Over the past half century, West Oakland, just across the Bay from San Francisco, has faced the economic decline that has plagued many of America’s urban centers since World War II. As populations and shopping have moved farther from urban centers, day-to-day survival in these areas have become more challenging and more costly. Today, many refer to West Oakland as a “food desert,” a place that is better known for its liquor and convenience stores than its supermarkets.
A 2008 study conducted by the Alameda County Public Health Department tells the story of decline. In 1950 there were 140 traditional food stores, but by 2000, there were just a handful residents. Some of this perhaps was due to population decline, but much of it was due to economic decline.
How did a place that was once home to one of the nation’s largest middle-class African American communities and a bustling hub for San Francisco’s jazz and blues scene end up here? What are the factors that have contributed to West Oakland’s decline, particularly the decline of its food economy? And what are West Oakland residents doing today to increase their food access, against the odds?
In a recently popular documentary, Rosie, a 5th-grader from a small town in Colorado, describes how she often goes to bed with an empty pit in her stomach. Sometimes the hunger is so bad that she can’t concentrate in school. Her mother works at a diner, making sometimes as little as $120 every two weeks. They survive, partly on the generosity of their church and a local food bank. Still, it’s tight.
The documentary—A Place at the Table—brings to the fore the issue of hunger in America. According to the USDA, 47 million Americans are recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. The USDA classifies these folks as “food insecure.” Translated: 47 million Americans don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. The film’s solution to this problem? The American people should petition Congress to allocate more taxpayer dollars toward improving the school lunch program.
In 1969, almost 3 million Americans qualified to receive SNAP benefits, costing the US government around $250 million. In 2012, the government spent nearly $80 billion to feed 47 million. But despite all this spending, we find that Americans are perhaps poorer, fatter, and sicker than ever.
Jane Werner was having heart trouble. She had no energy and felt like sleeping all the time. Her doctor told her to exercise and lose weight. She tried that. Then she tried vitamins. Nothing was working.
“You exercise and you don’t feel any better and you wonder if there’s anything else out there,” she said. Just as she was about to start looking for a new doctor, she learned that a health center had just opened up at Hillenbrand, Inc., where her husband worked as an engineer. She thought she’d give that a try.
When she walked in the doors of the Health and Wellness Center—located on the grounds of Hillenbrand’s operation in Batesville, Indiana—she was amazed by the attention she received. Up until this point, Werner was used to quick in-and-out visits with a physician, lots of paperwork, and relatively impersonal interactions with the office administrators and nurses. But this time, she felt like she was really being cared for. The nurse practitioner gave her a full 20-minute appointment and took her concern seriously by referring her to a cardiologist who would investigate her heart issue more thoroughly and ultimately diagnose her with cardiac ejection fraction, a condition that would improve through therapy.
“I’ve never had such a caring experience in my life,” Werner expressed.
On top of that, Werner didn’t have to pay a cent for her visit to the center, not as a copay then or later.
Eleven years ago, Bruno Rivas left Mexico City to make a better living for his family in San Francisco. He landed a job at a restaurant and began making some money, but couldn’t figure out how to break out of a cash system into a marketplace driven by credit. Every week, he would receive payment in cash, a large portion of which he would send back to his wife Micaela in Mexico via a check cashing service, often incurring a fee of 10 to 20 percent of his paycheck. With the money he kept for himself, he was able to purchase items for daily provision, but without a means of building credit, he struggled to find a way to fund larger purchases or take bigger steps toward financial health.
But then four years ago, Bruno learned about the Bay Area-based Mission Asset Fund (MAF)—an organization that has garnered nationwide recognition for its nontraditional approach to lending—and decided to join a peer lending circle, or “cesta populare” (“community basket” in Spanish).
In 1976, while visiting poor households near the village of Jobra, Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus, Fulbright scholar and professor of economics, realized that a small loan could multiply exponentially in the hands of a skilled worker. Experimentally, Yunus gave a total of $27 USD to 42 Bangladeshi women to purchase bamboo that they made into furniture and sold. Each of the women earned a profit of $0.02 USD. Noting this small—but potentially huge—success, Yunus founded Grameen Bank, the world’s first modern microfinance operation, offering miniature loans to turn poor people into entrepreneurs. Since then, upwards of 12,000 microfinance—also known as microcredit or microenterprise—organizations have sprung up all around the world, ultimately helping 137.5 million poor families pull themselves out of poverty.
This model has grown most rapidly in developing nations, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
But these days it’s no longer simply poor women in third world countries who benefit from microloans, but more than 170,000 individuals in America.