They rolled up in wheelchairs, on foot and on bikes. One by one—over the course of six hours— the young, the old and the disabled came to select a head of lettuce, a zucchini or a peach from the half-dozen boxes that Max Cadji of Phat Beets drops off every Tuesday morning at Jasper P. Driver Plaza in North Oakland.
The triangular plaza is an anchor of the historically black community near the Bushrod and Golden Gate neighborhoods where people pass the day chatting on park benches. There’s a garden where all the fruit trees are dedicated to members of the community who have been lost to gun violence. Graffitied signs in the park criticize the police and declare the land for the Ohlone people.
But on Tuesdays it becomes, for many, a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables that are hard to find at nearby grocery stores or in the food pantries. “This is a blessing right here,” said Stanley Durden, taking a bite of peach. The 60-year-old janitor had just stepped off the F bus from the Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program, where he gets groceries and meals three to five times a week. There, he often spends up to two hours in line, but on Tuesdays at the plaza, he can simply reach in and take what he likes.
The produce is fresh and free—no strings attached, thanks to Phat Beets. The program grows food at several local urban farms and gardens and distributes it to the community.
Earlier that Tuesday, Durden had picked up a loaf of bread and premade salad from the pantry. Both were a day past the expiration date. “If you need it, you have no choice,” said Durden.
And even if he had the money to shop at Whole Foods and Berkeley Bowl, both are about a mile away from the plaza.
A study published in 2011 by the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which is part of the United States Treasury, found that if you are black, you are more than twice as likely to live in an area where there are fewer grocery stores than if you are white.
According to the US Census, the plaza is in a neighborhood that is 27.9 percent white and 47.3 percent black, while the neighborhood surrounding Oakland’s Whole Foods store is 73.4 percent white and 4.5 percent black.
The neighborhood that surrounds the plaza is filled with small, one-family homes, and the median income among residents is $29,805. A mile away near Whole Foods, the median income is $68,958, according to the census.
If you live near the plaza accessing fresh food can be difficult. It’s dotted with convenience stores and not many of them sell produce.
“That’s not right,” said Sandra Franklin, 51, referring to the lack of fresh food in her neighborhood. Franklin lives right around the corner from the plaza and had dropped by to pick up two heads of lettuce for a salad.
She typically shops up the street from the Plaza at J & B Fine Foods Market, a sort of bodega, where she says they have everything except fresh lettuce. She’ll spend between $100 and $150 dollars a week on groceries there, so free produce at the plaza helps to keep her grocery bill down and provides a more pleasant shopping experience.
Franklin uses an electric wheelchair and until her local grocery store widened its aisles, she had difficulty navigating and would sometimes accidentally knock things over. Picking up produce at the plaza allows her to take her time and chat with friends. She also appreciates the community that’s built around free food, saying, “It brings people together like a puzzle.”
By 3 p.m. about a half-dozen people had come to pick up lettuce, chard, and beets. Keith Lewis rolled by on his bike to pick up a handful of bell peppers. “I don’t know what I’m cooking up,” said Lewis, but bell peppers go with just about everything.
“This is what I need for the misses,” said Lassandro Donte Gant-Wilson, a 60-year-old operations manager at several churches, who picked up bell peppers and broccoli before biking back home.
Robert Woods, 78 and on his way back to San Francisco discovered the produce for the first time on his bike ride. He picked up a head of chard.
Others found vegetables they wouldn’t have encountered in their local grocery store. “I’m not sure what this is,” said one man picking up a large zucchini, “but I’m open to new experiences.”
As the sun set on the plaza there were still two full boxes of produce. The leftovers were taken to be composted at Dover Park, where Phat Beets grows some of the produce.