I know what “food insecurity” feels like. It’s that feeling you get after an earthquake.
I felt it last Tuesday when I was shopping at Fresh and Easy on 3rd Street during that store’s 50%-off closing sale. I was in the pack of customers pressing the check-out aisles as though there might never again be a chance to shop. My cart was mounded with products snatched from shelves that were already two-thirds bare.
No one can know exactly what will be left after an earthquake. If you live in my neighborhood, earthquake or not, you can’t be sure what you’ll find in a food market either … or even if the market will be open when you get there.
Waiting my turn to pay, I kept a finger on the box of Nature’s Path Chocolate Koala Crisps that would otherwise slide off my pile. Cheese, nuts, juice, wine, 8 boxes of “healthy” cereals … I’d done my best to find products that I would use. I would have piled on some fruits and vegetables if that section of the store hadn’t been closed down already. All in all, the limited selection and bottom shelf prices had had their way with me.
Fresh produce is the nice surprise you hope for when you shop in a neighborhood that’s been called a “food desert” and “food swamp.” Names like that could call to mind Rosemary tumbleweeds and stagnant pools of smoothies. But it’s not really like that here.
It could also call to mind (not that you were thinking this) a ghetto full of people who don’t know decent food when they see it, and who think putting ketchup on fries is cooking. But that’s not right either. Folks here LOVE food. They’ll talk your ear off about it. They can produce a feast out of a kitchenette or metal-barrel-turned-grill, if they can find the ingredients.
I’m no gourmet, but I can cook. I just don’t do it as often as I did before I moved here fifteen years ago. These days, I eat more processed foods. I get less exercise. And I really believe that, If it weren’t for the gardening I find myself doing, I’d lose my grip on wellness altogether.
Kenny Hill, who knows a thing or two about this stuff, says that food access has no color, by which he means that people of color in Bayview Hunters Point can enjoy an organic peach every bit as much as a white person in a more affluent neighborhood.
Kenny could also be talking about me, a relatively privileged white guy who nonetheless can testify about the health consequences of too few food options. I’m the Where’s Waldo of the food desert, a huffing and puffing, gut-expanding irony.
Kenny knows how predictable my experience is. People in my working class neighborhood will live on average 14 fewer years than people who live on Russian Hill, and poor food access is a reason why.
I know the odds. I have a car and a credit card. But there I was, in line at my neighborhood’s Fresh and Easy, with a finger on the pulse of chocolate cereal, and a weird sense of survivor guilt. I was aware of a nervous camaraderie in the crush of people, the collective politeness of lucky people building kharma in case of an aftershock.
I recalled noticing that same fidgety friendliness in 1989, just after the Loma Prieta Earthquake grabbed us all by the tectonic short-hairs. Normalcy had been absolutely interrupted by something so far beyond our control that most people just wandered dreamlike on the streets, as dusk crept up, chatting with people they didn’t know.
Folks in Bayview Hunters Point are friendly on any day of the week. But that day, at Fresh and Easy, people were helping each other bag their groceries and work the automatic check out, for goodness sake. If the crowd had had a single voice, it might have said, “If we all work together, we’ll get through this.”
But get through what? Businesses close every day in this City. So what?
But this business and this neighborhood aren’t like others.
The August 2011 opening of Fresh and Easy on 3rd Street was a huge event here. The store was the first major food market to open in Bayview Hunters Point in decades. The months and years leading up to that victory were marked by unprecedented political muscle, economic incentive, community advocacy, cross-sector collaboration and dogged persistence as one Safeway or Trader Joe’s after another turned up a corporate nose at the prospect of opening a store.
Ultimately it was Tesco, a supermarket chain from another country, that took a chance on Bayview and in the process stirred hope in the near-hopeless. Maybe long-promised economic vitality really had arrived, many of us thought.
As I thanked the nice lady in line behind me for her patience, and ran a closet-worth of toilet paper through the automatic checkout, it struck me that my neighbors who lived in the upstairs condos must be especially anxious. They had bought into the still-new, mixed-use development at 5800 Third Street where Fresh and Easy was considered an anchor business.
Fresh and Easy’s closing is bruising to just about anyone who wants amenities like supermarkets in Bayview, amenities that they can take for granted just like people in other neighborhoods. Hardcore Bayview-boosters who had been cheering a chain of recent neighborhood improvements probably thought the prospect of this store papering over its windows was as likely as an earthquake shaking it to the ground.
