the potatoes to the spinach, and so forth–with the most fragile items, bags of strawberries, peaches, and mushrooms going in last. One last step is to add a card listing each of the items along with its source and, on the reverse side, a recipe that utilizes the box’s contents. Community boxes also include two face masks and information about COVID prevention and vaccination sites.
As a recent AIM press release notes, these boxes were initially designed specifically for at-risk residents unable to shop the market but:
“Overtime, the Bounty Box has grown into an essential source of food for the communities we serve, including the availability of discounted boxes for CalFresh/EBT cardholders (thanks to Bank of America) and hundreds of boxes donated weekly to vulnerable food insecure families through the generosity of the Marin Community Foundation, the Oakland A’s, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Tom Kat Foundation, Growing the Table, and Ruth Stroup Farmers Insurance.”
Of the one hundred boxes we processed on June 19, approximately thirty had been paid for in advance or were sold to walk-up customers. The balance were designated for free distribution as Community Boxes to Oakland residents facing food insecurity. In prior months, AIM had been distributing fifty such boxes locally, but thanks to additional assistance from Kaiser Permanente and the Oakland A’s, that number has been bumped up to seventy for a period of 7–8 weeks.
Most of the actual distribution, through contacts at forty-seven key distribution centers including churches, schools, apartment complexes, parks, recreation centers, etc., is coordinated by Lisa Cruz, a member of Trybe Oakland, a marvelous non-profit based in the San Antonio district. According to its founder and Executive Director, Andrew Park:
“We have a total distribution list of over 7,500 East Oakland families, so it’s tough to decide where the boxes go. That’s why we go with what logistically/geographically makes the most sense week to week, throwing in a handful of emergency referrals. For instance, we gave them out last week at our Silence the Violence event where the boxes went to high-need families on East 15th. They were gone in less than ten minutes. Moving forward, half of them will be going to Covid-positive families referred to us by local clinics.”
Asked to recount the typical reaction of box recipients, Park shared these quotes:
- “The Bounty Boxes are back!”
- “Wow, the strawberries and apricots were so sweet!”
- “This is such good quality.”
- “When we get one of the Saturday boxes, we feel the love and support.”
The following Saturday, I returned for a special event AIM hosted as their way of thanking representatives of Kaiser Permanente and the Oakland A’s in person for their help in underwriting the Community Box program. In addition, AIM CEO, Andy Naja-Riese conducted a brief tour introducing the Kaiser and A’s staff to a few of the box suppliers. After the tour, Vanya gave a five-minute presentation in which she explained point by point what goes into each box and why.
Quite frankly, this was an event that we as neighbors should all be proud of. While the Grand Lake Farmers Market has long been recognized as the best in the East Bay, aside from “market matches” for EBT cardholders, the market hadn’t previously found a way to give back to the wider community that lacks access to high quality, fresh produce.
Hopefully, the Bounty Box program will continue to thrive long-term. You can help by purchasing your own Bounty Box. Asked to explain why you should do so, Vanya replied:
“The Bounty Box provides customers with a wide variety of fruit and vegetables that is curated weekly to bring you the freshest, local, seasonal produce. It’s a joy to work with the farmers and curate a special, distinct box each week!”
I did so for fourteen months as I mostly sheltered in place and was especially pleased to discover produce that I never would have purchased on my own. For example, collard greens with bacon! Not to mention frisée lettuce. Unlike CSA boxes, this is a week-by-week purchase that’s fast and convenient–especially if you take advantage of the curbside pickup. Orders can be placed online at the BountyBox.org website.
You can also help by volunteering. In addition to being an educational experience, it’s also a lot of fun and good exercise. To do so, you can phone AIM’s Volunteer Coordinator Will Finnie at 415-610-7970 or, alternatively, fill out the form on AIM’s volunteer page.
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, the most recent numbers aren’t available, but we can report that the three Bounty Box locations combined distributed a total of 2,040 free boxes in 2020 and 2,500 free boxes in the first quarter of this year. Also, in the first quarter 324 half-price boxes were distributed to EBT cardholders. In addition, in 2020, $283,600 went directly to farmers thanks to Bounty Box purchases. For a more comprehensive summary through October of last year, please click on this link.
Ken Katz founded the Splash Pad Neighborhood Forum in late 1999 and in his role as Chair, coordinated the community efforts to lobby for a new park and subsequently served as a liaison to the City of Oakland and to Walter Hood’s office during the planning process. The first Splash Pad Newsletters were emailed beginning circa 2006. Currently, he acts as a contributor to—and publisher of—the monthly Splash Pad News. Keila Diehl proofreads all the copy, filters content as needed, and makes everyone involved look good.