‘This isn’t false hope, this is real hope.’ Oakland community groups meet growing food need during pandemic
on December 16, 2021
Every Tuesday, Maria Rodriguez waits in a line that stretches down the block on MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland, her 5-year-old daughter sitting patiently beside her. Rodriguez chats with other mothers from the neighborhood about what they might be picking up that day.
Crates of apples, carrots, potatoes, beans, eggs and diapers line the sidewalk. Masked volunteers warmly greet Rodriguez and hand her vegetables and canned food. At the Freedom Store, a food pantry started by Homies Empowerment, she’ll pick up enough free groceries to get her family through the week.
“It helps me not to worry about buying food,” she said in Spanish. “I can spend money on other things we need.”
Economic instability spurred by the pandemic has heightened the risk of food insecurity in Oakland. Smaller community-based organizations throughout the city have been stepping up for almost two years to meet the need to feed Oaklanders, providing culturally relevant food, social support and home necessities — needs that larger distribution efforts aren’t always able to accomplish.
Homies Empowerment, a youth development organization started in East Oakland in 2009, expanded in March 2020 to offer free groceries and other essentials to the Eastmont community. The Freedom Store, open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., serves 450 individuals weekly.
“We’re not going to solve hunger and poverty,” said JP Hailer, an organizer with Homies Empowerment. “But maybe in our neighborhood we can have a small impact here.”
Hailer said because Homies Empowerment staff and volunteers work closely with families, they can address specific needs. A large number of mothers with babies come to the store, so diapers and formula are provided regularly. Children receive backpacks, toys and reading materials. The Loaves and Fishes program delivers food to houseless people in East Oakland.
The Freedom Store stocks culturally relevant food, something harder to find at a large food bank. Many of the families in Eastmont who come to the store are from Guatemala, where the cuisine involves lots of potatoes for paches, a type of Guatemalan tamale. So it was important for the store to stock potatoes, said volunteer coordinator Lila Duran. Kitchen staff also cook rice and beans, tortas and whatever dishes community members ask for.
“East Oakland doesn’t get a lot of love,” Duran said. “This community gets left out of a lot of opportunities and resources. So we try to do our best to show them that there is an organization trying to provide for them specifically.”
Homies Empowerment started as a place for youth affected by gangs to participate in youth-led civic engagement programs and is staffed entirely by people of color. Since the start of the pandemic, the organization has shifted to offer food, cash aid, housing resources, and job search support. The organization is funded by mutual aid, grants and donations by neighborhood partnerships. Other Oakland organizations like East Bay Collective, Shiloh Mercy House and Trybe also offer free groceries.
Meeting the surging need
The pandemic has forced Oakland’s largest food distribution organization, the Alameda County Community Food Bank, to grow. The food bank, which receives federal funds, largely supplies local pantries throughout Oakland. Its distribution shot up to 28 million meals in the fiscal year before the pandemic and is projected at 48 million this year.
“There’s never been an equitable recovery from a recession like this,” said Michael Altfest, the food bank’s director of community engagement and marketing. “We are likely to be serving pandemic-related needs for many years to come.”
That includes increased spending, which has gone from $250,000 a month on food to over $1 million a month. The food bank has doubled shelving in its warehouse to meet that surge and deal with supply chain constraints, which includes ordering food earlier.
The organization usually doesn’t give food directly to people, though it does have regular food distribution drive-thrus. Instead, it gathers bulk food at a warehouse, which is then given to smaller food pantries such as Homies Empowerment and Shiloh Mercy House.
The joint work from smaller food pantries and the food bank are among the major efforts to combat food insecurity in Oakland, which has disproportionately affected neighborhoods with low-income and minority populations. But food banks aren’t able to provide for all residents who may need services. Food pantries fill in accessibility gaps with more convenient operating hours, closer access and can work on an individual basis for determining someone’s nutritional needs.
At Shiloh Mercy House, a food pantry run by Shiloh Church in East Oakland for over 30 years, neighbors can approach the counter and request exactly what they want, instead of being served a bag of food. The pantry was remodeled this year to become a community market. It was made a welcoming space with newer fixtures and natural lighting to keep people from feeling shame when they visited, said Jan Renee, an executive assistant at Shiloh Church.
“This is a new strategy on really empowering the community that needs food that they want to eat,” Renee said, who raised her four children with food from Shiloh Mercy House. “It’s extremely important to have that sense of dignity.”
The church has distributed more than a million pounds of food this year, giving out staples such as milk, produce and meats (it distributed roughly 300,000 pounds in 2019). The church hopes to launch a delivery service, but for now, around 40-plus families visit each weekday to get the food they need. People can make appointments up to twice a month to visit the community market, and dietary preferences are noted. About 10 volunteers work at the community market, many who live nearby.
“It’s not a handout,” said Shiloh Church events manager Jason Bautista. “It’s people wanting to help someone that’s literally next to you.”
Root causes go beyond poverty
Experts say city and countywide numbers likely do not show the full story of food insecurity and hunger. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers people food insecure if they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Data collected by Feeding America in 2019 for Alameda County estimated a food insecurity rate of 8.4%. But estimates from the UC San Francisco Health Atlas research program, which takes into account demographic variables, unemployment and poverty, places that number closer to 28%.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture survey on food insecurity usually excludes people who get meals from a food pantry. Surveys that ask questions about access to food may not take into account how some families know where their next meal will come from, but they’ve made sacrifices on other essentials to pay for meals.
While the root cause of food insecurity is poverty, a major factor that contributes to the growth is inequality, especially in historically redlined neighborhoods. Dr. Hilary Seligman, a UCSF physician, has researched COVID-19 related food insecurity and its impacts on health. Seligman said inequality creates tradeoffs between food and other necessities like housing.
“We know because of systematic racism, marginalized populations are at higher risks of food insecurity,” Seligman said.
Expanding eligibility and making enrollment easier for people applying for federal food assistance is needed to keep Americans fed, Seligman said.
Homies Empowerment organizers are trying to move away from the emergency response to the pandemic to more sustainable food options. The organization plans to lease a 20,000-square-foot plot in East Oakland to build a community farm and garden. Other plans for a community-owned and led cafe are being drafted by the organization. As its slogan “It takes a barrio” suggests, Homies Empowerment’s reach in the neighborhood spans education with a forthcoming high school program, housing assistance and health care.
“We have a pretty big dream,” Hailer said. “We’re talking about food sovereignty, how can we come together and create something that is sustainable so that we have nutritious food, and that folks have jobs, and that we are holding all of those means to production.”
Jeffrey Lopez Rico came on staff at Homies Empowerment a year ago. He smiles as he hands out canned beans and tuna to those in line at the Freedom Store. He’d been in a similar position not long ago, not knowing where his next meal would come from.
“This is not false hope, this is real hope,” he said.
Jeffrey Lopez Rico hands out canned goods at the Freedom Store by Homies Empowerment in Oakland. (MJ Johnson)
Christy Valencia (left) and Jill Elliott bag apples for the Alameda County Community Food Bank. (Michael Slaten)
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