Some people have potted plants on their front porches. Others have rocking chairs or benches. Walk onto the porch of Jessie Mae Brown’s East Oakland home on any given day and you’re likely to be stepping around 100-pound bags of onions and potatoes or bins of apples and carrots—all fresh for the taking.
Brown, 85, is affectionately called “Mother Brown” by those who know her, like her fellow churchgoers at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland. Allen Temple is one of 15 distribution sites used by Mercy Retirement & Care Center’s brown bag grocery program, which provides a bag of groceries stocked twice a month with a dozen or so items—like bread, fresh produce and canned goods—to low-income seniors in need. Brown, who has been one of the program’s beneficiaries for more than two decades, also helps pass on the favor, by distributing free groceries from the program to fellow seniors like herself around her neighborhood.
“We’re doing the whole two blocks here,” Brown said. “If you can help someone, then your living has not been in vain.”
The Mercy Brown Bag Program began in 1982 at the Mercy Retirement & Care Center in Fruitvale. Alameda County residents age 60 and over with a maximum monthly income of $1,354 for one person—or $2,192 for two or more people in a household—can qualify. The federal poverty guideline is $11,170 per year for a one-person household.
Low-income seniors are at risk for malnutrition, especially those with diabetes, chronic diseases like heart disease or who are undergoing treatment for cancer. Doctors might recommend a fruit and vegetable-rich diet, but for those without much income, these might be some of the most expensive items in a grocery store. There aren’t many doctors prescribing ramen noodles.
Several years ago, Brown started putting extra Mercy brown bags, unclaimed deliveries to Allen Temple, up for grabs on her front porch. The supply has since grown to include surplus produce donated by fellow neighbors who work for other senior centers in the area—hence the 100-pound sacks of potatoes, onions and the like that help keep her block fed.
“My porch got to become a grocery store for the neighbors,” Brown said. “Finally they got to saying, ‘If you’re hungry, go to Miss Brown’s.’” And the word spreads like fire; sometimes Brown doesn’t even have time to walk out her own door before the day’s goods are gone. Yesterday, half of the latest stock was gone in less than half an hour, she said.
Nearly three decades ago, Henry Perry, 97, who also lives in East Oakland, helped persuade the leaders at Allen Temple, Perry’s church, to offer their facility as one of the brown bag distribution sites. He brought on Brown’s late husband to help. “As soon as I heard about it, I wanted it for my church,” Perry said. “I am always into whatever is going to help somebody, not necessarily me, but somebody that needs more help than me.”
Brown was born in Texas, she said, and worked with her family as sharecroppers on a farm during the time of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. “We kind of came from the old school,” she said. “The prejudice was very strong. We raised everything we ate. When you come from that kind of background, you learn how to survive. My grandmother always told me, ‘Baby, stay close to the ground so you don’t have so far to fall.’”
Brown lives alone now; her husband died 16 years ago. But she still harvests from her own backyard garden. She grows bell peppers, strawberries, pole beans, collard greens and spinach. She also has apple, plum and lemon trees. Blackberries grow along her back fence, their prickles serving as added protection against would-be intruders.
“As soon as she calls, I’m out the door,” said Octavia Edgley, 75, who lives down the street from Brown and has relied on Brown’s porch as well as the brown bag program for the last several years. Edgley says it’s a blessing that Brown told her about the program, as she relies on Social Security benefits for financial support, like Brown, and used to pay for all her food out of pocket.
In Oakland, 14.4 percent of the population over 65 lives below the federal poverty level, according to the 2009-2011 American Community Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau’s website American FactFinder. This figure compares to 12.8 percent of the population over 65 in Fresno, 10.1 percent in Eureka, 9.5 percent in San Jose, 5 percent in Richmond and 9.5 percent of the population in California overall.
Since the most recent recession began, the volume of callers to the Alameda County Community Food Bank’s emergency food hotline—a crisis call center helping people in urgent need of a meal or groceries that day—has doubled. From mid 2007 to mid 2008, the food bank made 19,000 referrals through the hotline. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, that number jumped to over 40,000. Recently, on average, 10 percent of the callers each month are new. After children, senior citizens comprise the second largest population that the food bank services, said Michael Altfest, communications manager for the food bank. About 90 percent of the produce used in the brown bag program comes from the food bank as well.
“Someone could have tucked away a lot of money and saved for their whole life, and then the recession hit, their retirement savings were hit,” Alfest said. “It doesn’t change the fact that healthy food is a basic human right. Access to healthy food should not be a luxury. Seniors have worked their whole lives to get to this point. They deserve the same access as anyone else.”
Yet despite such a surge in numbers, funding for the brown bag grocery program is scarce, said Krista Lucchesi, who directs the program. Budget cuts have been detrimental. In 2009, it lost nearly $20,000 in state funding and an additional $25,000 from the City of Oakland, putting a substantial dent in the program’s 2009-2010 yearly budget of $180,000. Some larger foundations stepped in to help, but the Mercy program hasn’t been able to fully recover, and it relies largely on in-kind support, like donated supplies, delivery trucks and office spaces. “We have been able to squeak by,” Lucchesi said. “But there have been lots of sleepless nights.”
Brown and Edgley are feeling the effects. They used to receive a bag of groceries once a week, they said. Now, it’s down to twice a month. “Those of us that can cook will add a little something else to it and stretch it and make it last longer,” Brown said.
Living on a fixed, low income is like a shell game, Lucchesi said, in which the budgets for rent, medical bills, transportation and food are shuffled around to make ends meet in a never-ending balancing act. A person’s food budget is normally the first to be cut—this is the one part of the budget where only one’s own hunger demands payment—so free groceries make for a tiny bit of relief in suffocatingly-tight budgets, she said.
“Being a senior on fixed income, it definitely makes a difference because going to the store to buy a loaf of bread for four dollars, that hits you kind of hard,” Edgley said. “If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the choice.”
Still, both women share their bags each month, sometimes with their grandchildren, other times with other needy seniors on the block. Edgley shares her groceries with a 104-year-old resident who lives nearby. Last week, the bags came with chicken drumsticks, and Edgley said she was shocked; it had been at least three months since both women had been delivered any meat at all.
Bags come every second and fourth Friday to Allen Temple, but Brown and Edgley will only be receiving one bag instead of two this November and December, Edgley said, as the pick-up dates at Allen Temple overlap days close to Thanksgiving and Christmas in which Mercy Retirement & Care is closed for the holidays. During the holidays, many families using the program gather for potlucks on Thanksgiving and Christmas, so as to conserve their resources.
As Brown spoke from her living room, a man talking on a cell phone approached her porch. He took a few potatoes, the last of the bell peppers, an onion or two and a few apples. “This is a low-income neighborhood, we ain’t around no rich folks out here,” she said, noting that her latest visitor still left several apples, onions and potatoes for the next wave of passersby. “Everyone is struggling out here to make it.”
Brown operates her porch on the honor system; she said she’s never had any problems with patrons taking too much, and she has never questioned the sincerity of their need, either. She encourages neighbors to bring their own bags, but she keeps extra grocery bags tucked next to the bins just in case.
“She’s so good to everyone in the community,” Edgley said. “She should be looking out for her, but she’s looking out for us. She’s a rare breed. They don’t make them like Miss Brown.”
But Brown said she relies on her block for support just as much as they depend on her.
“They’re pretty good to me, too, believe me,” she said. “When I holler, they come.”