Oakland mayor candidates participate in hunger and poverty roundtable

Mayoral candidates and citizens converse at a "speed-date" format roundtable meeting. Photo by Sanosi Osman

Mayoral candidates and citizens converse at a "speed-date" format roundtable meeting. Photo by Sanosi Osman

“My father had just died, and the school knew that my family was very poor,” Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said in front of approximately 60 Oakland residents at Thursday night’s Mayoral Candidate Roundtable on Hunger and Poverty. “They put the poor kids to work in the cafeteria so that we could have a free lunch.”

This childhood experience in Livermore, CA, Quan said, triggered her advocacy for breakfast, lunch and after-school snack programs in Oakland schools. “If you’re hungry, you can’t learn – you can’t concentrate.”

The mayor, who is running for re-election in November, was one of 12 mayoral candidates at the roundtable event hosted in East Oakland by Alameda County’s Community Food Bank. During the three-hour session, which was billed as a political “speed-dating” event, candidate introductions preceded five-minute conversations with four to five Oakland residents around small tables. The candidates rotated among the tables, answering such questions as “What policies do you intend to promote within Oakland that promote access to fresh, healthy and affordable food?” and “What is your general philosophy of local government’s role and responsibility in helping families move out of poverty and achieve self-sufficiency?”

Quan used her childhood memories to tell her listeners why her work as President of the Urban Schools Association is important to her.  When Republicans “were trying to take school lunches away from immigrant kids,” Quan said, she helped organize the national campaign to feed kids in schools. In addition to bringing free breakfasts and snack programs to Oakland schools, Quan spoke of her commitment to increasing opportunities for community gardens and composting.

Like Quan, many candidates connected their food agendas to personal experience. In college at UC Berkeley, candidate Joe Tuman said, he washed dishes in exchange for food. “I basically had enough money to get one meal a day,” Tuman said. “You could count my ribs.”

Tuman was a good student, he said. “But I think about how much better I could have been.”

When Tuman thinks about a third grader in elementary school without access to food, he said, he remembers that it is “very difficult to focus in school and do the level of work that is necessary if you’re hungry.”

An advocate of community agriculture and increased access to farmer’s markets, Tuman said he hopes to generate, “business incentives for mobile food operations.” Mobile food operations are similar to foods trucks, said Tuman. They bring produce and affordable prepared meals into areas with limited access to healthy, fresh foods.

Mobile food operations was one of many proposals offered at the event. Candidate Libby Schaaf advocated for the expansion of KivaZip, a micro-lending platform, in Oakland. KivaZip issues loans to help launch small businesses, many of which are food-related.  Schaaf also pointed to her excitement about grocery stores in West Oakland making “locally grown food baskets” for customers.

Candidate Charles Ray Williams relayed his plan to bring Oakland a technology that can convert saltwater into water suitable for plants. This technology could be installed on the rooftops of buildings in downtown Oakland, said Williams. He suggested that at-risk youth could be trained to operate the precipitators, offering income-generating opportunities to local youth. “That’s a lot of water, that’s a lot of jobs,” Williams said.

Other candidates proposed more conventional food-access solutions. Candidate Saied Karamooz recommended soda and alcohol taxes, subsidies for produce stands, minimum wage raises, and investments in early childhood education. Almost all the candidates mentioned their support for community agriculture.

“Growing our own food will increase the health of our neighborhood and build community cohesion,” said councilmember and candidate Rebecca Kaplan. “In Oakland, we’re incredibly blessed with good weather, rainfall and soil. When you plant things, they grow – that applies to people and communities also… and kale. My kale is doing insanely well right now!”

As a councilmember, Kaplan said, she helped organize the community to submit a proposal that allowed more community gardens in Oakland. “Food security and access to healthy food is so important to what we need to achieve as a city,” said Kaplan.

Keisha Nzewi, advocacy manager at Alameda County Food Bank, said the event was intended, “to bring food issues to the forefront and to hold the candidates accountable.” The forums started in 2010 “to educate the community and encourage them to vote,” she said. “If everyone who could vote did vote, our community would be much better taken care of.”

Nzewi said the event was the only mayoral forum to focus on food and poverty.  The chance for Oakland residents to question their mayoral candidates in a small-group setting was also unique.

“It’s exciting to live in a major city where you can sit down and have a face-to-face conversation not just with one mayoral candidate, but with all of the mayoral candidates — and that they’ll all actually show up to talk to constituents in a fairly small setting like this,” saidNora Gilbert, a third year candidate for a dual degree in Public Health and City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. “It was a pretty unique civic engagement opportunity.”

While various solutions were presented at the roundtable, all of the candidates agreed that food access is essential to the success of community growth in Oakland, particularly for youth.

“Food is important,” said candidate Ken Houston, who said his mother struggled to provide regular meals to his family. When Houston was a child, he said, Huey Newton of the Black Panthers brought paper bag lunches to his school every day. Because of the lunches, Houston “was able to learn better, the kids didn’t act up as much.”

“I was born to fail, and if I didn’t have food to sustain my mind, I would have been another statistic,” said Houston. “Huey and the Black Panthers saved my life.”

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