Closing the Loop

Over 225 volunteers, like Danyel O’Connor, have helped Brighter Bites distribute 265,000 pounds of produce in Salinas, Gonzales and Greenfield.

Nearly 10 years ago Brighter Bites, a nonprofit with a goal of putting more fresh fruits and vegetables on the tables of schoolchildren and their families, was born in Houston, Texas. It soon spread to other parts of Texas, and the country.

Most of the vegetables were coming from – where else – the Salad Bowl of the World, which meant contributor Taylor Farms was helping to ship food out of the Salinas Valley to aid families out of state. Then, in February of this year, Brighter Bites opened up a location in the valley and some of that produce began to stay right here.

“The growers wanted us here because they’re giving us produce for all parts of the country and they said, ‘We’d really like to help our own community,’” says Rich Dachman, Brighter Bites CEO. “We just find a great need here.”

One of the requirements the organization has before partnering with schools is that 80 percent or more of the students must be receiving federally assisted free meals. “There are many schools here that unfortunately meet that requirement,” Dachman says.

Brighter Bites does more than provide free produce to families, there’s a science to it. The organization was co-founded in 2012 by Lisa Helfman – a concerned mom who at the time was director of real estate services at Texas Children’s Hospital – and Shreela Sharma, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas School of Public Health. They combined nutrition education and data collection with the free boxes of produce to help families adopt long term health habits. “We really call ourselves a behavior change organization. We really want to change the eating behaviors into healthy behaviors of our families,” Dachman says.

One of the first schools to sign up for Brighter Bites was La Gloria Elementary in Gonzales, where 56 percent of the 980 students are involved in the program. Families register and use an app for box pickups, to report how many servings were consumed, get access to recipes and more. School officials agree to teach from Brighter Bites lesson plans for eight weeks each semester. The lessons and contact with families are meant to be fun and informational.

One day a week, families and teachers pick up a 20 – to 25-pound box of produce containing an array of fruits and vegetables, some donated and some purchased. In the Salinas Valley, getting free veggies is relatively easy – besides Taylor Farms, there’s a long list of local companies that donate regularly, plus partners like River Fresh Farms which helps with supply chain and Andrew Smith Company which stores and packages.

Fruits come mostly from out of the area and are often purchased, says Alicia Blanco, senior program manager. Beyond the usual suspects of broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, they try to include some unique, “exotic items” in the boxes like bell peppers, avocados and different shades of cauliflower. “What we want to provide to our families is something colorful,” not just greens, she says.

The response from families, teachers and administrators has been enthusiastic, Blanco says. Alvin Vitug, director of nutritional services for the Gonzales school district, says he believes Brighter Bites is making La Gloria a better community. He’s watched parents out in the parking lot on produce days sharing recipes to use what’s in the latest boxes. He’s also seen kids open boxes and get excited to see cauliflower inside.

In its first several months, Brighter Bites Salinas was in three elementary schools in Gonzales and Greenfield and several Head Start programs in Salinas and other South County locations. (Participation by Head Start families is nearly 100 percent.) So far they’ve distributed approximately 265,000 pounds of produce to about 1,400 enrolled students. “And we haven’t even started, really,” Blanco says. She expects to add one or two more schools in the fall.

Dachman says Brighter Bites will be adding locations in Los Angeles in October and Bakersfield in January. By the end of 2021, he says, they expect to approach the milestone of 50 million pounds of food distributed to more than 500,000 people.

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