Race and food justice on the menu at Berkeley event

From left: Bryant Terry, David Roach, Kelly Carlisle, Michael McBride, Karissa Lewis, Shaniece Alexander. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
From left: Bryant Terry, David Roach, Kelly Carlisle, Michael McBride, Karissa Lewis, Shaniece Alexander. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Addressing a packed auditorium at the Ed Roberts Campus on Saturday, former Black Panther Judy Juanita recounted the history of the group’s Free Breakfast for School Children program.

Begun in Oakland in 1969, the Panther program served thousands of children breakfast daily in cities across the country.

Despite its widespread success, Juanita told the audience, the Black Panthers never considered the program a solution. The free breakfast initiative—which J. Edgar Hoover called “potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for”— was considered a “survival program.”

Juanita was the keynote speaker for “A Community Forum on Black Liberation and the Food Movement,” a public event organized by UC Berkeley’s Berkeley Food Institute along with about a dozen partners. A panel and several group discussions throughout the day covered a range of topics, from the traumatic legacy of slavery on African-Americans’ relationship with food production and land, to the contemporary black culinary scene, food insecurity, and the whiteness of the food justice movement. The event culminated in a free dinner provided by Miss Ollie’s restaurant.


“We anticipated that it might be a good idea to do this after the election,” said Kara Young, a graduate student fellow at BFI who organized the event, in her introduction. The organizers suspected people might need to be “nourished and fed,” she said.

More than 100 people attended a Nov. 19 event on racial justice and food. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
More than 100 people attended a Nov. 19 event on racial justice and food. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The event began with a panel of speakers who work in diverse capacities in the local racial and food justice movements.

The results of the presidential election came up often throughout the afternoon. Some of the speakers said the election has only made more clear to white Americans the deep-seated racism that black Americans have long been aware of.

“Our worst obstacle in the Bay Area won’t be Donald Trump,” said Pastor Michael McBride, founder of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley. “It will be the average progressive person that we walk by every day who will still not believe that the pain of their brother and sister and loved one is not the pain of their own.”

People of color experience “violence at the hands of the state” daily, said McBride. That violence, he said, encompasses “violence from scarcity.”


About 13% of U.S. households were food-insecure in 2015, by USDA metrics. That portion jumps to 21.5% for black households.

McBride, who used to direct student services at Berkeley Technology Academy, recalled how many students would come to class hungry.

“The only food they could afford to buy was Hot Cheetos and Cup Noodles across the street at the liquor store,” he said. The pastor helped organize black and Latina mothers, who demanded, successfully, that the store stock fresh produce.

Several panelists and discussion leaders were involved in other East Bay efforts to reduce food insecurity among people of color as well.

Kelly Carlisle presented on her organization Acta Non Verba, a non-profit urban farm in East Oakland. The farm’s programs are open to local elementary and middle school students, who grow, harvest, and sell the crops. The organization sets up education savings accounts for each participant.


Beans and other produce growing at Obsedian Farm in Oakland. Photo, taken in 2103, by Obsidian/Facebook
Beans and other produce growing at Obsidian Farm in Oakland. Photo, taken in 2103, by Obsidian/Facebook

Wanda Stewart, who led one of the many group discussions that followed the panel, runs a nearly entirely edible farm in her South Berkeley yard. She sells, swaps, and distributes the crops from Obsidian Farm and said she aims to help other black Bay Area residents grow their own food. Another South Berkeley urban farm, the Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project, was represented too. Kanchan Hunter from the non-profit nursery and community farm led a group discussion as well.

Throughout the event, many speakers commented on the over-representation of white people in food-related social work, philanthropy, and policy.

Shaniece Alexander, executive director of the Oakland Food Policy Council, described the frustration she has experienced as the only black person working for social service programs, including at an urban farm with a workforce development program on the south side of Chicago. She said she regularly felt that directors of programs were oblivious to the realities of poverty and the needs of the clients. In other cases, she found that organizations were primarily dedicated to satisfying white donors.

There is often a misalignment between the agendas of social service programs and policy, according to Alexander. Food grown in a school garden cannot always legally be served in a school cafeteria, for example. The Oakland Unified School District, however, recently committed to purchasing healthier food for its meal program.

The school garden at Berkeley Technology Academy. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The school garden at Berkeley Technology Academy. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The gap between policy and community needs, some speakers said, is often a result of people of color not being included in decision-making processes.

“How do we blacken the food justice movement?” said Karissa Lewis, interim executive director of the Center for Third World Organizing and the program director at People’s Grocery.

Food and racial justice, Lewis and others argued, will require white people to step down from certain professional and social positions, turning instead to work in their own communities.

“We need white folks to organize other white folks,” said Lewis, a member of the Bay Area chapter of Black Lives Matter.

The movement, which started in Oakland, is part of an active black-led organizing scene in the Bay Area.

Alexander, who moved to Oakland a year ago after living in Detroit and Chicago, said she felt galvanized by the sheer amount of action around racial and food justice in the Bay Area.

“The energy behind grassroots organizing is huge,” she said, gesturing to her fellow speakers. “You have a panel of all people who are black. I have never experienced this.”

Community members, she said, reiterating a point made throughout the event, must be involved in the conversations and decisions that shape that community.

Related:
Already a leader, OUSD ups ante on feeding students (10.20.16)
‘Afro-Vegan’ chef gets Berkeley students cooking (3.2.16)
For Sale sign at Spiral Gardens met with confusion, alarm (12.29.14)
Berkeley Pastor Michael McBride: Brown’s death was the final straw that galvanized communities across the nation (12.08.14)

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