voices from a food desert in a San Francisco neighborhood
By most measures, San Francisco is experiencing boom times. According to the 2010 U.S. Census median household income is $72,947, and it ranks fourth in the country for highest cost of living. But San Francisco’s bounty is not distributed evenly, and this disparity is apparent as you cross Highway 101 into the section of the city known as Bayview-Hunters Point. This four-square mile corner in the southeastern part of San Francisco has a median household income of $46,025,with one in five individuals living below poverty level. More pointedly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified this slice of the city as a food desert, which are defined as low income areas with limited access to healthy, affordable foods.
This designation doesn’t mean that residents of Bayview-Hunters Point can’t find local restaurant and markets. On Third Street, the area’s main commercial strip, there is a Taco Bell/KFC combo, a McDonald’s and Walgreens; at Third and Donner Avenue, there’s a recent and welcome addition: Fresh & Easy, a chain grocery store that sells fresh produce. So it’s clear that the term food desert doesn’t paint a complete picture of this food landscape.
“I don’t hear the term in common conversation,” says Jeffrey Betcher, a 15-year resident and co-founder of the Quesada Gardens Initiative, a network of urban gardens and community-building groups in Bayview-Hunters Point. Betcher clarifies,“The term ‘food swamp’ seems more accurate in that there’s food, but there’s a lack of easily obtainable healthy foods that people of different cultures like. Let’s put it this way: the neighborhood food landscape is improving all the time, but I still need to get on a bus or in a car to get a fresh carrot.”
But swamp or desert, many residents are just trying to get through their daily routines. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re missing or what their expectations of an area with healthy foods should be,” says Joel McClure, a resident of 12 years and a project leader of Bridgeview Community Teaching and Learning Garden in Bayview-Hunters Point. “They go to the supermarket, and they say ‘I wish this market had this,’ but they don’t know how to get the thing they want except to go outside of their neighborhood.”
For Asian-Americans in the area—roughly 31 percent of the population—it may be a problem, but so is making ends meet. “These are the newest of the new immigrants who are trying to make a living and survive. They don’t have much time to analyze whether or not they’re in a food desert,” says Ted Fang, president of Asian Week Foundation. This is part of the problem that leaders are trying to tackle. “On the whole, there doesn’t seem to be a huge demand of people asking for stores to carry fresh produce,” says Michael Pawluk, media director for the General Services Agency at City and County of San Francisco, who works to get people in different communities to meet and discuss issues pertaining to their neighborhood.
Little by little, however, community organizers in Bayview-Hunters Point have been changing the food landscape. In 2002, the Quesada Gardens Initiative began with two people planting flowers and vegetables where space allotted; now there are 3,500 members who volunteer. At last count, Quesada Gardens Initiative produced 10,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables in a year. “That’s not a lot—it’s really a day’s worth for the population, but we’re thinking about how to get more fruit trees in the area because they can really produce,” says Betcher.
For Mary and Joel McClure, project leaders for Bridgeview Community Teaching and Learning Garden, the transformation has also been slow but steady. Their own work to change a trash-filled, vacant lot into a productive garden took three years and support from Quesada Gardens Initiative, volunteers, and student volunteers from University of San Francisco Department of Architecture and Community Design, and they finally started producing fruits and vegetables in 2009. “We gave produce from our first production in the fall to the elderly neighbors on fixed income. One said,‘I want to thank you so much for giving me some of your produce. I didn’t realize how much money you saved me,’” says Mary McClure. “That was when I said, ‘Let’s triple the production.’ It’s not grand-scale commercial production by any means, but it’s enough to feed some people and for us to take home—and to take a blighted city lot and turn it into something really beautiful.”
Still, there is work to be done. There’s making sure that the immigrant Asian- American population feels included in the gardens. Then there’s funding. “Actual support for great grassroots projects like Quesada Gardens is not there,” says Betcher. “Even community foundation funding goes to larger, established organizations, or to governmental agencies, and public sector investments tends to grow governmental programming, sometimes at the expense of emerging community efforts. So we are exploring becoming a B corporation.”
The key takeaway from Bayview-Hunters Point is not that a handful of gardens in a rough, underserved neighborhood are the solution to a food desert. Rather, it’s the need for a strong network of people. “If we don’t have a strong community, the gardens can’t be sustainable,” Betcher says. “The hidden ingredient is social cohesion, and people working together to solve their own problems.”
Joel McClure knows this, too, as he looks ahead. “Bayview is a beautiful place, and it’s an opportunity to live in a community to find commonalities,” he says. “People no longer have misconceptions that Bayview is a dark and foreboding place. There’s money coming in, there’s more social cohesion, and people are starting to put demands on City Hall. We’re just happy to see these changes happen.”