I saw him first shortly after I arrived at the Victory Garden for my Sunday morning shift. He was standing over at the edge of the trees lining the south side of the garden, wearing jeans and a jeans jacket, scuffed shoes, a black polo shirt. He politely held up a copy of The Street Sheet, a newspaper produced by a local non-profit and sold by members of the homeless community for a dollar minimum donation.
During the three hours of my Sunday morning shift, I kept an eye on the pile of newspapers tucked under his arm, the expression on his face still hopeful, but growing wearier and wearier as the morning went on. Thousands of people were out enjoying the sunshine, purchasing $14 jars of chutney, chowing on sustainable hot dogs from the Let’s Be Frank stand. His pile of newspapers never shrank.
He moved around the garden as I spent my morning answering questions and taking pictures. He kept holding up that single issue of The Street Sheet. I’m sure he sold a copy or two while I wasn’t looking, but that pile? It stayed very nearly the same size.
Thousands of people. They bought Bi-Rite vanilla ice cream with amazing-looking peach compote made from locally-grown peaches. They stood in a never-ending line for watermelon agua fresca. They signed a food declaration calling for, among other things, food policy that “Provides access to affordable, nutritious food to everyone.” Still, he stood there, near the garden, holding up an ignored copy of The Street Sheet and shifting back and forth from foot to foot.
An irreconcilable dichotomy
My shift ended, and I said goodbye to Kelsey and Leslie, the garden educators on duty. I had been smelling food all morning and I was starving, so I made my way to one of the Slow Food on the Go lines to buy a Muffaletta sandwich, featuring Salumi Artisan Cured Meats, made by Armandino Batali, Mario Batali’s father. Then, because there was no place to sit, I stood under a tree on the north side of the garden and ate the sandwich.
It occurred to me, as I ate the sandwich quickly because I had fabulous oil from the olive relish running down my hand and I needed to control the situation, that Carlo Petrini would probably not support someone shoving a sandwich in her mouth while standing under a tree, while having no social interaction whatsoever with the producer, the chef, the fellow diners…but I was hungry, and only had one napkin, and there were so many people out there that there wasn’t any place to sit anyway.
And that’s when I noticed the guy selling The Street Sheet again. He had relocated to a spot next to the Roli Roti stand, which was selling roast chicken, potatoes and tomato salad, with all ingredients sourced within 50 miles of Civic Center.
There he was, standing amidst food stands, and people continued to walk by him, ignoring him, and ignoring The Street Sheet in his hand.
I finished my sandwich, pulled out $2 and walked over to him. “I’d like a copy of the paper, please,” I said. “And have you had lunch today? Because if you haven’t, I would love to buy you lunch.”
He looked at me as if I was speaking Italian.
“Seriously,” I said. “There’s so much food here – hot dogs, sandwiches, tamales, ice cream, whatever you want, I’ll buy it for you.”
He smiled then, and ducked his head. “You didn’t mention that chicken,” he said.
“Is that what you’d like?”
“I’m on it. Do you want the tomato salad, too?”
“No, thank you,” he said. “I’d just like some of that chicken and those potatoes.”
So I bought him lunch. And, while I was in line, someone else bought a copy of the newspaper from him. But as soon as I’d brought him his plate and wished him a wonderful afternoon, I had to turn and walk away as quickly as I could, because suddenly I was fighting back angry tears at the injustice of it all.
There, on this beautiful, sunny, San Francisco day, thousands of people were milling about enjoying artisanal products of incredible quality. There was so much food – unbelievable abundance – and in the center of it all, a running stream of people talking all day about issues of food access and sustainability at the Soap Box. Meanwhile, most people were ignoring – or doing their best to ignore – the homeless community that lives around the Victory Garden area, because they have no other place to go.
And while the market vendors at The Heart of the City Farmer’s Market, just a block away in UN Plaza, did report an uptick in visitors, there was no effort to draw attention to what has become one of my favorite area markets, not just for its incredible diversity of produce and vendors, but for the fact that it offers a fresh, healthy source of produce twice a week to residents of Civic Center and the Tenderloin, two areas that house some of the city’s poorest residents with very little access to grocery stores.
