Lettuce, Lives & the Environment (page 2)
By Kira Albin
Photographs by Sharon Green

No bitterness is apparent, but the experience has changed the way Brinker runs Fresh Start. "I am the president, CEO, and board chair. Every year I require my Board members to write their resignation, and then I decide whose resignations to accept." Brinker grins knowingly. "It keeps the deadbeats out."
Brinker adds, "Everything I've done in my life has prepared me for the next step. When I was at Open Hand, I got to know every single celebrity chef in the city. They were extremely supportive because they had all lost waiters or friends to AIDS."
And sure enough Brinker's chef connections have become paying customers of her designer produce. "They love it because they're all freshness-obsessed, and when I deliver, I can honestly say, 'This was harvested a half hour ago,'" laughs Brinker.
The farm, in its current location, is the "training ground." But Brinker has never been a small thinker. Her intention from the beginning is to grow mini-farms on as many industrial rooftops as possible, given that space in The City is at a premium. The graduates of the first phase will be encouraged to run their own urban rooftop plots and will in turn, train others. The ultimate, Brinker says, would be "to grow all the produce the city uses, within the city itself."
The farmworkers earn minimum wage. Brinker explains that paying them more only cuts into their AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) grant. Eventually, they will receive $6 an hour with opportunity later on for a higher salary and bonus. Winter was "disastrous." Farms all over the state went bankrupt. "We hung on by our fingernails," Brinker groans. "Now the weather is better and the lettuce is coming up like crazy." She projects a revenue of between $50,000 to $60,000 by the end of this year and $100,000 for next year. A lot of lettuce!
Also, a lot of labor. Each leaf is hand-cut and then washed four times. Glen Lamontagne, the farm's manager, oversees this day-to-day work.
Lamontagne sports a black T-shirt with a brightly colored motif of birds of paradise, a frog, and other tropical creatures. "Celebrate Life" is scripted across the top. He comes to Fresh Start Farms with a background in horticulture and knows Ruth from Project Open Hand.
"If I were trying to sell you as a new customer," Lamontagne says, "I would first impress you with the tremendous variety of our mix." He picks up a small slip of paper with the Fresh Start Farms logo and begins highlighting half the names on the list printed there. Among them: capitane, chervil, juliet, mizuna, red orach and tatsoi.
He gently fingers the golden-green leaf of a young plant. "This is bronze lettuce," he explains. "It's a 200-year-old strain from France, a type of romaine." Another favorite he points out is lamb's quarters, prized for its colorful leaves and fuzzy texture.
Altogether, over 20 types of greens make up the farm's Spring Mix, which sells at $18 for a 3-pound box. That may sound expensive if you buy your produce at Safeway, but the customers find it reasonably priced.
"First and foremost, I buy it because it's a great product," says Bill Roepke, owner of Full Moon Foods, a new upscale market and deli on Union Street. "I don't have enough cash to throw money at a product just because it has a philanthropic purpose," Roepke says. "Fresh Start Farms is the best and freshest mix I have found. And, what's behind it is very noble and admirable."
The good PR attached to buying Fresh Start produce is evident. Whenever he can Roepke tells his customers about the salad mix and what's behind the product. "It's a win-win-win situation," he says.
Kirk Webber, owner of Café Kati at Sutter and Fillmore, concurs: "I have a notation at the bottom of our menu that certain items are supplied by Fresh Start Farms." Webber, furthermore, gets lettuce-to-order, red romaine, grown upon request.
Selling the program and raising funds is Brinker's job, a day-to-day challenge faced by the majority of nonprofits. She is well-qualified, with amazing stamina and foresight. For instance, Project Open Hand began very early in the AIDS epidemic. Newspapers weren't covering it, funds hadn't been allocated, "Not even the gay community realized there was a need for it," recalls Brinker, who did everything in the beginning. "It took about a year and a half, and then it just took off and has never stopped growing since."
When Fresh Start Farms was launched, the difficulty was marketing a program that centered on the homeless. "People don't like the homeless," Brinker says, her blue-green eyes glinting with frustration. "They accept the stereotypical view of some unwashed person sitting in the gutter, drinking out of a paper bag."
Undaunted by this obstacle, Brinker decided to change her emphasis and to focus on the environment, a timely and trendy topic. Two months later, the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., gave Brinker a national award. "They give ten awards across the country in different categories-mine was in agriculture." She laughs, "I felt a bit of a fraud because it's exactly the same program; I just tackled a different aspect of it."
The environmental benefits are real, however, and will be better realized as the project grows. "Rooftop farming not only solves the problem of lack of open space, but also helps mitigate the greenhouse effect and fight air pollution," writes Brinker in a direct mail letter seeking contributions. She sites examples of cities in Germany, such as Stuttgart, where citizens are given incentives to plant things on their rooftop to combat air pollution.
But to its founder, Fresh Start goes beyond the environment: it is the chance to give people a fresh start on their lives. She talks about one of her farmworkers, a mother of eight, who had all her children taken away because she was an unfit mother. Since her involvement in the program, this participant has straightened her life out and is beginning to get her children back.
"There's something spiritual and therapeutic about it," Brinker beams, referring to the feeling of working in the soil. "I really believe it's in our bones, part of our genetic make-up."
Brinker recalls a unique occasion when a nurse from a nearby Kaiser Hospital brought over patients from the trauma unit; all had head injuries. They were contentedly working away in the garden when one of the women begin to cry. Everyone was afraid she had hurt herself, but actually she had just remembered her daughter's name. Brinker smiles at the memory of this event, "She was so perfectly relaxed, it just came back to her."
The homeless participants are screened and selected by Homeward Bound, a Catholic charities organization. Also, the Jewish Community Center has sent Russian refugees-requiring an interpreter in the beginning-and would send hundreds more if there were room.
"It's a thrill for me to find a solution to someone's problems," Brinker explains. "Especially for the kids." And if things proceed as planned, she will soon have her wish. The next Fresh Start site will be at Visitation Valley Middle School as part of the curriculum. Some of the graduates of the training project will serve as teaching assistants.
Visitation Valley has beautiful rolling hills and views of the bay. But the area is riddled with housing projects, subject to drive-by shootings, and most of the kids are at risk. "There's work to be done," Brinker notes gravely.
The work of changing children's lives taps into one of Brinker's personal experiences. She and her two daughters—both of whom live at home—have raised someone else's child from the time he was 11/2. He is now 19 and plans to attend Chico State University in the near future. His mother had deserted him when he was six months old but his father refused to consent to an official adoption.
Though her compassion and benevolence have been recognized with the bestowal of nearly 20 local and national awards, Brinker herself, is modest. "After you get the first couple of awards it really doesn't matter; you go up and you're polite. But," she adds, "it's always good for the program."
And for the program, Brinker works endless hours at an age when many people are settled into retirement. She scoffs at the idea. "People who retire early are bored. If they could find something to excite them, they could be as productive as anyone."
Fortunately, this Mother Teresa of the City has been blessed with good health and tremendous energy. And her abundance of both, she claims, can be attributed to her love for the work she does.
"I think all of us have a moral obligation to help people. And if someone crossed my path that had a problem, I've just always been compelled to do what I could to help them.