a slim man in sunglasses picks up a cardboard box
A man picks up a free produce box at Berkeley Chabad. (Photo/Courtesy Berkeley Chabad)

Chabads become distribution centers for free produce boxes

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

When people ask Rabbi Yehuda Ferris whom they can thank for the box of fresh fruits and vegetables they’ve just picked up at the Berkeley Chabad house, he has a simple answer: God.

“It’s actually the USDA, Bay Cities Produce and Rabbi Welton,” Ferris admits, “but I make it simple and just say God.”

The Farmers to Families Food Box, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helps connect farmers who have a surplus of food with those in need during the pandemic. The USDA has partnered with food distributors to redirect produce, dairy products and meat that normally go to now-shut restaurants, schools and other institutions.

So far, there are three Chabad distribution sites for fresh produce: in Berkeley, at the Schneerson Center that serves San Francisco’s Russian-speaking Jewish community, and at Chabad of S.F. in Pacific Heights. Several other Chabad houses are waiting to be approved.

“Many of our community members have lost their jobs, or expect to and are afraid for their future,” said Rabbi Bentzion Pil, director of the Schneerson Center. The boxes allow the Chabads to help in their small way.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris
Rabbi Yehuda Ferris

“Giving someone food is the greatest feeling,” said Ferris. “You know exactly where it’s going — to their stomachs. People are so grateful and proud. They don’t want to tell you, ‘I can’t afford to pay for dinner.’”

Bay Cities Produce is a second-generation distributor based in San Leandro. Many of the fruits and vegetables are processed on-site, where they are cleaned, cut and packaged. With a commitment to food safety as part of its ethos, the company has long served such institutions as hospitals and nursing homes, including the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living. The company’s precut fruits and vegetables have long been certified kosher by Sunrise Kosher, overseen by Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton.

“This has been a lifesaver for some people,” said Welton.

Bay Cities Produce’s Ben Ratto is overseeing the Farmers to Families program. He has seen firsthand how the food supply chain has been disrupted, with farmers left with excess product that ultimately goes to waste and trucks used to transport the product sitting idle.

This has been a lifesaver for some people.

It fell to Ratto to write a proposal in a matter of days, specifying to the USDA what kind of food box the company would provide and to whom.

“They asked us things like ‘How many underserved do you think you can serve?’ and ‘How will you get it distributed?’ and ‘Who will you work with?’” said Ratto. “We reached out to some of our nonprofits and faith-based organizations we usually work with to figure out what their need is, and then we looked at what farms had excess product and partnered them together.”

Since Bay Cities has a long relationship with Sunrise Kosher, Welton was high on Ratto’s list of people to call.

And since the company is a processor as well as a distributor, Ratto was able to create a box of precut fruit and vegetables that he knew could be certified kosher (leaving out some products, like broccoli and leafy greens, that cannot be certified because tiny bugs can be hiding in them, making them unkosher).

Ratto estimated that at the current pace, Bay Cities will give away as many as 445,000 boxes by the end of the year.

“It’s really grown like wildfire,” said Ratto. “We started with a handful of places distributing, and we’re now having to slow the process down. We knew there was need, but didn’t realize the overwhelming need that’s out there, and we hate to turn people away.”

That observation was confirmed by Ferris, who said recipients of the boxes in Berkeley were just as likely to be community members who saw it on social media as people wandering in off the street.

“There are so many sad stories,” he said. “The need is a lot greater than what we have. We’ll give them to absolutely anyone who needs them.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."