Lorena Ramos and Max Cadji want to introduce some legit Oakland culture into your diet, specifically raw pickled vegetables: fermented, sealed and sold by the Phat Beetz Youth Pickling Company (PBYPC). Just how legit?

Lorena Ramos (right) at the Dover Street Garden, where the vegetables are free and fresh.

Like many of Oakland’s best businesses (see Oaklandish), PBYPC runs on a social enterprise model. Their primary business motivations are the creation of worthwhile jobs for Oakland youth, the promotion of local farmers and cottage industries, the support of community gardens, and funding food justice with the sale of really healthy, really delicious pickled veggies.

And in Part 2 of this article,  the Phat Beetz Youth Pickling Company is going to show us how to ferment our own kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, spicy carrots, or pretty much any other fresh vegetable that you can submerge in an airtight 5% brine for a few weeks.

Nothing stops a bullet like a job

PBYPC is in part the result of Phat Beets’ success with their other youth gardening program: the Fresh Fellows internship, which has had over 60 graduates, and produces 3000 pounds of free produce each year at the Dover Street Park.

It just so happens that the co-founder and first employee of the pickle company, Lorena Ramos, is also one of those graduates. At the age of 13, she was part of the inaugural cohort of Fresh Fellows, and she has been volunteering at the park ever since. “I fell in love with this idea that you can grow your food so close to home, and you can do it sustainably, and also provide for your neighbors,” she said of her time with Phat Beets.

The years spent working with Fresh Fellows has informed the design of the pickle company; as PBYPC’s website puts it:

What have we learned from the youth over the last 4 years [of Fresh Fellows]? They need good paying jobs that build their skill sets! Like Father G from Homeboy Industries says, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” This pickle company provides employment ops for graduates from the Fresh Fellows Youth Food Justice Program, making value-added products like pickles and jams.

The other half of the PBYPC project is Max Cadji, one of the co-founders of the Phat Beets movement and full-time food activist with ties to People’s Grocery. The ongoing success of Phat Beets’ several weekly farmers markets, along with their Kitchen Incubator program and their Beet Box delivery program, has encouraged them to branch out. Hiring Lorena is just the start.


Volunteers sorting fresh local vegetables into boxes for delivery.

Health Benefits of Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are now recognized to be a source of the kind of bacterial cultures that are essential to the human digestive system. Foods like kombucha, raw cheese, fresh vinegar, and pickled veggies are regaining popularity in the health food (and mainstream) community, and part of the fun is making them yourself. These foods are modern versions of ancient fermentation techniques that not only create a wonderful flavor, but also preserve the food without refrigeration, and restock your intestinal micro-biome.beets

These days, most of the food that comes in jars has been pasteurized, which eliminates any chance of contamination whatsoever, but also drastically reduces the food’s nutritiousness. Our digestion system requires the help of the bacteria that live in our intestines.  They harvest the nutrients from what we eat, but illness or antibiotics or poor diet can mess with your bacterial balance and lead to health problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and malnutrition.

Mass-produced, pasteurized foods have neither good nor bad bacteria in them, but fermented foods are made with microbiotic cultures, and eating them has been shown to replenish our essential bacterial community.

The Vanguard of Social Justice

Food justice is an integral part of Oakland’s social-justice legacy, and its future. Whether it’s the Black Panthers’ pioneering free breakfast for children program, or Oakland’s current battle with hunger at school, the movement for food security and quality is an essential, unifying issue for the diverse groups of activists and volunteers that comprise the Oakland’s social-justice community.

Phat Beets is a vital part of this work. They build community gardens and source their veggies from small, local farms and farmers of color. They offer double the veggies with EBT cards, and give away free veggies at the Dover Street Garden on Sundays.

Francisco started selling his traditional Costa Rican vinegars with the help of Phat Beets Cottage Industry Incubator program.

Francisco started selling his traditional Costa Rican vinegars with the help of Phat Beets Cottage Industry Incubator program.

The most recent graduate of their Kitchen Incubator program, Francisco Jimenez of Tucan Vinegars,is now selling his fresh banana vinegar, cherry vinegar, and red onion vinegar online and at the farmers markets, and meanwhile, a new crop of entrepreneurs are going through the incubator program and serving fresh traditional foods to market-goers.

Phat Beets also partners with other community organizations to do restorative justice work, leadership training, gentrification education and community building projects as part of their focus on protecting Oakland’s at-risk communities from being displaced by the wealth coming out of San Francisco.

Next Steps for PBYPC

Arizmendi and Actual Cafe were stocking PBYPC fermented-veggies, but later discovered that they need a special canning permit, which PBYPC will soon have.  For now, Phat Beetz Youth Pickling Co. is selling their DIY fermenting-crocks at the farmers’ market, along with samples of the fermented veggies and krauts. Once things get moving they will be hiring more young Oaklanders to staff the small business.

So try their beet-ginger kraut, kimchi, spicy turnips, orange-and-ginger beets, and classic sauerkraut at their Sunday farmers’ market while you’re waiting for Part 2 of the DIY pickle project.

In Part 2 of this series, PBYPC will take us along to the commercial kitchen where they prepare their fermented vegetables, and show us how to make our own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.