Q&A with Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland's Councilmember At-Large

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 9 years old.

Rebecca Kaplan. Photo by Alison Yin
Rebecca Kaplan. Photo by Alison Yin

Rebecca Kaplan has been an Oakland City Councilmember since 2008 and this month celebrated getting over 61 percent of the vote in an instant runoff election. Kaplan is openly gay and has spent her time in office championing equality, public safety, economic development -- with food playing an important role -- and other issues relevant to the port city. Kaplan talked with us recently about the election, what’s next, and why she really wants a Jewish deli in Oakland.

Food production and dining are central to her plans to help Oakland grow economically. Kaplan helped introduce the food pod events that allow gourmet food trucks to operate legally. During our interview, she was enthusiastic about Oakland, and things like the expanded hours for the free Broadway shuttle, which runs to popular restaurant-dense areas and is a “great way for people to explore the hot, hopping scene here.” Kaplan’s comments have been edited for length and grammar.

Bay Area Bites: How does it feel to have won the election?
Kaplan: It feels great. I’m really happy of course for my own victory with 61 percent but also for the bigger picture. It's a great moment for Oakland. We have several folks coming on to the city council and the people who ran the most divisive campaign, lost. It’s a really healthy moment. The division and negativity did not prevail. I think we’ll have a more functional city council dynamic going forward.

Bay Area Bites: What are your goals for food policy, urban agriculture & animal husbandry?
Kaplan: The food industry is one of the remarkable success stories in Oakland. We have restaurants and growing food manufacturers. Blue Bottle, Linden Street Brewery, wineries, and Numi tea, Back to the Roots and Hodo Soy are all here.

Food is a great thing to have for community vibrancy. It’s a very strong element for Oakland’s second development and creates quite a lot of jobs. It's important that we support the food sector. There’s a lot more demand and we can really harness that here since we have the retail space.


For gardening and farming, that’s a great growth area that is creating new vibrancy in the Uptown area and contributing to our economic revitalization. Now we have the food pods with Bites on Broadway. The food truck cluster events were not allowed -- that was a law that I changed and now we have seen great growth. Another change is to allow home gardening of tomatoes or basil or other edibles as a business. It’s also better for the environment when we’re not transporting produce so far and it's also good for generating jobs.

Looking ahead, I see more of the micro industry and allowing people to develop that. We’re going to look at developing more licenses for shared commercial kitchens. If you’re going to make cupcakes, it has to be made in a commercial kitchen to be legal. So the small vendors can timeshare a license to produce a product for sale. That will include developing policies for animal products as well.

Bay Area Bites: It’s now legal to grow and sell fruits and vegetables at home, but big controversy remains around the idea of having residents raise and slaughter (process) animals for food consumption. The rules around slaughter are still being debated & appear to be a potential bellwether nationally. What are your thoughts on this?
Kaplan: There may be a shared, smaller facility that micro producers and home producers can bring their animals to for processing. We just started discussions and will have details in probably a few months. I think that would be a great innovation to have here.

Bay Area Bites: What else is happening on the food front?
Kaplan: We would also do more economic development for food manufacturing particularly as fuel prices go up and it costs more to transport things and more people are aware of the environmental impact.

Community gardens will be a part of the overall picture. People haven’t been talking about droughts until the droughts hit the farm belt this summer. The droughts are real. They aren’t going away. The notion that we’ll continue with monocropping and ship produce around the world will not be sustainable. We’re incredibly blessed here. We have the public, we have the climate, we have enough rainfall, and it’s not too hot or too cold. It’s not true everywhere in the country. We can easily grow everything from fruit trees to vegetables as well as raise livestock.

Another nice sign is we have the micro home beekeepers so we’ll have pollinators. The Midwest is suffering from bee colony collapse. We’ll have honey and pollinators.

One new project is the Oakland unified school district will develop a large commercial shared kitchen with a farm onsite. Instead of our kids being fed bad things, there will be a centrally located space operated by the school that will include culinary training. They will actually prepare food and grow vegetables and students will get training in culinary arts.

Bay Area Bites: You are out as a lesbian. You were successful in repealing Oakland's Immoral Dress Code 9.08.080 which was instituted in 1879 to ban cross-dressing and was still on the books. Have you ever experienced discrimination in your work life?
I have experienced discrimination but not so much in Oakland. I came out when I was 17 and went to college in Boston, where I dealt a lot with a variety of anti-gay challenges including drunk frat boys yelling and throwing bottles at me. At MIT I helped pass an anti-discrimination policy on campus.

There has certainly been less than that in Oakland. [Discrimination] may take a more subtle form, where people may not be included in positions of leadership. Are LGBT people being respected and included? It’s not just about not having rocks and bottles thrown.

I remember Rachel Maddow got her TV show in 2008 and that was the first time that anyone who looked like me was in such a prominent position. I get asked by LGBT constituents about whether LGBT people are being considered in police recruiting and positions on citizen commissions.

I also want to make sure I don’t talk about the negative half. Despite the work that we still have to do, I was voted in overwhelmingly. I think we’re in a very good place so far both in terms of what went on and where we’re at. Let’s look at the police and fire departments, the citizens’ commissions and make sure we expand those opportunities as well. We have significant homeless LGBT youth -- and we need to do something about that. Maybe people are thrown out of their home. That is something that has come up here. It was also a great election nationwide, with Tammy Baldwin winning, four states voting in same-sex marriage and we re-elected a President who supports equality for LGBT people.

Bay Area Bites: Where do you eat and shop?
Kaplan: One of the things that’s special about Oakland is we have the waterfront. Take Bocanova, where you can get drinks, snacks, or a whole meal, tapas style. It’s right over the water and they have outdoor seating -- it’s not on a street. The outdoor patio faces the boat slips on the water. Have good food and see something unique and beautiful.

I also like Mua, Picán and Plum.

Everett & Jones has serious BBQ, which I highly recommend.

Piedmont Grocery, is a really nice "one shotter" chain. People don’t realize but they carry just about everything, even though it doesn't look very big: organics and specialty and also more unusual things as well as regular grocery store stuff.

There’s an amazing Nature’s Best Foods on Jackson and 14th halfway between downtown and Lake Merritt -- they have bike racks, are very friendly and have kombucha. That’s always the test, “Do they have kombucha?”

Anyone who hasn’t been a part of Oakland's food fabulousity, come on down! We don’t have an old school Kosher deli. If anyone needs contacts, give me a call. Same for food manufacturing: we can help people find manufacturing zoned buildings and tax enterprise credits. If you’re making tofu, cheese, whatever.

Bay Area Bites: Are you Jewish? How and where do you celebrate the holidays?
Kaplan: Yes. I celebrate them in a variety of different places. This year we did a prayer service in the woods. I grew up in an Orthodox community and I teach Torah kind of anywhere I go. Oakland has more congregations per capita than any other city west of Mississippi. That’s a really powerful thing -- our faith based communities. There’s a wonderful opportunity to share in that with other churches and community.


Both in East Oakland Acts Full Gospel church and Allen Temple Baptist church work with people coming out of prison to recover their lives, get counseling, get placed in food industry, in construction. That’s a really important part in how we’ll succeed going forward. Disparate imprisonment is one of the most stark expressions of racial injustice and it is destroying people’s lives and families. We need to not be sending people to prison in the first place when they’re not a threat and we also need to work with these programs to help them get jobs and rebuild their lives.