This Stanford Ph.D. Became A Fruit Picker To Feed California's Hungry

Dec 19, 2013
Originally published on December 22, 2013 10:16 am

By some estimates, we Americans throw away about 40 percent of our food, from the cabbage that's wilting in our refrigerators, to the fruit that's falling off the orange tree in our neighbor's backyard.

In California's Central Valley, one woman has started a grass-roots effort to feed hungry people by rescuing some of that produce.

At first glance, Sarah Ramirez's decision to leave a bright future as an epidemiologist with a doctorate from Stanford University to become a fruit picker might seem downright crazy. To understand her motivations, you first need to know a little about the economics of California's Central Valley, where Ramirez grew up, the daughter of farmworkers.

Many farms in the Central Valley supply fruits and vegetables for major supermarket chains across the country. Farmer Peter Mesias says those stores demand perfect produce to meet consumer's expectations.

I visited Mesias' farm this summer. He walked me through a squash field dense with prickly leaves, picked a zucchini and showed it to me.

"Right off the bat, you can see there's a nick, there's a little bit of a crook," he said. "That couldn't be packed in a box."

So that means supermarkets won't buy it. They prefer smaller, tender squash.

This year, Mesias ended up with acres of excess squash, and he hoped the local food bank would come take some of the imperfect fruit before he plowed it under.

Food bank director Sandy Beals says it's not uncommon for food banks to hear from farmers like Mesias.

"And if we can pick it, we can have it. I mean, how tempting is that?" Beals says.

But Beals says she can't easily send her staff to pick excess crops. The liability is too high.

"Somebody falls off a ladder and gets hurt. One incident like that could very easily put us belly up," she says.

And that's too bad. The food bank that Beals helps run in Tulare County, Calif., serves 1 out of every 4 county residents, many of them farmworkers. She says she's desperate for donations — she sometimes has to beg for an extension on the food bank's electricity bill so that she can keep the freezers running.

And that's where Sarah Ramirez comes in.

Ramirez has made it her mission to rescue produce from commercial fields and people's backyards. And as an individual, she can sign a liability waiver saying she won't sue if she gets hurt picking crops.

Ramirez grew up in Pixley, Calif., a rural town that John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath. She went on to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford and become Tulare County's epidemiologist, where she noticed some troubling trends: high rates of diabetes and obesity, paired with widespread food insecurity.

Ramirez says she noticed that a lot fruit in the region went unharvested. "And yet, at the same time, we have hunger and food insecurity," she says. "And it seems like we should be able to put a need with a surplus. Let's put the pieces together."

Ramirez recently moved back to Pixley to start a grass-roots effort called Be Healthy Tulare, a shoestring operation she and her husband fund themselves and operate out of their home in a trailer park.

"If I think about the overwhelming nature of the problem, it's so much easier not to do anything. And there's a lot of people who say the problem is so big, nothing we can ever do will fix it," Ramirez says. "Well, if we all took that position, nothing would ever get done."

Ramirez says she wanted to take action. So she decided to give up the prestige of a high-powered career to return to her roots, to the kind of work that her parents, who labored in the fields, tried to make sure she'd never have to do.

"One of our team members says I should be wearing a T-shirt that says, 'I have a Ph.D. and I pick fruit,' " Ramirez says.

Food bank director Sandy Beals says Ramirez's work is making a big difference.

"There is extreme unemployment, very high poverty and not a lot of hope that things will get better," Beals says. "And [Ramirez's] goal is to give people hope. And hope is the most important thing people can have."

This year, Ramirez and her tiny band of volunteers have gleaned 20,000 pounds of produce from farms and backyards.

And Be Healthy Tulare is doing more than just picking fruit. On weekends, Ramirez ties a colorful bandana on her head and gets out her sharp knives to hold "food labs" — nutrition classes to teach people how to incorporate more produce into their diets. They whip up delicacies like peach-cucumber gazpacho in the community kitchen of the Pixley trailer park.

They've also started a community garden to grow their own produce, and it's equipped with an outdoor propane stove.

That's where Maria Arevalo is sauteing some eggplant she just harvested. She worked in the fields for some 40 years before recently retiring.

"Vegetables used to look kind of tempting to me," she explains in Spanish, standing over an outdoor propane stove, "but I didn't know how to cook them. My mother never cooked them. People here can't afford them. They're a luxury."

But now Arevalo is eating fruit and vegetables grown in the organic garden. And it's paying off. She says her blood pressure is now under control. And her community is getting healthier, too.

