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Raw power: Berkeley company makes alive foods that are tasty, too

If it’s true that you are what you eat, Jesse Schwartz must be nuts.

He eats a lot of them. And he sells a lot, too: almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, many of them ground into creamy nut butters.

For 35 years, as president of the Living Tree Community Foods, Schwartz has overseen thriving retail, wholesale and Internet businesses. According to Schwartz, sales grew 21.6 percent last year, compared to 5.3 percent growth for organic foods in general.

The company’s core products include nut butters, olive oils, honey, chocolates, dried fruits and vegetables — all certified kosher — which he ships around the world.

But Schwartz insists Living Tree’s main product is health.

“People are coming to the realization that there is a link between the quality of their food and their overall level of well-being,” Schwartz says, adding that his all-organic and kosher food line is “an idea whose time has come.”

Wearing a black beret and a gray pinstripe suit, Schwartz appears remarkably fit for a man of 67. He rises early each morning and does martial arts training, then heads out either to his North Berkeley offices or the West Berkeley warehouse where Living Tree products are made in small batches, packaged and shipped.

 

Cashew butter, almond butter and sesame tahini

 

Though the kosher seal is the only visibly Jewish aspect of Living Tree products, the Brooklyn-born Schwartz lends a touch of Yiddishkeit to nearly all he does and says.

Schwartz frets over the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish diet, a holdover from shtetl times. In its place, he wants to see Jews return to the diet of their biblical ancestors.

“Now it’s called the Mediterranean diet,” he says. “It’s based on almonds, figs, olives, whole grains and meat in moderation. We have to leave off the Eastern European accretion.”

Accretion, as in shmaltz, kishka and mile-high corned beef sandwiches.

The company also has all its products certified kosher by Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California. “We’re on the leading edge of kosher food,” Schwartz adds.

A former university-level economics professor, Schwartz initially launched Living Tree in 1979 as a tree farm in Marin. He grew heirloom trees, getting into the organic food movement early in its history.

“There was an undercurrent of people getting into live, raw foods,” he recalls. “The leaders happened to be Jews. It’s now a worldwide movement with Jews at  the forefront.”

Over time, the company sold off its acreage, switching to its lines of what Schwartz calls “alive foods,” organically grown by family farmers and minimally processed. The company philosophy can be traced back to the work of the early 20th century German immigrant Arnold Ehret, who pioneered the field of naturopathy.

In his lifetime, Ehret fought an uphill battle against agribusiness, but true believers such as Schwartz carried the torch for natural foods untainted by pesticides or factory farming.

“People have got to wake up,” he says. “There is an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The concept of eating a healthy, live diet, and trying to eat as much organic food as possible, gives you some control over your our health and well-being.”

As for his own health, Schwartz says he practices what he preaches. His mostly vegetarian diet consists of what he calls “living foods,” such as those he sells. He will occasionally eat meat or fish, but only on Shabbat, when he can usually be found among the minyan at the Orthodox Berkeley synagogue Beit Midrash Ohr HaChaim.

 

Mil Apostoi at work in the Berkeley plant

 

Schwartz takes seriously his obligations as an observant Jew, including giving to charity. The company’s Web page features several causes and institutions Living Tree supports.

But charity, and health, begins at home, which is Schwartz’s prime message. He wants to get the word out that one need not go vegan overnight in order to make improvements in diet or health.

“If one night a week, you have an organic salad with dinner, that’s a step forward,” he says. “It’s about going back to simplicity. It’s about going back to the Garden of Eden.”

For more information on Living Tree Community Foods, go to www.livingtreecommunity.com.

 

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.