Pallana wanted a more representative council that reflected not only the ethnic makeup of the city but also the diversity of community leaders already working in the city.
“We’re not really council if we don’t really represent the community,” she said. “With our focus on equity and sustainability, our goal is definitely to make the food system fair. We need the people who live the inequalities in this food system to be part of the job, to inform us – and really at the end of the day – to guide us. “
While her first attempts to join the council were unsuccessful, she insisted, and in 2011 she took over as managing director.
When the council started, their main focus was on sustainability. Now, under Pallana’s leadership, the council has shifted to emphasize justice as its guiding principle. “Our focus is on equity because we really understand that equity is the first step towards sustainability,” she said. “You cannot have a sustainable system – neither will you – if you do not have a fair system.”
What would a fair food system look like in Oakland? In the eyes of the council, this would mean an Oakland in which food service employees work under fair working conditions for a living wage. It would also mean eliminating the inequalities caused by inequalities in wealth that lead to radically different life expectancies: A widely cited report from the Alameda County Department of Health said a black person living in West Oakland said an average of nearly 15 years earlier will die as a white person born in the Oakland Hills.
Many food organizations base their programs on the idea of food literacy, which is usually about going to vulnerable communities, teaching them the basics of cooking and eating, and giving lectures on what foods are healthy and unhealthy. Pallana says this can lead to a pedantic, inadvertently condescending approach that ultimately alienates the people they are trying to reach.
“[Food literacy] Culturally, it tends to be very Eurocentric and has no resonance with color communities. The phrase itself, “food literacy” implies that there are people who are illiterate, “she said. “That kind of sets a power dynamic that there are some people who know more about food than others, and I think when it comes to food and culture, I just don’t see it that way.”
Now OFPC is trying to work within communities, drawing on what is already available, and encouraging people to eat healthy foods that are culturally relevant and accessible to them. On the Dia de los Muertos (November 1st), the Council is hosting a launch party for a book on the subject: Decolonize Your Diet, by Oakland authors Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel. Calvo, Professor of Ethnic Studies at Cal State East Bay, and Esquibel, Associate Professor of Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University, are partners. When Calvo was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, the diet switched to traditional vegetarian Mexican foods. The book’s subtitle is “Mexican-American Herbal Recipes for Health and Cure,” and the two emphasize that a diet based on what their ancestors ate – corn, beans, pumpkin – can help do some of this Reversing the harm of a harmful, modern standard American diet. This new intersectional approach to nutritional justice also coincided with a demographic shift in the council: Pallana said this year’s council is only 38% white.
Participants get on the Wine Soul Train (also known as the Mexican Bus) at the recent James Johnson-Piett Council event.
Optimistic about the future of the council and the city’s commitment to food justice issues, Pallana cites Mayor Schaaf’s appointment of Jose Corona as Director of Justice and Strategic Partnerships: “She couldn’t have chosen a better person, and there was I definitely feel that it gets people who have shown that they are committed to the issue of economic justice. “
But despite the support of the city, the OFPC is struggling with its future. The influx of wealth into Oakland in recent years has resulted in a changing demographic and more money in the city, but that doesn’t mean Oakland’s hunger problems have gotten better. In fact, they have gotten worse: In their 2010 report, the Alameda County Food Bank reported that 1 in 6 members of Alameda County are dependent on their services. In 2014 that number was 1 in 5.