Hip-hop music plays from an outdoor PA system on a Wednesday afternoon. It is turned up so everyone who leaves Castlemont High School and the nearby campus of Leadership Public Schools in East Oakland will hear it. An energetic man with a microphone calls out to the kids walking down MacArthur Boulevard, asking if they want a free bag of food. Several women hold up handmade signs advertising the same thing. They greet and often hug the high schoolers they know. Still, most of the teenagers don’t stop. Some laugh as they hurry by.
“They are laughing because they think they are too good to take a bag,” says Nycole Brown, family support navigator at Youth UpRising (YU), the neighborhood community center next door to the schools. Brown organizes a free food bag giveaway every fourth Wednesday. While the teenagers might be embarrassed, the families who do stop to take a bag have told her they were trying to figure out how they were going to eat that night or the next day. At the end of the month, money for groceries can be tight. “They have somewhere to go and cook their food,” Brown says of the people who take advantage of the program. “But it’s just the fact that they didn’t have any food to cook because rent needed to be paid.”
Reusable totes, in YU signature purple, are lined up near the sidewalk behind a folding table with a banner. The bags are filled with rice, pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, provided by a grant the group has from the Alameda County Community Food Bank.
Castlemont has a shortened school day on Wednesdays, so Brown says it is good to be out there when the bell rings. She says it is a chance to meet more of the teenagers in East Oakland and let them know that YU is available for them. The organization, which staffers call a “neighborhood hub,” was founded in 2005, primarily focused on serving kids ages 13 to 24. They offer services and programs for health, wellness, arts, and career education.
Terrance Tallie, YU’s multimedia producer and instructor, is the deejay and the emcee. He calls out to the kids, “Y’all going to pass up on all this free food? Free bag of food! Come holler at me!”
“They don’t get it,” he says a few seconds later with a sigh, after another group of teenagers pointedly ignores him.
Tallie says he talks to the kids all the time about the food bags, but many make excuses for why they don’t want one: “‘I can’t get the food home. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a way to get it there. I don’t want to carry it all day.’” Tallie says he can see on their faces that some students walking by in a group want to take a bag, but they are too self-conscious. “The kids by themselves usually go for the bags,” he says.
Tallie says many of the students face significant challenges at home: Their parents may not be around, their grandparents may be raising them, or they may even be the ones raising their younger siblings. They might worry that taking a bag is a sign of weakness or an admission of defeat. They think taking “free food means you are broke,” he says. “Free food means you can’t afford to eat right. If I accept this free thing and I’m young, I’m accepting whatever notion thrown upon me is real.”
To that, he says, “Free food. Don’t worry about it. You won’t be judged.”
Brown knows these kids are hungry. She says sometimes teens come to YU trying to pick up odd jobs to get food vouchers for the café inside the building. She knows others who leave school early to panhandle. “They are messing up their education,” she says, when they have to leave school just to find something to eat.
And when kids are hungry, “they are more hostile. More aggressive. Don’t smile as much. They aren’t happy,” says Tallie. “It’s hard to smile if you have an empty stomach.”
In the 2017-2018 school year, nearly 75 percent of Oakland students qualified for the free and reduced lunch program. This is determined through an application process that includes income eligibility guidelines based on the number of people in each household. For example, in the 2018-2019 school year, a family of four with a monthly income of $3,870 is likely to receive assistance. There was a supper program for a few years, but John Sasaki, the school district’s spokesperson, says it was cut this year because of budget considerations. “We are working to restore it if we can find funding for it,” he says.
East Oakland has long been considered a “food desert,” a US Department of Agriculture designation for neighborhoods that lack access to healthy food. This takes into consideration several factors, including a number of grocery stores in an area and resources that affect accessibility, such as income or transportation.
“A lot of our community here is low income, so some of them can’t afford groceries,” says Elisa Johnson, intake case manager at YU. And, she says, people don’t always have access to fresh vegetables. Brown says these bags of food can help tide people over, especially at the end of the month. “A lot of people are on set incomes—SSI, food stamps, or cash aid—things like that,” she says, referring to Supplemental Security Income, a government program for people who are disabled or very low-income. “So they have to try to budget out their money, and that’s hard.”
Brown says she knows a lot of the teenagers’ parents would be happy to get a free bag of food, but the kids, she says, “look at everybody living the fake life on social media, so their standards are as high as everyone living the fake life.” She says some kids focus on what they see on television, rather than acknowledge the real struggle they are going through.
Every month, Brown works with the Alameda County Community Food Bank to select the pantry food. She says she tries to get the things she would want if she were the one cooking. “I try to think outside the box, because I know a lot of people are vegan and vegetarian,” she says.
Maria Vargas, who came to pick up a bag of food, says her teenage daughter came home and told her about the program. “She said, ‘Do you want to go?’ And I said ‘Yes, absolutely! Why not?’” Vargas recounts with a laugh.
Vargas says she and her husband are both out of work right now. YU is the first place she has gone to for any kind of assistance.
To attract more people, Jayda Gambele, 19, a custodian at YU, is standing in the center divide of the street, wearing a Snoopy t-shirt and dancing to the music. She waves a hand-painted sign that says “Free Food” at people driving by. It works.
Barbara Brown was on her way to Hayward with her friend when she passed the community center. “I was driving, reading aloud, and I said, ‘Free food!’” Brown recalls.“Turn around! Turn around!” As a senior citizen on a fixed income, the end of the month means money is tight, she says. “It hurts a lot,” she says. “I’m used to working. I’m disabled now.”
Wednesday was the first time Youth Uprising handed out frozen chicken and turkey, which was a pleasant surprise for those who stopped. Derrnell Gilliam works at the barbershop down the street, but this is the first time he has come to get food. He says he can’t have a meal without a protein. “I’m about to thaw this thing out and have dinner tonight,” he says, as he looks into the bag with a smile. He points to the chicken, which he says he’ll combine with cream of mushroom soup, spinach, and rich to make a meal for his wife and three young children.
Youth Uprising received a grant this year for a refrigerator and freezer to store the meat. Now Nycole Brown spends her time thinking about how else to expand the program. “Maybe we want to switch it up. Backpacks?” she muses. Backpacks, she thinks, would “get their attention and make them want to take the bags.” She also has her sights set on providing hot meals for the kids.
When people come to get a bag, Brown asks for a name, phone number and how many people in the household—but it’s just for her record keeping. She wants people to be comfortable and feel like themselves. Being hungry shouldn’t be on their list of worries, she says.
“You won’t be judged if you come and get it free,” Tallie agrees. “Everybody likes free stuff. That’s the best ‘f’ word in the world.”