I’ve decided that the best learning is NOT done in a classroom: it’s done while walking.
Last week on a morning as sunny and brilliant as today, I seized the opportunity to learn about work on issues of food access and healthy eating in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. I met a group organized by SPUR (our city’s amazing Planning and Urban Research institute) for a walking tour of the neighborhood guided by Antonia Williams, Jazz Vassar and Kenny Hill, the three SEFA Food Guardians.
Anyone who follows food justice issues these days has read about “food deserts”; this neighborhood has been said to be the most dramatic one in SF, with few fresh food retail options. I wanted to see it on the ground so I could better grasp the challenges residents there face in accessing fresh, healthy food. For nearly 20 years, residents of Bayview have been asking for better access to quality food products. In 2007, the Southeast Sector Food Access Working Group (SEFA) surveyed 562 residents about the food options in their neighborhood. Ninety-four percent said they would “actively support new food options,” 58 percent said they wanted a co-op market and 53 percent said it was “important” to have foods free of pesticides and chemicals.
While walking between the 35 Quesada gardens that have sprung up on blocks that used to be ground zero for drug dealing, I was able to talk with Antonia about classes she’s coordinated about the sugar hidden in drinks. “RETHINK YOUR DRINK” is the mantra she taught members of her community, while demonstrating how many spoonfuls of sugar end up in a regular bottle of soda. And Kenny told me about ways local retailers are trying to make fresh food affordable (such as Fresh and Easy’s aisle comprised of foods they’re selling for 50% off as they near expiration).
Joel McClure, the founder of Bridgeview Garden, talked about how the learning garden has introduced a way for residents to connect with their physical and social environment, saying “the garden is a vehicle to get people out and talking about what they need–not only to grow, but from life in general.” And Jazz told us about the “lasagne” gardening method they use to safeguard food grown in soil that could be contaminated by harmful materials from the naval yards.
The guardians have reached out to neighborhood residents to learn about what they want from food retailers, and have heard that fresher produce, shorter lines, and store cleanliness top the list. They’ve been working with the existing grocery players to improve their product assortment (although as they said themselves, “anything important and great takes time!”). So far Foods Co has begun to stock coconut water, greek yogurt, gluten-free and more low sodium options. Currently the guardians are working with management to implement signage signaling which items in the store are healthier options.
I was struck throughout the hours we spent walking around by the strong feeling of community identity and pride in the neighborhood. The way neighbors all seemed to know each other as they passed on the streets, or would wave and honk as they drove by, felt like another era. This is doubtlessly a result of the isolation of the neighborhood, which is ever-present as we walked around it; residents here really are cut off by the thick network of highways cutting north to south. As our guide Jazz said, the highway divides this part of SF from “the part that has grocery stores.”
I was incredibly impressed with the commitment of the Bayview food guardians, and am so glad I have a visual touchstone for progress being made in their neighborhood; now time to see if we can use any of their tactics to better serve the neighborhoods surrounding Bi-Rite!