Food System Challenges and Opportunities: the Bay Area Example, pt. 2

Apr 23, 2020Perspectives, Shared Prosperity, Strategy

This is the second installment in a series discussing the challenges and opportunities unique to the California Bay Area’s Food System.

by Michaela Crunkelton Wilson

Before the days of Covid-19, if one walked down Market Street in San Francisco’s Financial District at lunch time, it would be bustling with men and women in their business professional attire, speed-walking back to their offices with an expensive fast-casual, local, organic salad in hand. Or perhaps the cheaper pre-made soup from Trader Joe’s. As one continued walking closer to the less wealthy neighborhoods of Civic Center and Tenderloin, the smattering of homeless people slowly turned commonplace, most likely begging for help or counting coins they’ve collected in hopes they have enough to buy something from the number of non-local, non-organic, but much cheaper fast-food chains and street vendors that stand in stark contrast to the fast-casuals of the Financial District.

This small anecdote is representative of the hyper-locality of inequality in the Bay Area. Inequality that routinely prevents good food – or food that sustains the health of the planet and its people – from getting to those who need it. Layer on top of this a global pandemic that exacerbates these inequalities, yet ironically, also provides it hope for change.

The good news is that good food can be almost anything, as long as it is real (not heavily processed), and diverse enough to ensure a balanced diet. The bad news: For many Californians, good food is a long shot, they’re not even getting access to food – 1 in 8 Californians currently struggle with food insecurity (defined by the California Association of Food Banks as the “occasional or constant lack of access to the food one needs for a healthy, active life”). And this is despite the fact that California produces nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.[1] So, while there is no shortage of good food, the downstream effects of inequitable distribution and consumer access and affordability impact the qualities and quantities of available food, especially for lower income populations.[2]

One of the primary manifestations of inequitable distribution is the fact that many low-income communities live in food deserts, where access to affordable good food is hard to come by. Not unlike the anecdote above, there seems to be an inverse correlation with median household income, and quality of food options available: the poorer the neighborhood, the more liquor stores and fast-food chains instead of grocery stores. Why? Because food follows money, and money follows food, and where there is not a lot of money, there is not a lot of food.

Just think about the causes and effects of transforming a food desert into an oasis. Often, a grocery store is built in a community as a result of gentrification, simply pushing old communities into new food deserts.[3] Yet even if that is not the case, and a grocery store is built in a low-income community to help remove the physical barriers of access, diets probably won’t change given the price-tag barrier of affordability.[4] As a result, low-income consumers are being left behind with access only to unhealthy foods, resulting in obesity (almost of quarter of adults in California are considered obese), diabetes (almost half of Californian adults are prediabetic or undiagnosed), nutritional deficiencies, and other chronic yet avoidable diet-related illnesses.[5]

Moreover, these systemic inequities have been worsened almost overnight due to the global coronavirus pandemic, truly separating the haves from the have-nots. Families of kids who rely on free or reduced-price lunches at school are now facing exponential hardships – statistics mention as many as 17 of 20 low-income students experience hunger each summer, and “summer” has come much earlier this year.[6] Restaurant workers who already operate under razor thin margins have gone from supplying an abundance of food to communities, to the realities of not knowing how they might feed even their own families due to layoffs and shutdowns. Food truckers, among the many hidden heroes of the food chain, face new logistical nightmares threatening not only their own jobs but also access to food for all of us.[7] And those privileged enough among us able to hoard food in a panic, leave shelves empty for people who are not so sure where the next pay check, or meal, might come from.

Yet, in a beautiful way, because the global pandemic has exacerbated challenges of the food system to the brink of imminent dissolution, it has also created the communities necessary to keep the food system afloat. News outlets and social media have been invaluable platforms to connect the haves with the have-nots. Farmers, restaurants, and nonprofit organizations share their stories, and communities come together to provide them the support they need. People have come to realize we are in this together, that without one component of the food system in place, we all suffer. And the simple awareness of what parts are hurting the most, allow people to take action to try and mend it.

Additionally, as seed packets and active dry yeast are wiped clean from the shelves, awareness is growing for what it takes to produce food. Before this pandemic, consumers expected unsustainably cheap food, and were too far removed from the production process to understand the social and environmental implications of their food choices. Perhaps the increased proximity to the food production process will now create greater appreciation for and awareness of the true costs of labor from a farm’s seed, nourishment, harvesting, cleaning, packing, distributing, shelving, selling, and preparing, to fork. One can only hope a deeper understanding of food will also bring a deeper understanding of the implications of a race to the bottom, shifting convenience-centric consumption habits and expectations.

Above all, as COVID increases people’s openness to leveraging community networks to address issues of access and affordability, the hope is that case exemplars have the opportunity to become the norm, and long-standing visions have the opportunity to come to fruition. Take the Community Foods Market in West Oakland, for example, whose doors opened in 2019 to provide accessible, nutritious food to the community for the first time since the 1970s. Built with the advisory of the historically low-income community itself, Community Foods Market is slowly dissociating the words ‘food desert’ from West Oakland, without deliberate gentrification.[8]Imagine a world where this process can be routinely replicated.

Or take, perhaps, the handful of Bay Area actors who have been envisioning new economic models of production and consumption in which public and private actors can help cover the short-term costs of the transition to sustainability, so people and planet do not suffer the consequences of excluding negative externalities in today’s food pricing. Visions of wealthy private sector consumers paying more for their own food procurement so that others can pay less, but lacking the networks and policies in place to do so. One Bay Area food hub that connects smallholder farmers with food programs within wealthy tech companies has long understood the potential to apply this idea to their own distribution networks: Perhaps less wealthy organizations in geographic proximity – such as hospitals and schools – can achieve lower costs by piggybacking on the distribution networks already employed by wealthier consumers.[9] Now more than ever, there seems a possibility to do so.

We shouldn’t have to live in a society where only those customers who are both driven by values of health and sustainability, and also have the luxury of paying the price tag associated with it – are the only ones that can sustainably engage in a good food system. Therefore, with more awareness, community engagement, and improved community networks, actors across the food chain can co-create solutions for more equitable distribution and sustainable consumption. As we are already seeing, the global pandemic is exacerbating the challenges we face, yet also accelerating the solution: communities and networks that cross socio-economic barriers.

[1] “Hunger Fact Sheet,” California Association of Food Banks.

[2] Pera, Rob. “Regina Anderson Talks Food Recovery Network, COVID-19.” Food Tank, March 2020.

[3] Cohen, Nevin. “Feeding or Starving Gentrification: The Role of Food Policy.” Cuny Urban Food Policy Institute, March 2018.

[4] Devitt, James. “New Stores in ‘Food Deserts’ Don’t Change What People Eat,” Futurity, December 2019.

[5] “Hunger Fact Sheet,” California Association of Food Banks.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Singh, Jay and Sam Bloch. “I’m a produce trucker. Covid-19 has made my life a logistical nightmare.” The Counter, Mar 2020.

[8] Bitker, Janelle. “Community in need getting a food oasis as market comes to West Oakland.” The San Francisco Chronicle, April 2019.

[9] “Farm to Workplace,” Panel Discussion, Slow Food South Bay