Sunday, January 17, 2010

I rode through the desert on a bike with no name

Okay, so my bike has a name -- Ollie just cast a disgruntled look in my direction from where she's leaning against a fence post -- but I'll be damned if I could get Neil Young out of my head as we cruised first through West Oakland and then around Hunter's Point last Tuesday. (The mp3 player stopped working about a month ago, so things that get stuck in my head are harder to get out than usual. At least it wasn't Whitney Houston this time.) We were making our way through serious food deserts and noting the odd proximity of these to other parts of the city I've been lauding as Food Mecca. It was kind of surreal.

Have you heard the term "food desert"? It's been bandied about by food and social welfare advocates quite a bit lately. It generally refers to an area, often a low-income neighborhood, without access to fresh food within a reasonable commute on foot or public transit.

During our last day in the Bay Area, Ollie and I rode over to the YMCA in West Oakland to help pack the weekly grub boxes with Jason -- another dynamic food activist and People's Grocery staff person -- and 3 other volunteers. The produce bags were loaded with all kinds of goodies, many of which, earlier in the season, would've been grown on the Grocery's farm outside of town, but which now largely come from Veritable Vegetable -- the area's largest distributor of organic produce whose bulk buying allows groups like PG to offer quite a bargain to its patrons. Like Growing Power's market baskets, the People's Grocery grub boxes provide a cornucopia of fresh, local (as much as possible) fruits and veggies each week to folks living in a veritable food desert. Odd that there are so many relatively inexpensive, delightfully diverse fresh organic produce options in the Bay Area -- I'd checked out Berkeley Bowl, Monterrey Market, and the slightly pricier Rainbow Grocery -- but none are within a reasonable walking distance for most people in this area. As we packed avocados, kale, garlic, kiwis, and sweet potatoes, Jason told me about his organization's varied efforts to not only provide an affordable option for fresh food to folks in the economically depressed area through these optional weekly bags, but to educate about the importance -- and the joy -- of eating well. The Tuesday night cooking classes have become so popular there's a waiting list. At the same time, PG is hoping to get the word out to more people and expand their weekly box distribution, currently just under 100, to 250. It's going to take some outreach -- many folks aren't aware, for example, that they can use food stamps to cover the cost of their grub boxes -- but education and advocacy are among PG's strong suits. Some day, Jason hopes that the group's original dream of an actual People's Grocery market will be a reality. It's very much needed in West Oakland.

After a trip on BART to get back to the other side of the Bay, Ollie and I stopped at Rainbow Grocery to pick up some nibbles for lunch and stock up for the next day's departure from the city. Then we made our way through another major food desert to get to Hunter's Point. With Neil Young still pulsing through my brain, Ollie and I cruised through what I think must be the poorest part of San Francisco, where we saw not a single grocery store or cafe, not even a gas station quickie mart, and the only 2 places where we saw any sign of life for multiple miles were both liquor stores. It was amidst this setting that we came to the local Boys & Girls Club. Here, Rachelle and Maddy helped me stash Ollie somewhere safe and showed me around the beautiful facility. I learned that the after school program here includes elements of an Edible Schoolyard. With cooking lessons in the kitchen 3 days a week while the other 2 days incorporate garden activities, it's not as extensive as the program at MLK Middle School -- the original Edible Schoolyard -- but it is inspiring. And beautiful. And offers an alternative to the potholed asphalt jungle outside. The kids here seemed safe and happy, I noted as they devoured the afternoon snack of oranges and sunflower seeds. I wondered, though, if this might be the only healthy food they eat each day. In many cases, Rachelle told me, it was.

As I left the youth center just before dark, Maddy (another avid cyclist, it turns out) was on her way to Whole Foods to give a presentation on the Boys & Girls Club kitchen and garden program. We biked part of the way together before I split off to make my way back to Erica's place in the Mission District. As I rode, I couldn't help but marvel at the comparative plethora of coffee shops and markets the further I got from Hunter's Point.

It was an interesting end to my Bay Area experience, and though I know there are dozens of programs I didn't have a chance to work with this time around, I am excited to know they exist. For while San Francisco and Berkeley sport some of the finest food in the country, many folks here don't yet have access (or even know that they might want it) to fresh, healthy food. Including the man who ate part of my pastry during my visit to Mission Pie a few days earlier, but that is a story for another posting....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. Editorial note: It has come to my attention, courtesy of a number of folks who sent me friendly but insistent e mails, that "A Horse with no Name" was in fact a song not by Neil Young but by America. Thanks, fact checkers! :) Now if you could just get the *America* song out of my head....


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