Then the news came. Yucaipa Companies bought 150 of Fresh and Easy’s 200 stores, and the Bayview store hadn’t made the cut. Impossible! The campaign to land a food retailer in the first place included the notion that the neighborhood’s pent-up demand for healthy, affordable food was extraordinary.
Estimates of neighborhood retail leakage in the food category went as high as $38 million annually, meaning a whole lot of us were getting in a car or on a bus to go buy something to eat. Ninety-four percent of neighborhood residents surveyed in 2007 said they would actively support new food options in the neighborhood.
Yet the 3rd Street Fresh and Easy store was said to have done about half the sales of other stores in the chain. Similarly, a five-year attempt to get a farmers market going on 3rd Street never attracted a customer-base despite high quality produce at subsidized prices, and community gardens in Bayview lack the gardeners who seem to line up at gardens in more affluent areas.
All in all, it’s becoming clear to many Bayview Hunters Point residents that the food scene here is more complicated than we had imagined. The barriers to our achieving equal access to healthy, affordable and culturally-appropriate foods, a vision that food justice advocates here work so hard to realize, are so steep they seem vertical.
Losing a major food retailer may not be a natural disaster. And despite the food-related chronic health conditions that are so prevalent in Bayview Hunters Point, it’s not immediately deadly. But it is a disaster nonetheless. It’s a social disaster.
Even though the “build it and they will come” approach seems not to work very well here, I still hope another major food retailer will come to the neighborhood. Until that happens, efforts underway to improve the quality of foods that smaller, existing food retailers offer are all the more important.
Community builders, advocates and residents in general need to step up too. Our voice, as we cry out for more and better food, is collectively choked by the empty restaurants and under-frequented markets. Reasons not to champion food businesses are plentiful: the streets don't feel safe ... this restaurant isn't doing healthy foods ... that market isn't a union shop ... prices are too high for folks here ... habits are hard to break.
That last one was my excuse. After Fresh and Easy opened, I still shopped at familiar outlets in other neighborhoods. I would feel a twinge of guilt when I did, and hope I remember that feeling the next time a major market opens in the neighborhood.
Equally important to a more vibrant food system … if you’ll forgive me for pointing it out since I’m a part of Quesada Gardens Initiative … are community-emergent groups that are strengthening the social fabric necessary to commerce of all sorts. More and more, small informal associations are growing healthy foods and sharing wisdom with one another about how to do it.
These groups could do so much more with even a few drops of resources so long as the drops don’t come with a bucket of restrictions. For me, this raises one of the most crucial public policy issues having to do with the massive changes underway in my neighborhood and neighborhoods like it across the country.
Billions of dollars have soaked into the physical and social service infrastructure in the part of the City where I live and work, investments that I believe are needed and overdue. It remains a mystery to me, however, why effective grassroots groups must shrink for lack of direct support, and why resident organizers operating at a professional level work to exhaustion for free.
At the same time, institutional policy makers seem driven to create facsimiles of grassroots projects that compete with the real deals. No objective that is shared across sectors can be served by this persistent inequity between changemakers. And yet, even in the relatively collaborative world of people concerned about food systems, institutional policy makers and funders often seem stuck.
There are better and worse programs, of course. And we have some great ones in my neighborhood. But an awakening to the power of grassroots change has led to more external social change agendas cloaked as community-based programming. Top-down decision-making, at best, is tempered with the “advice” of the community. Facilitated public participation processes fill in the details of plans that may well duplicate a grassroots project … except for the staffing and funding.
Grassroots changemakers who live and work in Bayview Hunters Point talk about these sorts of engrained strategies as being as much the problem as they are the solutions to challenges we are doing our best to respond to. We commiserate, then shake our heads … as though to shake off the convoluted logic, wasted resources and disappointing results … and then return to being culpable with the dominant institutions. We’ll get further with sugar, we think.
At Fresh and Easy the other day, the sugar seemed cut with Novacaine. As neighbors made the best of a bad situation, we were kind to one another, and numb. I sensed pride, too; pride of living through another disappointment perhaps. And why not? If folks here weren’t survivors, the streets would be empty.
Most folks I’ve been talking to recently still see our neighborhood’s future, including its food future, as bright. But getting to that glorious future now seems like it will take longer than we thought, and may not be by way of the beaten path.