Women’s HERstory Month — Creating Meaningful Experiences with Produce
Eating at a Meeting Podcast Episode 120
Creating Meaningful Experiences with Produce
Known as the “Puta De La Fruta”, Jamie Gonzalez uses her passion and unique moniker to be a voice of strength and empowerment in her industry and her community. She has over 15 years of experience in produce distribution and food manufacturing with an emphasis on operations, sales, and business and community development. Today, Jamie focuses on building community feeding programs such as the BIG FRESH Market Box, The Big State Bodega Program, and a series of traveling produce markets that partner with organizations such as the American Heart Association and Common Threads.
Since 2020, Jamie has partnered with over 50 organizations to distribute over 3 million pounds of food. Jamie believes that everyone deserves to have access to the same quality foods and is passionate about changing the culture of how we eat by bringing meaningful experiences with food to everyone. She endeavors to be a champion for the food/hospitality industry and advocates for the understanding that our contributions to the food system go far beyond a traditional kitchen.
What do you do?
I feed people by developing programs that promote accessibility, support an equitable food system and the economic stability of our local food economy, and creating meaningful experiences with produce.
How did you get here?
There are key moments in life that are marks for the future. Those moments are usually best viewed through the lens of time. That first moment for me was at a softball party in the spring of 1987. I was 10 years old and my coach, who was also the owner of a produce distribution company brought a bowl of mixed chopped fruit. That was my first experience with honeydew or as he called it “the money melon.” It sounds insignificant but, years later it was the memory that made me realize how much food privilege that I had. When I was 14, I snuck my way into my first job counting fruit and milk for the local children’s summer nutrition program. I am 45 years old and I’m still counting apples and bananas.
My experiences led to an early career in produce distribution, with Big State and Unifresh Produce companies. For a time, I stepped away from the produce life and went into healthcare but, in 2015, my desire to make a positive impact in the healthcare crisis and my passion for food, led me back to my produce roots. I have spent the past 7 years growing my knowledge, my experiences, and my client list. I reconnected with my passion to serve the community and connected with my local Food Policy Council. My relationship with the council on projects such as the healthy corner store initiative, have been the strongest influence in shaping my food purpose and in helping me to understand how to connect the business of food to my passion for community and my lifelong desire to feed people. Just as important, is knowing that I have spent many years failing forward.
When I was 14, I snuck my way into my first job counting fruit and milk for the local children’s summer nutrition program. I am 45 years old and I’m still counting apples and bananas.
Prior to Covid, many of my community food efforts were a bit ahead of their time for local distributers and the community. This led me to start my own company in 2017, called The Chop Shop, where I found more success in food manufacturing than I did in selling boxes of produce. Minor successes were short lived and overshadowed by an almost life ending injury and a set of learning experiences on how not to succeed. Admittedly, this was the darkest time of my life. I found the strength to move through by mourning the loss of myself, shedding the weight of my own expectations, and by remaining honest about my struggles and mistakes.
In February 2020, I went home to Unifresh and Big State. 48 hours later Covid shut the city down and we lost over 80% of our business. What came next is a testament to how time and an industrious spirit can foster change. We resurrected the idea of a produce box, and I began to connect with organizations that were trying to do the work of food distribution without real produce knowledge or the infrastructure to do so.
At the beginning of the pandemic everybody was trying to figure out how to save themselves and we all wanted to bid on this new “box of food” called the USDA Farmers to Families Program. I ended up being the lady that said no to a winner and no to the larger bureaucracy. I used my voice to say that there was a better way; and my desire to feed people helped to put it into action. While I didn’t build the boxes, I engaged the program through logistics and distribution. I spent the next year helping over 50 organizations distribute close to 2,000,000 pounds of food. Since then, I have been part of distributing almost 4,000,000 pounds of food to thousands of homes in a variety of ways. COVID came with a vengeance and so did I.
In the past 2 years, I have launched our bodega program and became the primary vendor San Antonio’s Healthy Corner Store Program. I partnered with County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez and Bexar County Commissioner’s Court to launch our home delivery produce box called the BIG FRESH Market Box. Last year, I added traveling produce markets with key partners like American Heart Association and the City of San Antonio. These projects are meant to connect people to food, decrease waste, and support the economic stability of our local food economy. What started as a box has turned into a variety of public-private partnerships that continue to grow.
Everyone has the right to have the same access and meaningful experiences with food. They deserve to know where their food comes from, how it gets to their table, and how to be knowledgeable consumers.
My notoriety in the community is allowing me to use my voice to build a variety of concepts that help people find pathways to quality, affordable, and healthful food choices. I am now a board member of the Food Policy Council and on the Executive Committee of the Mayor’s Fitness Council. My work is evolving and affords me a broader platform to be a positive voice in speaking about food equity and insecurity, the changing face of food charity, the variety of career opportunities in our food system, and in removing the stigma associated with working in food. Everybody eats and it takes an army of people to feed them from the seed to the table.
How are you making a mark — HerStory — in the global food and beverage system to ensure it is safer, more sustainable and inclusive?
I aim to live my mantras “Everybody Eats” and “Cultivating Community” through my professional and philanthropic feeding efforts. Everyone has the right to have the same access and meaningful experiences with food. They deserve to know where their food comes from, how it gets to their table, and how to be knowledgeable consumers. I’m doing this by creating private-public partnerships that allows us to thin distribution lines, affords dignity to the people we feed, and increases our food IQ. In the warehouse and in the board rooms, I promote the values of socially minded food businesses by addressing food waste at the distribution level and within the charity of food; and by stripping the politics from food any time I am able. I endeavor to be a champion for the food/hospitality industry and advocate for the understanding that our contributions to food go far beyond a traditional kitchen.
Your Greatest Career Accomplishments
First, launching these concepts and creating jobs during a global pandemic. While I have toyed with these concepts for several years, it was the response to the pandemic and the impact that it had on our sister companies that has allowed them to grow. We were challenged as a company and as family to work through the worst disruption that we had ever seen and to open ourselves to unconventional concepts. I’m proud of our team and what we are building. We work hard to create thoughtful, meaningful experiences with produce that resonate with people of all ages and in all zip codes.
With that comes the experiences with the people we are reaching at home with the Market Box and in the community with the produce markets and healthy bodegas. There is almost no greater sense of accomplishment than the moment where people engage with fresh food in new and lasting ways. Even more exciting for me is watching our staff have that moment where they see and feel their impact on someone’s day. These moments with food feed my soul.
Finally, it is overcoming the “office girl label” and maturing into the “Puta De La Fruta”. About 5 years ago, I told my daughter that I could call myself anything else than “office girl” or the mistaken “Jaime (Hi-me)” and people would begin to listen with different ears. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, and I continue to do this every day. I knew I had arrived the day someone posted in a large foodie Facebook group – “Puta is a bad word in Spanish.”
Since the pandemic started, I have had much success in raising awareness, starting dialogues, and championing private- public partnerships that build equity, accessibility, and economic stability for community and businesses. I want to be an example for the type of work in produce/food that exists between the farm and the chef. I feel more and more successful every time I speak to young people about the world of possibilities in the food system.
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