Copyright 2014 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, from its earliest days, this country has produced such an abundance of food that we've hardly known what to do with it. That's especially true for those who are affluent. By some estimates, Americans throw away 40 percent of our food. That ranges from the vegetables that have stayed too long on grocery stores shelves to fruit that's falling off a backyard orange tree.

An effort is trying to feed people now by rescuing some of the produce in the nation's richest farm belt. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports from California's Central Valley.

SASHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: Many farms here supply fruits and vegetables for major supermarket chains across the country. Farmer Peter Mesias says those stores demand perfect produce to meet consumers' expectations.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KHOKHA: This summer he walked me through a squash field dense with prickly leaves and picked a zucchini.

PETER MESIAS: Right off the bat, you can see there's a nick, there's a little bit of a crook.

KHOKHA: So that means supermarkets won't buy it. They prefer smaller, tender squash.

MESIAS: One day it's perfect but if you wait too long, it'll grow too big and then it's not a desirable piece of fruit.

KHOKHA: This year, Mesias had acres of excess squash and he hoped the local food bank would come take some of the imperfect fruit before he plowed it under.

SANDY BEALS: It's not uncommon for us to get calls from famers who for some reason are just not going to pick the fruit that they have in the fields.

KHOKHA: Food bank director Sandy Beals.

BEALS: And if we can pick it, we can have it. I mean, how tempting is that?

KHOKHA: Beals' food bank serves one out of four residents here in Tulare County, many of them farm workers. She says she's desperate for donations. She sometimes has to beg for an extension on the food bank's electric bill so she can keep the freezers running. But she can't send her staff to pick excess crops. The liability is too high.

BEALS: Somebody falls off a ladder and gets hurt - one incident like that could very easily put us belly-up.

KHOKHA: Enter Sarah Ramirez.

Ramirez has made it her mission to rescue produce from commercial fields and people's backyards. And as an individual, she can sign a liability waiver saying she won't sue if she gets hurt picking crops.

SARAH RAMIREZ: We found that there was a lot of tree fruit going un-harvested and yet at the same time we have hunger and food insecurity. It just seemed like we should be able to put a need with the service. Let's put the pieces together.

KHOKHA: Ramirez is standing on a tall ladder using a long-handled food picker to pluck pears from a backyard tree. She and her husband, a football coach at the local high school, have brought a crew of brawny teens to gleam or harvest the leftover fruit.

RAMIREZ: And there's one on this lower branch right here that kind of - right above that, a little to your right.

KHOKHA: The daughter of farm workers, Ramirez grew up in Pixley, California, a rural town John Steinbeck described in "The Grapes of Wrath." She went on to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford and become Tulare County's epidemiologist, where she noticed some troubling trends of diabetes and obesity, paired with hunger.

RAMIREZ: If I think about the overwhelming nature of the problem, it's so much easier not to do anything. And there's a lot of people that say the problem is so big, nothing we can do will ever fix it. Well, if we all took that position, then nothing would ever get done.

KHOKHA: Ramirez recently moved back to Pixley to start a grassroots effort called Be Healthy Tulare, a shoestring operation she and her husband fund themselves and operate out of their home in a trailer park.

RAMIREZ: Our team member said that I should be wearing a t-shirt that says, yes, I have a Ph.D. and I pick fruit.

KHOKHA: That simple action is making a difference, says food bank director Sandy Beals.

BEALS: There is extreme unemployment, very high poverty, and not a lot of hope that things will get better. Her goal is to give people hope. And hope is the most important thing people can have.

KHOKHA: This year, Ramirez and her tiny band of volunteers have gleaned 20,000 pounds of produce from farms and backyards. And Be Healthy Tulare doesn't just glean fruits and vegetables.

RAMIREZ: This is the peach gazpacho. I'm going to pass around a bowl with a little bit and some spoons.

KHOKHA: They hold food labs and nutrition classes to teach people how to incorporate more vegetables in their diets.

RAMIREZ: What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible)

RAMIREZ: Peach and cucumber. Wow.

KHOKHA: They've also started a community garden to grow their own produce, complete with an outdoor propane stove.

Former farmworker Maria Arevalo is sauteing some vegetables she's just harvested.

MARIA AREVALO: (Through translator) We are learning to eat healthier food, using vegetables, and I have learned to make things like this. My family loves it, because I never used to cook with vegetables - just meat, rice and beans. That was my favorite dish.

KHOKHA: But now Arevalo is eating vegetables grown in the organic garden. And it's paying off. She says her blood pressure is now under control. And her community's getting healthier too. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha, in Fresno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.