Top-down approaches to solving food insecurity haven’t worked, at least not well enough.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture in 2019, “11 to 27 percent of the U.S. population lived in low-income and low-access census tracts.” And in 2022, the agency reported that there are “40.5 million Americans living in USDA-designated food deserts nationwide” with limited access to fresh food.
Neighborhoods throughout Oakland and Richmond are examples of food deserts that get referenced far more often than they get addressed by policy. Just like the Black Panther Party’s barely remembered actions to kick-start school lunch programs, the most interesting approaches to food justice are rising from the bottom up.
Anarchist-inspired groups with a passion for kicking ass for the greater good like Community Kitchens Oakland, West Oakland Punks with Lunch, and Rogers and Rosewater are horizontally organized, agile in the pivot and driven by the passion to take care of fellow humans. These community-based organizations (CBOs) are finding new approaches to the long-standing problem of food deserts.
Under the USDA’s definition, a significant portion of people living in these “low-income and low-access areas” must travel more than one urban mile just to get basic cooking supplies or bring a healthy meal home. This especially affects working families who may be commuting between jobs, the unemployed who may not have reliable access to a vehicle and the unhoused who have to walk for hours in a day to secure food.
One of the most successful examples of community-first organizing is Planting Justice, out of Oakland. Co-founded and co-directed by Gavin Raders, the food justice non-profit takes a hands-on approach to building community and to connecting communities. In the past decade, Planting Justice has built over 450 edible gardens, empowering hundreds of people to grow their own food.
This writer spent several meals at gatherings of Planting Justice in its early days, with folks gathered in a home for a potluck and a shared sense of purpose. It has been one of the guiding community-building examples of my career.
As for connecting different communities, perhaps no one is more adept than Raders. The organization’s Sobrante Park location in Oakland draws its workforce from the largely African-American neighborhood; a section of that urban farm has been offered for use to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, a local Ohlone tribe organization, and the two groups steward the land together.
One of the universal experiences of the pandemic, especially in the early days, was the sense that broken systems were exposed and that they could be fixed at the grassroots level. Maybe nowhere was there more innovation in response to the crisis than in the restaurant business. From parklets providing new outside seating to pick-up, optimized menus and to-go cocktails, the industry pivoted hard, and then pivoted again, and again.
Restaurant owners wanted to stay in business, pay their staff, maintain positive partnerships with landlords and, most of all, feed people.
Maria Alderete, co-founder and executive director of Community Kitchens Oakland, was the co-owner of Luka’s Taproom & Lounge with her husband, Rick Mitchell, until the pandemic changed everything. Although the restaurant did not survive the pandemic, something new was born of the will to keep things going at all costs.
Alderete saw two needs connect, keeping her staff employed and feeding those whose need for food became even more desperate in Covid times. She took action fast.
“Basically, we quickly pivoted and within two weeks of the pandemic launched this program,” said Alderete, referring to what was to become Community Kitchens Oakland.
It was a novel approach to keep people employed that addressed food insecurity.
The pandemic exposed inequities among populations Alderete long cared about. In addition to the unhoused and food insecure were the small restaurants of east Oakland.
“A lot of immigrant mom-and-pop restaurants were struggling to apply for [emergency federal] PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans and… to pivot quickly to online sales,” said Alderete, “so the first year we really focused on supporting [those].”
At first Alderete and her team worked as a distributor of free meals produced by a true diversity of restaurants. Starting as a volunteer hub, the project soon grew into a full-fledged 501(c)3 non-profit.
There’s more to this than the average business-as-usual, strong leader-centered passion-project non-profit. These organizations are committed to including as many participants, customers and partners in the decision-making process as possible.
Although focused on harm reduction, as a CBO, West Oakland Punks with Lunch provides food to attract unhoused people to its core services such as clean needles and personal care supplies. The punk movement’s calling card is do-it-yourself (DIY), an approach that subverts hierarchical organizational structures to create opportunities for a group of purpose-aligned individuals. In that vein, Punks with Lunch calls themselves a collective.
“So ‘collective run’ just means that we are non-hierarchical,” explains Ale del Pinal, the group’s founder. “We do respect people’s expertise and wisdom in terms of how long they’ve been doing the work, but no one has any more decision-making power than the next person.”
Giving a voice to the collective members helps to “make sure that everything that we do aligns with what our participants want, what our clients want,” she added.
Multiple generations of punks and activist-anarchists have nurtured each other’s passion for purposeful work. In fact, from out of Punks with Lunch, another CBO, Rogers and Rosewater, emerged. More directly focused on food justice, Rogers and Rosewater’s founder, Bopha Ul took the leap to create a “mobile soup kitchen.”
“We go directly to unhoused communities all over Oakland and hand-deliver food to everybody,” said Ul during a visit to the hectic food prep session. “So if a [homeless] camp is cleared, we just follow the people who lived there to their new location. That’s why we call ourselves the ‘mobile soup kitchen.’”
It’s good work made better by the inclusion of the collective in the decision-making.
“I don’t make any decisions without the volunteers, the people who are actually doing the work,” said Ul. “It’d be so disrespectful for me to not even take what they’re saying, what they’re suggesting into consideration.”
The end result is a bunch of really cool, original approaches to what can feel like impossible problems.
“So we have this bus [painted] really vibrantly with a pretty bumpin’ sound system so that you know when we drive through Oakland,” said Alderete. “When we roll into the encampment, the residents can hear that music and then they know a warm meal is available. It’s kind of like an ice cream truck,” Alderete beamed. Serving food deserts, the bus is rightly called the Mobile Oasis.
In addition to clean water Mondays and mid-week outreaches to deliver lunch, hygiene kits and pet food that are the regular operations of Rogers and Rosewater, the collaborative DNA of these collectives and CBOs means that the groups can also help address needs as they arise that are not a part of the normal routine.
“So if somebody needs a tent, [we can put the word out about] it right at that time,” said Ul. Groups share resources and crowdsource what is needed.
Another program for Community Kitchens is the Town Fridges, a program originally started by an anonymous group that seeded refrigerators on sidewalks around food deserts in Oakland. Alderete and staff stock the freestanding fridges with prepared meals. Anyone passing by in need can open them and grab a nourishing bite. Oakland’s Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Distribution Tax provides the funds for the meals.
Not only have these groups filled a gap in services; by taking their bottom-up approach, they also fill gaps in other fundamental human needs.
“For me, food justice means that you’re not only providing that meal, but you’re doing it in a way that’s dignified,” said Alderete.