From a humble plastic folding table, the team behind Fresher Sacramento sells meals cooked in a spare kitchen of the Art Institute of Sacramento.
The nonprofit’s mission is to provide nutritious and locally-sourced food to people in Oak Park and South Sacramento, while offering career training to at-risk high school students.
Fresher Sacramento currently employs nine apprentices from Hiram W. Johnson High School and American Legion High School who are each paid a weekly stipend of $100 and work, on average, six hours a week.
Instrumental in branding Fresher Sacramento, the students have been instructed in the fine art of entrepreneurship by Rebecca Bakken, the organization’s director of operations and a former opening associate for Whole Foods. She has schooled them on nutrition, marketing, branding, merchandising, community outreach, financial planning and salesmanship, and provided them with the opportunity to apply these lessons hands-on.
Rakeem Murdock, an apprentice, is an aspiring actor and also starred in Fresher Sacramento’s first commercial which aired on KCRA. “It is my first acting position and just to get my first acting gig on a commercial — it was mind-blowing,” Murdock said. “It took a bunch of retakes to get it good, but it came through.”
Murdock’s principal at American Legion High School recommended that he work for Fresher Sacramento. Now, a freshman at Sacramento City College with a major in marketing, Murdock said that the marketing training he’s received at Fresher Sacramento has helped him succeed in his classes.
“The Fresher [Sacramento] apprentices are pioneers,” says Rabbi David Azen, who founded the nonprofit. “In five years, it won’t have quite the same feeling, but right now they are creating with us. And, ultimately, that’s where I want the ownership feeling to start — that they own this initiative. We are providing scaffolding to support them and ideally this is their business and they can take it as far as they possibly can.”
Each meal comes in a reusable container with packaging designed by Fresher Sacramento’s apprentices and sells for $5 — cash, credit card or EBT food stamps. Menu items include vegetarian chilaquile casserole, chicken tortilla soup, chicken fajitas, red beans and rice and tri-tip — all of which can be reheated in the microwave. The meals are available every Tuesday at Lemon Hill Boys & Girls Club from 5–6 p.m. in South Sacramento and Thursdays, outside the Oak Park Community Center, from 4:30–6 p.m.
“The meals are delicious, affordable and nutritious, and I like to tell people that intentionally, in that order,” Bakken said. “Our main focus is to serve whole grains, lean proteins, vegetables and complex carbs.”
Luiz Ramirez, Fresher Sacramento’s executive chef, says his culinary mission is to wed health food with comfort food by substituting leaner, more nutritious ingredients. “The thing that I have noticed from going to the distribution sites and interacting with our customers is that they want to eat what they have always been eating — the unhealthy stuff — Popeyes and McDonald’s,” he says. “But, at the same time, they want to have nutrition in their meals.”
Ramirez is familiar with his target customers. He grew up in the Salinas Valley, where his parents were farm workers, struggling to put food on the table. They often purchased food that was cheap and loaded with sugar and fat. He was obese as a child. It wasn’t until he became an adult that he embraced a path toward well-being and changed his diet.
“It is really convenient and the people are nice and so I really enjoy the meals,” says customer Ken Coleman, who lives in South Sacramento and is a retired state administrator. “I usually watch my diet so I portion my meals. I usually will consume half of the meal itself and it really gives me two sit-down meals for each meal that I purchase.”
In time, Fresher Sacramento hopes to expand its operations into more affluent neighborhoods to expand its mission. “I don’t think that we are going to donate our way to the end of hunger,” says founder Azen, adding that community support for and understanding of the food system is crucial. “We can have certain meals that sell for a higher price, and in a humbler ZIP code, they might sell for not as much. But, folks can know that they are creating value through their purchases and subsidizing our work in another location.”
Customers can pre-order a meal for pick up at the Fresher Sacramento website and can also donate a Fresher Sacramento meal to a pregnant or nursing mother through the nonprofit’s partnership with Black Child Legacy.