San Francisco’s Bayview district struggles to emerge from food desert

‘It definitely has an impact on your psyche’

Tiffany Carter grew up eating food grown in her grandmother’s backyard. Plums, lemons and apples would fall from tree branches and practically land on her plate. Crunchy collard greens harvested from the same garden were a mealtime staple.

But Carter’s childhood is not the norm in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, where she grew up. Today, most residents don’t even enjoy access to a well-stocked grocery store much less a backyard garden.

“It definitely has an impact on your psyche,” she said of the lack of food options. “San Francisco is known as a food city. People literally come from all around the world to eat here, but they’re not coming to the Bayview.”

Food desert

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a “food desert” as a “low-income census tract where a substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”

By that definition, the vast majority of the 94124 ZIP code — which encompasses Bayview-Hunters Point — qualifies.

There are just two existing large-scale grocers in the Bayview neighborhood — Grocery Outlet and Foods Co. — but neither of these stores meets the needs of the community, especially when it comes to offering fresh produce and a range of options for ingredients.

Residents have rallied for years for a permanent solution, but many of the more upscale brands have scoffed at the idea of entering the neighborhood. Others have come and gone. Fresh and Easy closed in 2013. Duc Loi’s Pantry closed in 2019.

“We have been a food desert, and people outside of Bayview have been OK with it,” said Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the neighborhood. “Things are changing, but only because we’re focusing on bringing more food security.”

The result is widespread food insecurity, or uncertainty, around how to obtain enough food to maintain a healthy diet. People instead turn to corner stores and gas stations where shelves are lined with processed products, or they go without eating enough food entirely.

“Anyone who thinks (food security) is an abstract concept has the privilege of already having those things,” said LySlynn Lacoste, executive director of community organization BMAGIC. “I think what families are fighting for is just the basic, the minimum, so they can have what others very much take for granted.”

Carter, who tries to connect her grandmother’s cooking with fresh produce at her Boug Cali restaurant hopes to change people’s idea of what’s possible for the Bayview and the people who live there.

“We didn’t know about farmers’ markets and other options,” she said of much of her upbringing. “It took me getting outside of my community and seeing other things going on in different neighborhoods. We want Whole Foods here.”

There’s a straight line between the health risks endured by Bayview residents and the lack of healthy food available nearby.

According to the 2019 Community Needs Assessment, a report issued by the San Francisco Department of Health every three years, inadequate nutrition and a lack of physical activity contribute to nine of the leading 15 causes of premature death in San Francisco: heart failure, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, prostate cancer, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s, breast cancer and lung cancer.

The 94124 ZIP code has consistently yielded some of the poorest health indicators compared to others citywide. Residents here are more likely to experience cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the area has one of the highest rates of preventable emergency room visits and obesity in San Francisco.

“People have said it’s because of genetics and poverty, meaning it was Black people’s fault,” said Michelle Pierce, executive director of Bayview-Hunters Point Community Advocates, a local nonprofit. “Yet, we continue to have the same health outcomes. That means it’s not a genetic thing. There are environmental exposures that need to be addressed.”

Advocates, community leaders and elected officials point to a number of interventions to increase food access in the Bayview and, consequently, improve the health of residents.

Mutual aid

Bayview-Hunters Point has been devastated by the pandemic. As of Nov. 11, it had the highest case rate of any neighborhood in The City by a longshot: 1,377 confirmed positive cases per 10,000 residents, according to DPH data. Next closest is the Tenderloin with 970 cases per 10,000 residents.

The neighborhood demonstrated the power of mutual aid among community members. Pop-up food banks and home delivery services for seniors sprung up almost immediately, and tenured community institutions such as the Bayview Opera House and the YMCA took on increased service delivery and support.

They provided all kinds of help, but these groups shared one main element in common: the power of established relationships.

Brittney Doyle was already operating WISE Health, a public health organization that does consulting and projects in underserved communities, when the pandemic struck. She was able to start home delivery of food the same day the shelter-in-place issue went into effect, a feat she attributes to existing trust and knowing how to provide food that people will actually eat.

“I know the participants and their families, and I have insight into what the community really needs,” she said. “With that established relationship, I could pivot my business real quick and identify needs.”

The City has allocated funding and other support to grassroots groups fighting food security. But a December 2020 report from the COVID-19 Command Center, which led much of San Francisco’s emergency response operations, found that coordination among local government, existing organizations that can deliver food at scale and these grassroots groups should improve.

“While this coordination is beginning to occur on an ad hoc basis, the development of a sustainable strategy for coordinating these partnerships is needed to ensure fear or distrust is not a barrier for individuals needing to access food support programs,” it reads.

‘Food empowerment market’

Food banks and other delivery models are essential for the time being, but the ultimate goal of many community members is that Bayview residents enjoy the right to choose their own food.

“The food bank is your Whole Foods. The food bank is your Safeway,” said Gina Frommer, CEO of the San Francisco Children’s Council. “It’s wonderful that it’s available, but there’s no choice.”

Enter the “food empowerment market,” a place for people to pick up the foods they want, either at a discounted price or for free. Shoppers could choose their own ingredients, and they’d also have access to a community kitchen or delivery services for seniors and people with limited mobility.

The idea was born from legislation introduced by District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai that allocates $1.5 million from the Human Services Agency toward the project. It would be run by a local nonprofit, yet to be selected, and occupy a storefront in the neighborhood. One option that’s been suggested by residents is the now-shuddered Duc Loi’s Pantry on Third Street, but that decision would come as part of a bidding process run by The City.

Walton supports the idea, saying it would provide residents with unprecedented healthy choices, and he’s hopeful The City will get behind any deal struck between the current owners of the vacant space and the Human Services Agency.

Focus on seniors and families

Latino and Black seniors are twice as likely to be food insecure in San Francisco, according to The City’s COVID-19 Command Center report. Many of them live in Bayview-Hunters Point and historically have low rates of enrollment in distribution and food delivery programs, making them hard to reach.

Families experience the risks of living in a food desert early and intensely.

Nearly 27% of pregnant Latina mothers and 20% of Black mothers in San Francisco don’t know where their next healthy meal is coming from. Children from those same families are also the most likely to consume fast food than their white peers.

“We see kids coming into centers hungry,” said Frommer. “Children that are hungry do not learn. Children that are hungry are angry.”

Any and all efforts to combat food insecurity should focus on seniors and families, two groups especially vulnerable to food insecurity, advocates and officials say. Doing so doesn’t just make for healthier communities, it starts down the path toward ensuring equity in opportunity and access for all residents.

“This would not happen for white children in San Francisco,” Frommer said.

Carly Graf wrote this story while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship. cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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