Are you ready for the Harvest?



My dad was born in 1917 in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, a once-bustling county seat that is now an underpopulated, industry-less ghost town. Every Christmas, he received books, maybe some sort of luxury clothing, like intact gloves, and apples and oranges. Seventy years later, he was still delighted by the books, and awed by that fruit.

Californian through and through, I have always been surrounded by bounty. Even then, growing up, avocados were a special treat in which my parents and I absolutely luxuriated.

After demanding avocado on every sandwich, salad, and burger, sometimes I forget how good they are. And then, when I’ve spaced out at home, I look down and see a half, snug in my left hand, and a spoon in my right, and watch the latter lovingly slide its own way into the fruit. I get to bask in its perfect texture and maddening oils, and remember that, yes, I am lucky, and, yes, this world is amazing.

Here, in this godforsaken flat, mispurposed land, I cannot find a real avocado to save my damn life. I dream of one that hasn’t been rendered flaccid by freezing and un- and freezing and de-. I fantasize about the right shade of green that so clearly denotes perfection, instead of the rows of pallid ghosts ubiquitous at bodegas and Whole Foods. I ache for those made in the image of God, and not in the image of man.

My mecca is a store called Berkeley Bowl, whose produce section is the size of the Northwestern Law atrium and has the product breadth of the Taipei Night Market and prices that make Ikea look downright offensive. It is a marvelous, marvelous, beautiful place, blocks from downtown Berkeley, accessible to Cal students and commuters, alike, and its new sister store is even more convenient for we Californians with cars, freeway access, and white-collar work hours. If that’s not enough, my old neighborhood had a Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, as well as various bakeries and delis, and was within walking distance of at least five farmers’ markets.

While central Berkeley and central Oakland are, frankly, epicurean Timbuktus, even affordable bounty is not necessarily accessible bounty. While those of us who live in Rockridge, Temescal, Uptown, Crocker Highlands, Adams Point, Grand Lake, and Piedmont have one grocery store for 4000 or so residents, the store:resident ratio in both West and East Oakland is 1:25,000. TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND.

In practical terms: West Oakland has no major supermarket, although it does have the Mandela Foods Coop. South and East of Laurel, East Oakland has zero supermarkets. Hundreds of thousands have zero supermarket access. Most of the time, they have to get their groceries from their corner stores. While this, in and of itself, would not necessarily be a bad thing, corner stores hardly are known for stocking healthy food, or for providing a particularly inspiring grocery-shopping experience.

Moreover, the same product almost always costs significantly more at the corner store than it does at the grocery store. Finally, even the same grocery chain will charge less for the same item in the suburbs than in the city (and remember, doesn’t even build a market in the ‘hood). Why? Because it knows suburban residents have access to cars, free time, and information, and utilize these tools to get a bargain. (How many times have you driven 30 minutes to get to Costco? Once a week?)

Access is improving. Great organizations work in both wealthy and impoverished communities to improve access to healthy food and lifestyles. Oakland sponsors farmers’ markets across the city, not just in Grand Lake.

However, sporadic markets, no matter how delicious, simply do not adequately address food insecurity. Combating food insecurity requires accessible and convenient institutions on which people can actually rely. Random stands, once per week, aren’t there for you when you’re making dinner. A co-op usually isn’t open when you get off work at 1 AM. When your only free chunk of daylight is Sunday morning, you shouldn’t have to choose between spiritual and physical sustenance.

Even I, in my position of profound privilege, have been in situations in which I had to pick soda over milk, or greasy food over fresh, because it would make my meal points last. I’ve eaten drive-through dinners for months on end because my job didn’t let me get where I needed to go. If I’ve been unable to acquire the food my privilege has allowed me to know I should consume, what about the socially immobile? Why should they both be victimized and patronized by our upper-class-service paradigms?

*church bulletin sign on West Grand; it’s read this since at least June 2007


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