Every day, at least twice a day, I walk the strip of Shattuck Avenue that connects the UC Berkeley campus to my apartment, which is conveniently located behind the Safeway Community Markets. Most of this stretch is known to locals as the “Gourmet Ghetto”, although the restaurants that give the neighborhood this name are world renowned. I pass Italian, Chinese, Thai and Himalayan restaurants, and most if not all advertise locally grown, organic and sustainably harvested ingredients – even the small corner takeout joint that has samosas I can’t get enough of. But while Berkeley is a mecca for the farm-to-table, sustainable production movement, its effects have arguably increased the disparity in access to fresh produce and sustainably grown foods as opposed to generating a more resilient food system at large.
Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse – the crown jewel of the “Gourmet Ghetto” – did not set out to change the food system, nor does she claim to have. But her focus on local and organic produce for the sake of flavorful food has been termed a “revolution” and she is certainly credited by food critics and academics as a pioneer and an innovator. Probably no surprise, Chez Panisse’s organic meals come at a steep price; even the supposedly more affordable cafe menu runs $21 to $35 for an entree, which is pretty standard for the neighborhood.
A regular-sized salad at Mission Heirloom’s organic, grain-free restaurant around the corner costs at least $14, and one pizza topped with daily fresh ingredients from Cheeseboard Collective or Sliver Pizzeria – both Berkeley staples – will run you $22 to $24.
The sticker shock is even greater when you place these food prices in the context of a community whose median gross rent and utilities are equal to 30 percent to 40 percent of the household income. Federal guidelines designate “rent burden” as spending more than 30 percent of household income on rent, so if more than half of our community is rent burdened, then how much more can we be expected to budget for food, let alone utilities, clothes and other expenses?
These high prices extend beyond the walls of these posh restaurants, too. Take a walk around the UC Berkeley campus and you’ll see banners hanging from the lampposts boasting goals to be achieved in this generation that we can later look back on and think “remember when…?” with phrases such as “remember when organic food was in a special section (of the grocery store)?” While it’s certainly admirable to strive for expanded commitment to certified organic practices, just because most of the produce at the Safeway Community Market across the street is organic does not at all mean it is affordable. More often, it means I will need to walk to another grocery store to find non-organic produce options at cheaper prices. Organic food may be ubiquitous in Berkeley, but it’s still costly.
Chefs of prestigious Berkeley restaurants have clearly mastered the art of sustainable cooking. By committing to sustainable and low-waste practices, they have promoted business for local farmers and contributed to a more organic and ethical food system but exclusively for the upper middle class and wealthy residents of North Berkeley. By increasing convenient access to fresh, quality produce for wealthier folks and leaving other socioeconomic strata out of the picture, the disparity is even greater between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Because the local food movement is such an identifier for Berkeley residents, it would be nice to see an equal if not greater focus placed on improving access to such foods for everyone, especially middle- and low-income residents. This would be a truly radical movement, since the fact of inequitable access to food is a status quo that is rarely challenged, and is the only way to truly change the food system.
Some small organizations, like the Berkeley Student Food Collective on Bancroft Way, attempt this undertaking, but in offering a selection of kombucha, vegan egg-substitutes, and chickpea flour pasta, do less to appeal to a wide range of customers and more to buy in to the gourmet grocery niche. The store is mostly visited by students, and the few Berkeleyites who have stopped by often remark that they have already searched other stores for the items they are looking for and only resorted to BSFC when they turned up empty-handed at Whole Foods. One woman who did attempt to shop for her weekly groceries at BSFC while I was working a shift ultimately returned the items to their shelves because she could not afford the total sum price at the register. BSFC sets out to address this issue by purchasing produce in bulk but clearly cannot claim to have solved it.
So how do we strike a balance between pushing for organic practices and making food affordable in one of the most expensive cities in the country? How do we apply our expertise in farm-to-table practices for the most privileged to improving access to basic food staples for the least advantaged? Interventions such as the slow food movement seem almost irrelevant when many people cannot even access the staple items needed to cook a meal because of barriers in transportation, location, affordability, or store offerings.
Food access issues often seem most readily able to be addressed via policy change, but local store owners need also ensure their shelves are stocked with staple items, seek to offer produce whenever possible and look for ways to make environments more accessible to wider audiences. Our food system will never really be revolutionized until it is operating at its most productive, effective and ecological, and this requires equitability.
Meredith Stifter is a Berkeley resident.