Chef duo teams up to fight against food injustice and social inequity within San Francisco’s most un


Photo credit: The Hood Chefs

Pictured: Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway

Food Apartheid” are two words you rarely associate with San Francisco.

The city by the Bay

San Francisco is known for its incredibly steep hills, after all the city was built on 7 hills. The city’s breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean is a beautiful backdrop that can essentially be seen from just about anywhere within the city. The beautiful historical architecture, along with modern sleek skyscrapers, adds a unique, but classic San Francisco “flare” to the city.

The City’s demographic is one of the most multi-cultured, diverse groups of habitants, all living within a 46 mile radius. Residents, and tourists are able to experience deeply enriched, cultural traditions including, cuisines that span from countries around the globe.

San Francisco is hailed as one of the global leaders of tech innovation. The city has attracted some of today’s most innovative companies and the brilliant minds behind them. Local politicians have contributed greatly towards building a tech ecosystem that supports these organizations. Attractive tax breaks for tech companies, have increased the number of startups, willing to set up shop in the city.

Tech companies have access to a top tier talent pool of educated, highly skilled employees from all over the world. Employees are lured to work for companies that incentivizes individuals with high paying salaries, and the ability to cash in on the opportunity to build wealth through stock options and equity. In fact, the city is expected to see another wave of wealth, with IPO’s, soon to be public, and those who recently went public; Lyft, Slack, Postmates, Pinterest and Uber.

Where the wealth gap ends and begins for some San Francisco residents

In San Francisco, Black and African American residents experience poverty at nearly three times the average rate. Women still experience poverty at a higher rate than men.

Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway, are The Vegan Hood Chefs. Not only are both women natives of San Francisco, but they’ve equally witnessed over the years, social and economic strategies, that have negatively impacted their communities. The Bayview-Hunters district’s residents are the most underserved communities within San Francisco. While the rest of the city went through transformations of economic growth, Ronnishia and Rheema’s Lakeview and Bayview Hunter’s Point districts appeared to have been overlooked and somewhat forgotten.

Chef Ronnishia and Chef Rheema both grew up in San Francisco’s Lakeview and Bayview Hunter’s Point districts. At the time, the areas were made up primarily of Black and African American residents. Their neighborhoods were hit hard with crime and poverty that spanned over nearly 3 decades.

The Hunters Point neighborhood, is located in the Southeastern part of San Francisco that sits on the peninsula of the Bay. The neighborhood adjoins the Hunter Point Naval Shipyard. In the 1920s, the area had a population primarily made up of Italian and Maltese residents. By the 1940s, the Second World War brought an influx of Black migrants to San Francisco to work in the shipyards. The Navy commissioned shipbuilding operations to aid in World War II.

Some 20,000 workers is said to have migrated to the Bayview district causing a shortage of housing. The U.S. government responded by building 5,500 units in 1942. From the 1960s to 1980s, the U.S. government slashed jobs, and eventually closed the shipyard in 1988.

The closure devastated the community. Many skilled workers who were once reliant on the military for employment, found themselves unemployed. Over the next 30 years, the neighborhood underwent waves of high crime rates, poverty, and essentially businesses divested from the area.

As businesses closed in the Bayview Hunters Point district, so did grocery stores. Large supermarket chains declined to locate their stores within the neighborhoods.

With limited access to healthy, affordable food options, residents are left with choosing between feeding their families with processed food items, which are only shelved in most corner stores, or opt for fast food chains in the area.

The response heard around the neighborhood: Chef Ronnishia and Rheema

In 2017, Ronnishia and Rheema launched The Vegan Hood Chefs, to help fight against food justice and social inequity within San Francisco’s most underserved communities. The company provides catering services and educational cooking demos for disenfranchised communities.

In a new study, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Arizona State University found that fast food chains in predominantly black neighborhoods were more than 60 percent more likely to advertise to children than in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Lack of access to healthy food options have resulted in Black and African Americans having the highest mortality rate for 9 of the top 10 causes of death in San Francisco.

Residents in underserved communities, have the highest cases of diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity. Today, Residents in the Bayview Hunters Point district have less access to fresh and affordable produce than residents in San Francisco’s other neighborhoods.

Food deserts vs. Food Apartheid: Natural phenomenon or a “man-made issue”?

The Bayview district has been classified as a “food desert”, by the USDA .

What is a food desert?

Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.

Food justice activists reject the use of the term “Food desert”. Some say it downplays the structural inequities of deliberate, strategic decisions made partly by policy planning and economic development. “Food Apartheid”, is used in lieu of “Food Desert”. Food apartheid is a systemic human-created strategy.

As Hank Herrera, a long time food justice activist and policy advocate illustrates: "Some of us don't use the term "food desert" because a desert...is a natural phenomenon. Lack of access to fresh, healthy food is not natural. It is not accidental."

Why wouldn’t a supermarket chain want to locate their stores in the Bayview Hunter’s point district, and stay within the neighborhood?

We’ve seen organic retail chains pop up in neighborhoods all across the nation, including, Whole Foods. The Bayview Hunter’s point area has yet to see a retail chain willing to locate in the area.

In an effort to address the shortage of health food options within the area, the city used public funds to fund Duc Loi’s pantry in 2016. Owned by both Howard and Amanda Ngo. The duo owns two stores, a local grocery market on Third Street in San Francisco, and a store located in the mission which was shut down for health violations earlier this year.

The city awarded the Ngos a $250,000 grant for interior and exterior improvements, and helped them secure a $4.1 million loan from the federal Small Business Administration. Unfortunately, the market closed, two years after the project was launched.

Sav Mart, a local market in the Bayview, recently added a limited stock of fresh produce, after it re-opened in 2018. The grocery chain has been serving the community for 20 years.

Currently there are an estimated 17 corner stores within Bayview’s 8.6 square mile radius, that serves an estimated 119, 170 residents. The nearest store that sells fresh produce is Whole Foods, which is a 30+ commute by bus, one way.

Residents of the Bayview Hunter's Point district have no access to affordable produce, within a reasonable distance. This is clearly an issue that needs to be resolved at the policy level, while also addressing Supermarket Redlining at it's core.

What is "Supermarket Redlining"?

"Supermarket redlining” is a term used to describe a phenomenon when major chain supermarkets are disinclined to locate their stores in inner cities or low-income neighborhoods and usually pull their existing stores out and relocate them to suburbs (Eisenhauer 2001).

While local governments and community activists work towards a solution, Social Entrepreneurs such as Ronnishia and Rheema, are stepping in, to attempt to fix a “broken system” by using food to eradicate racial inequity. Establishing a healthy food system goes beyond health food choices. Creating initiatives that can impact individual decisions and collective action, are a start in the right direction with addressing food resources. “Food Deserts” wouldn’t be possible if, policy makers and industry leaders redesigned a food system that provides safe, healthy food options, including education for all.

Follow The Vegan Hood Chefs and support their social justice efforts.

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