Every weekend the family traverses the Grape Vine to set up a visual feast at farmers markets in Santa Monica, Palos Verdes, Torrance and Hollywood. Acclaimed Los Angeles chefs rave about his produce, according to a Los Angeles Times feature story on the Thao family.
Produce like sweet potato leaves, amaranth and black nightshade are essential for families hailing from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines and India who seek ingredients for their traditional cuisine, but the market is limited. Now, small-scale farmers like the Thaos are on the cusp of something with much wider appeal.
Fresno farmer Vang Thao in his moringa plantation
On the internet, moringas are called miracle trees. All parts of the plant are edible – the tender leaves can be cooked or eaten fresh, moringa flowers are considered a delicacy, the tree's young pods can be used like green beans, roasted seeds are said to have antibiotic and antifungal properties. The roots and bark have medicinal potential, but need more study to determine the right dose. A 100 gram serving of moringa greens has more protein than a cup of milk, more iron than a cup of spinach, and is high in calcium, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin A.
Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, the UC Cooperative Extension advisor to small-scale farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties, recognized moringa's potential to supplement income for Southeast Asian farming families who are marketing specialty Asian vegetables and herbs to immigrant communities.
“Moringa is a drought tolerant tree known for its excellent nutritional content,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “We believe it could improve the economic viability of small-scale farms in our community. We are helping small-scale farmers with moringa product development and marketing.”
UCCE moringa project leader Lorena Ramos and Vang Thao with purple bell peppers
While using moringa is second nature for many immigrant groups, expanding the market includes demonstrating how easily the green can be used in the kitchen. Dahlquist-Willard and Ramos called on another sector of UC Cooperative Extension – the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program – for assistance. UCCE offers nutrition education in schools and community settings to children and families eligible for the USDA's nutrition assistance programs. Each year, Fresno State dietetic students serve two-week internships at UCCE. In 2018, one of their tasks was developing creative, healthful recipes incorporating moringa. Among the recipes were overnight oatmeal, pesto, smoothies, guacamole and energy bites – all with moringa.
“We are publishing the best recipes to share with the public to help them add this nutritional green into their diets,” Ramos said.