Phat Beets would like to address some of the confusion and misinformation surrounding our relationship with Grease Box, specifically regarding Grease Box’s entirely false allegations against Phat Beets, as well as this biased East Bay Express article written about the relationship between Phat Beets and Grease Box. We would also like to provide a platform for some of the voices of vendors who were displaced because of the sale of CrossRoads to Grease Box (make sure to read them in bold below!).
First of all, we are a social justice organization, not a for-profit business, and our mission is to connect small farmers of color to urban communities through the creation of free farm stands, clinic-based farmers markets, incubator farms and kitchens, and youth gardens. Unfortunately, Phat Beets is currently being displaced by both a new business, Grease Box, as well as the gentrification process itself that put Grease Box in a position to control and profit from what was once a community cafe. In order to understand the issue of gentrification, however, we also must first identify what a “North Oakland resident” is and what a “historic resident” is, which will clarify some of the differences between both parties and what these differences mean for North Oakland.
For example, there is a significant difference between moving to North Oakland just to be closer to other parts of the Bay for work or school, and living in North Oakland and having a long-term vested interest in the health and well being of this community; in this case, both are North Oakland residents. Historic residents, on the other hand, are folks who have lived in a given region their entire life, or most of it, sometimes with roots that date back generations. When these residents are forced out of their neighborhood due to rising housing costs because of new, more affluent residents and businesses moving in, that is gentrification. This is the current situation playing out at Phat Beets Farmers Market, where historic residents’ jobs and economic opportunities, including those of the farmers we support, are being compromised.
Just to be clear, many members of the Phat Beets Produce collective are not long-term residents of North Oakland, but we do spend a great deal of time and energy in organizing with and supporting the interests and leadership of North Oakland residents in building the just food system we all need. In fact, Phat Beets has to fundraise and grant write in order to both keep healthy, fresh and organic produce at our farmers market affordable to North Oakland residents, as well as fund the jobs of historic residents who staff the market itself. The food justice approach we take in working in North Oakland, and the approach of Grease Box, whose food costs don’t take into consideration historic residents, is night and day. Unfortunately, Grease Box isn’t the first such business that is symptomatic of a troubling gentrification pattern, which is why the North Oakland community can no longer afford to ignore it or merely refer to it as the ‘G word’.
Phat Beets Produce members! From left to right: Tony: neighborhood volunteer, Sirgout: farmers market vendor, Caroline: ally, Josh: CSA Coordinator, Crystal: ally, Toveo: Farmers Market Manager, Torro: Avalos Farms vendor, (back) Marika: CSA Distributor, Mickey, CSA staff, Amman: Community Fundraiser and volunteer, max: Program Coordinator
Ken Shandy, lifelong North Oakland resident, father, former CrossRoads community partner and owner of Brother’s Kitchen in West Oakland, sent us his thoughts about the Grease Box and what this business means for North Oakland:
I have lived in the North Oakland area all my life, [and] I would like to speak about 942 Stanford Ave and how the space has affected me and my community, and I had the pleasure of working with the CrossRoads cooperative & Phat Beets. I was excited to see a great synergy and team pulling together to create dreams for individuals in our local community. Unfortunately, due to a faulty leader with other motives not in line with the core group, our community is now forced to settle with the likes of the Grease Trap. I’m sorry but I had hoped to see more diversity in the space, with more of a community feel. Not just another gentrify hot spot. This is not in the best interest of our community. Changing the culture of a community without regards of what the people want and need. STOP IT!!!!!!
Just to provide a little context and history: contrary to the narrative of the East Bay Express article, CrossRoads was very successful in terms of community support. But for one of the lease holders Michele Lee — who deserves a lot of credit for getting the place started and operating — the inability for CrossRoads to turn a profit immediately caused her to sell the community kitchen opportunity out from underneath vendors who had invested thousands of dollars to build community patronage over the long haul but weren’t producing revenue fast enough. It was an awful situation for everyone to be in, and Phat Beets was by no means perfect throughout these events. But we also carried our own weight by throwing a fundraiser with People’s Kitchen and donating half of the proceeds back to the CrossRoads Co-op and Lee, in addition to consistently paying for flyers and doing outreach for the cafe, building garden seating in back and much more. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough.
Phat Beets and several vendors also tried numerous times to buy the cafe and become leaseholder once Lee wanted to sell her share. However, Lee was only interested in selling her share of the cafe to the highest bidder — in this case Lizzy Boelter, owner of Grease Box — who then subsequently took complete control of the community kitchen that we had a previous agreement to use, making it impossible for us to operate our programming out of the space. Phat Beets was not included in any of the decision making of the space either (see: Grease Box painting the inside of the dining room white without our approval, for one). I suppose if you pay enough money, you can get whatever you want, regardless of who loses out in this process, and unfortunately Phat Beets and our vendors now have to deal with the aftermath of a business whose presence only serves to gentrify the neighborhood even more, even if unintentionally.
