Food Farmacy Provides Fresh and Free Food for Oakland Families

Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland hands out bags of groceries to families twice a month

By Yumi Wilson

Under the bright morning sun, Kandice Moore is strolling from the parking garage to the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland with her mom and her seven-year-old daughter when she catches sight of a sign that reads, “Food Farmacy, a Pop-Up Market.” 

A young woman standing next to a huge basket filled with neatly packed bags of red apples, sweet potatoes, white onions, thick carrots, bread, eggs and more eggs calls out, “Come on over. It’s free!”  

Kandice, 35, pauses, looks at her daughter, Leila, and then at her mom, Brenda Moore.  

And with that, three generations of the Moore family approach the table where several women are standing. One of the women hands Kandice two bags filled with chunky carrots, dark plums, sweet potatoes, red apples, eggs, fresh bread, pinto beans, rice and more. Another, with a clipboard, asks for her zip code and the number of children in her household to help track the need and impact of the program, which sources food from the Alameda Food Bank and Rooftop Medicine Farm – part of Deep Medicine Circle, women-of-color operated nonprofit that works to decolonize food.  

“I think it helps out a lot of people who can’t get what you’re supposed to get,” says Kandice, who is taking Leila to her doctor inside Benioff Children’s Oakland.  

Kandice is among nearly three hundred families who partake in the Food Farmacy program, which offers fresh food at two food distributions twice a month – and signs people up for CalFresh, a state food-assistance program designed to help low-income families add more healthy foods to their diet.

food farm volunteer family in front of children's hospital
The Moore family, from left, grandmother Brenda Moore, Kandice Moore and Leila, 7, pick up groceries at the monthly “Food Farmacy” that offers healthy foods to patients and their families at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland main hospital at 747 52nd St. Oakland.

“You know, one in seven children in the U.S. are experiencing some sort of hunger, and more than 11 million children are living in food-insecure households,” said Rigoberto Del Toro, who oversees the Food Farmacy program. “And to drive the point home, California is facing a catastrophic hunger crisis. In Alameda County, four in seven children are facing food insecurity."  

And now that a temporary $95 increase in CalFresh benefits set up during the pandemic has ended, demand for free but fresh staples has gone up dramatically. 

“The ending of those funds means that more children have less access to healthy food,” says Del Toro. “And with the long history of food insecurity, heightened by the pandemic and inflation, we are really trying to do more to help our patients and families out.” 

Community support, community investment

Corporate support has been essential to expanding the reach of this program over the last two years. Thanks in part to transformative gifts made by Rite Aid Healthy Futures and Sunlight Giving, the Food Farmacy program has doubled the number of days and locations over the last year, ensuring more patient needs are met. 

Jennifer Michlitsch, MD, who is among the two dozen volunteers at the mid-July Food Farmacy event attended by Kandice and her family, applauds the hospital’s effort to provide more fresh and healthy food.  

“Good nutrition is really at the foundation of health,” said Michlitsch, whose research focuses on new treatments for children with relapsed and treatment-resistant cancers. Without good nutrition, the body's healing process is impeded.” 

Eileen Caponio, president of Children’s Hospital Branches, which raises funds to support Benioff Children’s Hospital and recently donated to the Food Farmacy program, is also volunteering at the Food Farmacy on the day Kandice, Leila and Brenda attend. “This is such an important endeavor. We want to do as much as we can to help out,” she says. 

Del Toro says the donation will be used to purchase gift cards so families can buy even more fresh food.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of patients and passers-by pause at the Food Farmacy tables, happy to receive a few bags of healthy food, including the biggest carrots money can buy.  

The quality of the food, says Kandice, is one reason she plans to return. “This place is so different from the others,” she says. “A lot of times, my daughter will see stuff at another food bank where the food is outdated, or the expiration dates have been cut out, and she’ll say, ‘No, Momma, it’s probably old. Don't get it.’ But this food here is so good.” 

The eggs, Kandice adds, will be a big hit this week. “Eggs are a very big, big help. My daughter eats eggs most of the time. And she loves vegetables over a lot of things. This is a very awesome thing to have. I wish there were more of them for everybody because a lot of families really need this.” 

Wendy Dunn at Food Farm passing out bags of food
Wendy Dunn, left, a board member of the Children’s Hospital Branches Inc., a fundraising organization for UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, volunteers at the hospital’s Food Farmacy.

Patients and families can pick up bags of food: On the second Thursday of each month, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., next to the main Benioff Children’s Oakland hospital entrance at 747 52nd St. and on the second and fourth Thursday of each month, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at 5275 Claremont Ave., across the street from the Benioff Children’s Oakland primary care outpatient clinic.