Candice Elder recognized the lack of equal access to fresh food in Oakland, California, before the coronavirus pandemic compounded those disparities. While whiter, wealthier Oakland neighborhoods house plenty of big-box grocery stores, there are virtually none to be found in deep East Oakland. This food insecurity is the result of deeply rooted systemic racism that limits access to resources for the city’s black and brown residents. In 2016, Elder, a longtime leader and organizer, founded the East Oakland Collective, an organization that creates political change and provides resources to economically disadvantaged and unhoused communities in East Oakland. The program is perhaps best known for Feed the Hood, an initiative aimed at feeding an enormous gathering of Oakland residents every six weeks. During the pandemic, it’s delivered these meals across the city.
The nature of Elder’s work demands that she be ready to adjust and adapt quickly. Right now, that means not only supporting those hit hardest by the pandemic, but also those protesting police brutality and the continued murder of black people across this country; 15,000 protesters took to Oakland streets on Monday. In a recent conversation with Eater, Elder talked about how the East Oakland Collective’s work now includes handing out supplies, including water and snacks, to protesters — all part of its mission to push back against racist policies and fight for meaningful, lasting change. It’s a mission rooted in Oakland’s history as the city where the Black Panther Party first organized, and one that Elder says her organization is continually inspired by. “Working in the food justice space, we’re kind of always in crisis mode,” Elder says. “We just pivot to meet whatever the community’s needs are.” — Elazar Sontag
Black and brown residents across Oakland were already suffering from food insecurity and a lack of access to fresh food before the pandemic. And with the sheltering in place, the closure of restaurants, the fear of going to the grocery store, and the panic buying, there weren’t a lot of available food options in stores to begin with. There wasn’t much access for families who have EBT or SNAP benefits, and who used the benefits at the grocery store.
Beginning in the spring of 2019, we started serving hot meals as part of what I call food reparations, where we actually picked up excess food from tech companies in Silicon Valley and brought it back to Oakland: It was a three-hour round trip for us because of traffic. We did this twice a week, and we were distributing 400 gourmet meals weekly. With COVID-19, we lost our access to hot meals, because everyone was working from home and tech companies no longer needed to have catering services. We had to scramble and source food from other areas. And we were fortunate enough to start working with Oakland-based restaurants.
For about the first 60 days of the pandemic, we were working every single day. We got into the groove of picking up food from various places, and then delivering, and we now have three distribution days a week.
The protests haven’t changed much for us. The only slight pivot was starting to hand out supplies to protesters. We’re making sure that while they are out and about, that they have snacks, water, supplies, that they have first aid as well because they’re out for all hours of the night.
We are dealing with centuries, since the inception of America, of systemic and racist problems. And it comes out in the form of poverty. Black and brown communities, immigrant communities, and other groups of color are still impoverished. With poverty comes a lack of access to housing; lack of access to food and resources; problems with transportation. Those are the issues that we’re seeing exacerbated by systematic racism, and policies and measures and laws that are now blowing up in our face. And we see it visible on the street with the explosion of the homelessness crisis.
This is what the Black Panthers had to deal with. This is what people were fighting for during the civil rights movement. In the East Oakland Collective, we are very much inspired by the work that was done before us, by the road that was taken before us, by groups such as the Black Panthers. We believe in the 10-Point Program [the Black Panther Party’s 10 core tenets and demands, which included decent housing and an end to police brutality]; we believe in doing for our people first. We don’t believe in relying on the government. We partner with the local government, yes, when it’s for the benefit of our people. But we don’t rely on the government. We started in the same fashion as the Black Panthers: feeding our people. That is the simplest thing, and the least that we can do.
The Black Panthers started the Free Breakfast for Children program, and they were able to feed the people in the community in absence of government. It pushed the government to actually implement a federal school lunch program. Similarly, we’ve noticed that since the East Oakland Collective started doing Feed the Hood events in September of 2017, more groups, more churches, more families, have started feeding the people. And we encourage that. It’s not a competition. We actually have given people the rubric, the model in order to do so. And we encourage families to participate in Feed the Hood, but to also be inspired to go out and actually feed people on their own: Carry granola bars or toilet paper in your car, and hand these things out to people.
There’s policy work and advocacy work surrounding food justice that people don’t know about, and that we need to pay attention to because it’s going to hit our communities really hard.
People are going hungry, still; people are dying on the streets. So being able to provide food is the least that we can do.