Race, Money and Food: Talking To The Oakland Food Policy Council

Attendees on the Mexican Bus during the Oakland Food Policy Council's Wine Soul Train event. (Vic Pantelone)

When the Sacramento book club Sistahs on the Reading Edge, composed of ten black women and one white woman, was kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train for making too much noise--among other complaints, they were accused of laughing too loudly--the outcry was immediate. The CEO quickly apologized, but the story was already picked up nationally from ABC to BET, and the hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack went viral. Locally, the Oakland Food Policy Council knew they had to respond. They put together the Wine Soul Train, a tour of black, Asian and Latino-owned wineries via the colorful “Mexican Bus.” The event was a success, quickly selling out, and the council hopes to continue hosting the event in the future.

The event was the perfect example of the Oakland Food Policy Council’s approach to combating the city’s food issues: focusing on actionable, specific ways to create a more equitable food system while examining the deeper, systemic racial and economic inequities that lead to such an unequal system in the first place.

The council is the result of a 2006 report then mayor Jerry Brown commissioned on the state of food and hunger in Oakland. The report called for the formation of a council to address issues within Oakland’s food system, and the council officially formed in 2009.

Now, the council is made up of 21 members who are divided into four main areas of focus: economic security and development, food access, procurement policy and urban agriculture. All meetings are open to the public.

In just a few years, the council has made impressive strides. They’ve worked to get food trucks allowed in areas where they were previously prohibited, helped increase the amount of food insecure residents signed up for food assistance programs, and last year, they published the “Hustle Guide,” which covers everything people need to know to start their own mobile or cottage food business. One of their biggest accomplishments was their “Right To Grow” campaign, which helped push the Oakland city council to relax the permitting around urban agriculture, making it easier for residents to grow their own food.

A meeting of the Oakland Food Policy Council
A meeting of the Oakland Food Policy Council (Oakland Food Policy Council)

Over the last few years, they’ve also made an internal shift to viewing food issues through the lens of racial and economic inequities--mainly in part due to their current executive director, Esperanza Pallana.

Esperanza Pallana.
Esperanza Pallana. (Russell Yip/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris)

As soon as Pallana read an article about the council's formation, she knew she wanted to get involved. But when she attended the first meetings in 2009, she was disenchanted with what she saw: a sea of white faces--she estimated that over 80% of the council was white--who were mainly academics and professionals.

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Pallana wanted a more representative council, one that not only reflected the ethnic makeup of the city, but the diversity of community leaders already working in the city.

“We’re not really a council if we’re not actually representing the community,” she said. “Since our focus is equity and sustainability, our target is definitely working to transform the food system to be equitable. We need the folks who are living the inequities in that food system to be part of the work, to be informing us--and really at the end of the day--leading us.”

While her first attempts to join the council were unsuccessful, she persisted, and in 2011, she came on as executive director.

When the council began, their main focus was sustainability. Now, under Pallana’s leadership, the council has shifted to emphasize equity as their guiding principle. “Our emphasis is in equity because we really understand that equity is the first step to sustainability,” she said. “You can’t have--you will not have--a sustainable system if you do not have an equitable system.”

What would an equitable food system look like in Oakland? In the council’s eyes, it would mean an Oakland where food service workers work in fair working conditions for a living wage. It would also mean getting rid of the disparities caused by wealth inequalities, which lead to radically different life expectancies: a commonly cited Alameda County Public Health Department report states that, on average, a black person living in West Oakland will die almost 15 years earlier than a white person born in the Oakland Hills.

Many food organizations base their programs on the idea of food literacy, which typically entails going into at-risk communities and teaching them the basics of cooking and eating, and lecturing on what foods are healthy and unhealthy. Pallana says this can lead to a pedantic, unintentionally condescending approach that ends up alienating the people they’re trying to reach.

“[Food literacy] culturally tends to be very Eurocentric and did not resonate with communities of color. The phrase itself, ‘food literacy’ implies that there are people who are food illiterate,” she said. “That kind of sets a power dynamic that there are some people that are more literate on food than others, and I think when it comes to food and culture, I just don’t see that to be the case.”

Decolonize Your Diet

Now, the OFPC tries to work within communities, to draw on the knowledge that’s already there, and encourage people to eat healthy foods that are culturally relevant and accessible to them. On Dia de Los Muertos (November 1), the council is hosting hosting a launch party for a book that covers this topic: Decolonize Your Diet, by Oakland authors Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel. Calvo, a professor of Ethnic Studies at Cal State East Bay and Esquibel, an associate professor in Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University, are partners. When Calvo was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, they shifted their diet to one full of traditional vegetarian Mexican foods. The book's subtitle is "Mexican-American Plant-Based Recipes for Health and Healing," and the two emphasize that a diet based on what their ancestors ate--corn, beans, squash--can help reverse some of the damage of a harmful, modern day standard American diet. This new intersectional approach to food justice has also coincided with a demographic shift on the council: Pallana said that this year’s council is only 38% white.

Attendees board the "Wine Soul Train" (aka the Mexican Bus) at the Council's recent event
Attendees board the "Wine Soul Train" (aka the Mexican Bus) at the Council's recent event (James Johnson-Piett)

Pallana is optimistic about the council’s future, and the city’s commitment to food justice issues, pointing to Mayor Schaaf’s appointment of Jose Corona as Director of Equity and Strategic Partnerships: “She couldn't have picked a better person, and it definitely gave me a sense that she is getting people who have demonstrated that they are committed to the issue of economic equity.”

But even with the city’s support, the OFPC has been struggling with their future. The influx of wealth into Oakland the last few years has led to a changing demographic makeup and more money coming into the city, but it doesn’t mean that Oakland’s hunger problems have gotten better. In fact, they’ve gotten worse: in their 2010 report, the Alameda County Food Bank reported that 1 in 6 members of Alameda County rely on their services. In 2014, that number was 1 in 5.

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“The constant economic shift is hard,” Pallana said. “We’re doing this work so our Oakland residents can have stronger, healthier communities. We’re working with our community, within it, as part of it. And if economic forces are such that [residents are] actually being displaced out of Oakland, then all this great work that we’re doing, who is it for? Who’s going to benefit?”

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