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A hollow invitation to the table

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?”

He nodded.

“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.

33 Comments on “A hollow invitation to the table”

  1. #1 sam
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 8:46 am

    The last thing I expected to be doing this morning was sitting at my desk weeping. Uncontrollably, for a second there. But this is what the power of your words has caused me to do. You are an incredible person, Genie, and I feel extremely lucky that you have moved to the Bay Area and that I am able to count you among my new friends.


  2. #2 inadvertentgardener
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Sam, wow — that’s high praise, and thank you. :-)

  3. #3 Zannie
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for reminding me to set up another monthly contribution to a charity or two. I’m not sure which one to recommend. In the past I have given to the Haight Ashbury Food Program and Project Open Hand, both worthy charities. The former provides job training to a small number of people each year, and the latter provides groceries to people homebound with advanced AIDS. But I’m not sure either is exactly what you’re looking for.

    However, I can provide this web address:

    That should be some help in evaluating charities.

  4. #4 Zannie
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Wait, that site doesn’t have HAFP in it, which was listed at the site I thought I was sending you to…. that one seems to be international charities (i.e., ex-US only). I’ll see if I can find the one I meant.

  5. #5 Stephanie
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 10:57 am

    This is an excellent post, Genie.

  6. #6 Zannie
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 10:59 am

    This might have been it:

    In any case, hopefully one of these sites or another like them can help.

  7. #7 Anonymost
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Perhaps you could visit these areas yourself and take some of these people out to eat. An ear to bend might mean as much as a meal to them. You get the added benefit of low/no overhead of involving charities.

  8. #8 Anita
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 11:47 am

    I’m speechless. *That* is one fabulous post.

  9. #9 Zannie
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I chose the San Francisco Food Bank.

    Sadly, it seems that the Haight Ashbury Food Program has shut down.

  10. #10 inadvertentgardener
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Zannie, thanks for all those resources and ideas — I appreciate it! That is sad about the HAFP…I wonder what happened?

    Stephanie and Anita, thank you…much appreciated.

    Anonymost, you’ve definitely got a point — that’s an interesting suggestion. I’m considering doing a little research into what’s technically allowed down there — I’m guessing that showing up and handing out food (as ridiculous as this sounds) may get me in trouble with some kind of city health regulation. But I’m not opposed to buying more dinners.

  11. #11 Eva
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Great post. I wondered about the folks who weren’t invited to the Table. It’s one of the things that bothers me about SF… it needs to be more inclusive.

  12. #12 Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)
    on Sep 3rd, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Genie, it breaks my heart to read this — but also to say that, for the most part, Slow Food (the organization), just like Whole Foods, has been aimed at an affluent population. You raise important issues about addressing hunger — real hunger — in our community, and how we as a society respond to it. Perhaps we hold Slow Food Nation to a higher standard, but I’m glad you brought this up.

  13. #13 Kathy
    on Sep 4th, 2008 at 5:31 am

    A lot of the choices I make at the supermarket are based on price, and most of the time I know I could get better quality if I paid more. But I walk by the Parmigiano Reggiano and buy pre-grated Kraft Parmesan in bulk at Sam’s Club. The difference in price is about $3/pound. I won’t buy breakfast cereal over $2.50/lb, and most kinds I still manage to find under $2/lb. Compared to the man in this article, I am eating well. I still eat fresh fruits and vegetables, though the ones from the store are usually not organic. But most of the “best” food is out of my reach, unless I or someone else in my family makes it or raises it.

    Your post touched on a nerve. So many politically correct actions require a certain level of affluence to be practical.

  14. #14 Sharon
    on Sep 4th, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Genie,

    Yes, a very moving experience, but at least you did something. And more than that, you let others know. Here is a link to a website that I got from my employer about the day of caring on Sept. 13th. Maybe there is something there that will appeal to you.


  15. #15 Cherril
    on Sep 4th, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Thank you for a very moving and though/conscience-provoking post. I’m all-too-fast to note an injustice, and regretably, all-too-slow to involve myself in the solution — you’ve provided a concrete example of backing up general indignation with a personal, caring act.

    I just discovered your site today, but will be a frequent visitor now on, and am forwarding this piece to friends I know will be interested.


  16. #16 Jeanne
    on Sep 5th, 2008 at 8:46 am

    Not too different than NYC, maybe any urban area.

    Overall, people are more comfortable giving to charities than doing the direct approach. There is an often-times a misconception of danger when approaching a homeless person that makes people uncomfortable, and therefore makes a charitable contribution easier on them.

    I was passing a “down-and-out” woman around my own age a couple of weeks ago and she was begging for $ for food. I said I would help her, but I would buy the food and that I had $5.00. We went in and purchased the food – not exactly what she wanted, but what I could afford. Boy, was she cranky that I couldn’t afford what she wanted! I had only run out of the office on a quick errand and only had the $5 in my pocket! Anyway, I did what I could. Hopefully she found someone with more $$ later!

  17. #17 Tom
    on Sep 5th, 2008 at 9:10 am


    Keep noticing and helping the “invisible.” As you know, we have them here in Iowa, but I’m guessing there are more in the Bay Area. You get a “Att-a-girl” for your act and your post.

  18. #18 Jennifer
    on Sep 6th, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    I just stumbled upon your blog and had to comment on this incredibly thoughtful and heart breaking post. It is hard to accept that amongst such abundance, there is such suffering and want of basic necessities. I understand that the farmer’s and vendors can’t give away their products for free, but how have we gotten to the point where homeless people almost don’t exist. These people are in need and we have this extraordinary ability to not even acknowledge that they are there.