More discussion to come
I will have more to say about Slow Food Nation in the coming days. I had moments of delight, for sure, but that experience Sunday overshadowed all the rest of it for me, and I’m still spending a weighty amount of time pondering why it affected me so deeply, especially since I’ve been excited about this event since I first heard it was happening, and since I’ve been planning to attend it since I moved to Oakland in May.
I realize that the weekend’s events included fundraising dinners at top restaurants all over the city – revenues from which were split with targeted non-profits. Some of those beneficiaries, including City Slicker Farms in West Oakland and Alemany Farm in San Francisco, are local non-profits doing incredible, direct service to their respective communities. And I was not, due to work commitments, able to attend any of the Food for Thought lectures. I heard those events did discuss the social justice piece, even if some of the conclusions reached included that there’s much more work to be done. And, of course, I’ve been part of the Victory Garden volunteer effort since July, and that garden has been providing produce to food banks in the city.
I also do not expect that the producers and farmers who participated in Slow on the Go, The Marketplace or even the Festival Pavilion to just up and feed anyone an artisanal sandwich. I’m aware that there are price points for everything, and the farmers and producers should be paid fairly and appropriately for the amazing work they do.
I also realize that Slow Food Nation and Slow Food USA have no control over the people who walked past that man all morning, and that many of those people may do plenty of good things in their lives. I’m not trying to indict all these people based on a very haphazard observation process.
But there was no true direct community service piece of the event that I could see. No attempt to reconcile the bounty dropped into the Civic Center Plaza for three days against the immense poverty there. It was, to my eye, a big food show – some have compared it to Disneyland – and while the theme was Come To The Table, what held in stark relief for me is that the invitation only extended to those who could afford it. Were there free events? Yes. But that doesn’t take away the sting of a fellow human being standing amidst all that food and not having access to it.
The tangible step I can take
As I talked about this with The Mint Killer, after she escorted me down to the Heart of the City Market for a moment of perspective, we decided there is a step that I can take, and she has agreed to match me in that step.
By my calculation, I received $130 in tickets to the Festival Pavilion (one free ticket to the VIP Preview and a press pass to Sunday night’s event); $59 worth of a ticket to Saturday’s Slow Food Rocks concert (The Mint Killer got me a free ticket, and I pitched in $20 to help her buy a discounted ticket when we figured out her all-access pass would not get her in the concert for free); $20 worth of free extra Slow Dough chits to use at the Taste Pavilion on Sunday night (I never was able to use them, but I still got them…); and a $2 discount on my sandwich at the Salumi stand at Slow on the Go because I was wearing my volunteer apron. That’s $211 worth of free stuff, just because I have a blog and friends who know people.
But I’m willing to put my money where my mouth – and my heart – is. I’m going to roll that up to a round-figured $250 donation to a direct service agency that helps feed the homeless community of Civic Center. The Mint Killer said she’d match that donation if I moved on this. And I’m also going to figure out a way to auction off my volunteer apron (which is quite tastefully designed) and throw that money in on top of the donation.
I do need to find the right agency to donate to, however, and so I’m taking suggestions. The criteria: They must directly serve the people who were not invited to the table on Saturday or Sunday at Civic Center, and they must do a good and effective job at that. San Francisco friends and readers, I’d love some ideas of where to look for the right agency.
Slow Food Nation had some great moments. I’ll continue writing about my experiences over the next week or so, but I felt I couldn’t honestly talk about that without getting this out of the way. If someone wants to throw a foodie party, I’m down with that. But when part of your platform as an organization is that food should be “accessible to all, regardless of income,” then all the people who come to your party should be offered a healthy and nutritious meal, not just those who can afford to buy a $7 sandwich or a $65 ticket to the Tasting Pavilion.
Without that aspect, it’s a hollow invitation.