    I think it’s wonderful that you are doing your bit to help, but I think you stumbled onto something very important, it is going to take more than just a few people buying them lunch and offering a few dollars, though those who can should, in my humble opinion.

    Very enlightening post, I found myself tearing up thinking about some of the homeless folks here in our town that get paid to hand out a weekly “Ad Sheet”, they get paid by the copy, the publication is free, but because they look a little rougher than most, they have a hard time getting people to take them. It’s just really sad.

    Sorry for the long comment!

  19. #19 Flavor-profiling tomatoes: A serious business at The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Sep 6th, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    [...] Wacky paths to the garden « A hollow invitation to the table [...]

  20. #20 PrairieRobin
    on Sep 7th, 2008 at 4:36 am

    Washington Post has an article this morning about Slow Food Nation – thought I’d pass it along.

  21. #21 Manel
    on Sep 7th, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Great post, Genie.

  22. #22 Tana
    on Sep 8th, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    This is my first visit to your blog, and before I even got to the end, I couldn’t read the blurry text because eyes were full of tears.

    I sat out Slow Food, believing in my heart that they are led by an elitist man (despite his left-leaning claims) who disdains Americans, first and foremost. I further believe that, because Slow Food acts as though they invented fire and dirt, their condescension to people results in their failure to appeal to a broader audience.

    I believe that the local chapters (convivia or con-stiffia, call them what you will) can be wonderful or awful, depending on who’s running them. Our local chapter in Santa Cruz is blessed with two of the most gracious, unpretentious (despite their obvious wealth) people on earth. Every event they’ve organized has been splendid: down to earth, delicious, and you leave thinking, “Oh, I am so blessed. That was such fun.” One county over, and it’s a different story.

    The intentions may be good, but I’ll be gol-danged if I’m giving another penny of my money to Carlo Petrini.

    God bless you, Genie, for this post. Bang that gong, sister. I hope to shake your hand one day.

  23. #23 DonnaB
    on Sep 9th, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    I found your blog through the link from iheartfarms, and will be back to visit. You are a very observant and caring person, much more open than the others around you who were concentrating on the shopping/eating opportunities before them. It struck me that your post is at least partly a testament to how gardening helps you slow down, open your heart, and observe the world around you.

    I applaud your commitment to taking action, too. I had two thoughts. It might be more satisfying to you to call around and see if you can find a charity that would let you make a fresh food donation instead of cash, then spend your $250 at the farmer’s market and take the food you purchased to your chosen charity. That would make your money serve two groups of people you care about: the farmers and the food recipients. Also, I wonder if the organizers of future SF events or like-minded groups could provide a way for ticket-buyers to chip in some extra cash toward a pool of tickets for folks in the community where the event is held. Like adding $30 or so to your registration fee. The tickets thus paid for could be sent in blocks to local food programs, homeless shelters, etc. Then the foodies at the fair can sit down at the table next to those folks they just signed a petition to help, and talk face to face about community food issues. That could be enlightening. Do you think they would pay extra for that? Does that sort of thing happen already?

  24. #24 Insert Hoof Into Electornet, Get Shocked, Run Away With Hoof Still in Fence, Pull Down Fence, Free Sheep « Pasture Raised and Grass Fed on Stony Brook Farm
    on Sep 11th, 2008 at 2:33 am

    [...] Management, Sheep   The morning before yesterday, I was just wrapping up a comment to this otherwise excellent post over at the Inadvertant Gardener in which I was ranting about the [...]

  25. #25 Planning…and worrying a little… at The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Sep 18th, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    [...] days after I publicly stated my outrage at food access injustice in downtown San Francisco, my friend Amy Sherman included me on a list of [...]

  26. #26 Brad Keller
    on Sep 30th, 2008 at 8:50 am

    The most important part of the article is that you were aware of this man and you chose to take action. When people are unaware of others in need, nothing happens. If you are looking for a recommendation for the funds check out your local Union Gospel Mission. Once a quarter me and some friends dig in our pockets, buy the food, fire up the grill and serve 100 people a meal at our local UGM. The relationships and gratitude are a great reward for us. A great message today.

  27. #27 inadvertentgardener
    on Sep 30th, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Brad, that’s a great idea — thanks for sharing that with the readership. I agree — awareness can only help folks take action.

  28. #28 End to the month…not the thinking – The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Oct 1st, 2008 at 12:03 am

    [...] some ways, I feel like the Hunger Challenge has taken up this entire month. I began the month thinking about issues of hunger in this community, and then I heard about the challenge, thought [...]

  29. #29 Protecting the Victory Garden from too much Love – The Inadvertent Gardener
    on Oct 7th, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    [...] Slow Food Nation, I stopped volunteering at the Victory Garden. Even though the organization decided to keep the [...]

  30. #30
    on Jan 3rd, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Late to the table I know, but as an ex-Oakland resident I just had to put in a plug for City Slicker Farms. Cool people, important work.

  31. #31 inadvertentgardener
    on Jan 3rd, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    E., thanks for your suggestion. I agree — they’re great people doing really incredible work. But…The Mint Killer and I wanted to hit someone who was doing direct service in that very area where I saw the guy, so we went with the San Francisco Food Bank, which is doing great work downtown and other places.

  32. #32 Matthew
    on Mar 5th, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for the amazing post, and for recognizing the disparity those who want to eat well and those who just want to eat.

    Like others, I know I’m late ~ but I just found your blog today. Check out the St. Gregory’s of Nyssa food bank. They give away tons (literally) of food, mostly fresh produce, free to whoever shows up every Friday.

  33. #33 inadvertentgardener
    on Mar 6th, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Matthew, thanks for stopping by, and thank you for the link — I will definitely check it out — it sounds like an excellent resource!

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