Furthermore, Lee did not inform CrossRoads Co-op (Phat Beets being a member of this Co-op) of the sale to Grease Box; Lee’s right to “sell” her share without approval from the rest of the Co-op is highly questionable, given the Co-operate structure; the specifics of Lee’s deal with Grease Box still have not been disclosed to CrossRoads Co-op members, so we still don’t know what rights Grease Box even has in the space; and finally, Lee and one other Co-op member are the only members to receive any money from the sale. Does any of this seem fair or equitable?
Lee, unfortunately, set the stage for a doomed relationship between Phat Beets and Grease Box from the beginning: as soon as Grease Box moved in, Lizzy demanded that the kitchen become gluten-free, despite the fact that Phat Beets’s vendors had been using gluten in the kitchen long before Grease Box arrived. Gluten is a part of many of Phat Beets’s vendors’ cultural food practices that date back centuries. Forcing people to give up an integral component of their cultural diet that financially supports their livelihood is a violation of food sovereignty and food justice.
We recognize the need to provide gluten-free options for people, but we feel there are ways we can do so without compromising the cultural practice of our vendors. Not allowing our vendors to use gluten undermined our Kitchen Incubator Program. This program helps low-income vendors start healthy food-related businesses in order to create their own jobs and build economic justice. The program is, despite the factually incorrect statement in the recent East Bay Express piece and on the Grease Box web site, fully permitted by the Alameda County Health Dept., and we are more than happy to provide permits upon request.
In addition to providing false information, we feel the East Bay Express article is complicit in constructing a biased narrative of the space that unfairly benefits Grease Box. Phat Beets’s representation in the article is one-sided and often grossly mischaracterized, including not even bothering to provide a photo of Phat Beets members to go along with the photo of Grease Box staff. Furthermore, why wasn’t the story of Misako Kashima, Ikumi Ogasawara and Machiko presented? Misako is a Japanese vendor and member of our Kitchen Incubator Program (Lizzy denies the fact that she is, however) who had been serving her delicious and healthy cuisine out of the space since the beginning of this year and has been denied permission to continue cooking her food since the appearance of Grease Box.
Grease Box even went so far as to say that “the vendors that were ‘displaced’ are doing just fine elsewhere.” So it’s fair to displace someone against their will if they end up doing fine elsewhere? That’s a very disturbing attitude to take into the North Oakland community. Unfortunately, this was never explored by the article, and any mention of Misako’s displacement from the kitchen she helped build out as an original CrossRoads member was conveniently left out, along with the narratives of countless other vendors pushed out by Lee and Grease Box (just visit the comments section of the East Bay Express article to read more testimonies from former vendors.) Leaving out the narratives of those who have been displaced evidences the gentrification process itself, as the stories of historic residents are erased by the prevalence of newer, more affluent and more visible residents with greater access to media.
Here’s what Misako has said in regards to no longer being able to cook in the cafe:
“We are waiting for working together with Phat Beets and other vendors again hopefully soon. The Phat Beets Market was the only affordable Farmer’s market to join for start-up food entrepreneurs with not enough funds (ironically we spent all our hard earned money to invest to build the co-op kitchen). The reality of food business is that if you don’t have enough money nor good support and connections, there is no chance even for the great cooks and workers. There are too much costs (licensing, kitchen rental, insurance) for small businesses. So small vendors need organizations like Phat Beets who can support and offer the Market place which we can sell to the public.”
Phat Beets spoke with another vendor, Naimah Matthews, and her family in this video account about what happened in their last few days as vendors at CrossRoads before Grease Box moved in. Days after Grease Box arrived, Matthews and her family were forced to pack up their stuff and leave. In their own words:
“For her [Lizzy] to tell anyone that everybody is fine is a blatant lie because you didn’t bother to check! …She didn’t care. We were told to immediately get our stuff [after the sale]…and the whole restaurant looked totally different. We had worked Saturday, we didn’t work Sunday, I went in Monday, and it was already…A lot of the stuff she sent me back to get wasn’t there!…It was like we weren’t important…How do you just sell something out from underneath us? Handling it the way they did, it hurt a lot of people…This was our dream!”
Unfortunately, in the case of Misako and Matthews, they aren’t “doing just fine elsewhere,” but we will continue to raise money in order to work with these vendors in our future kitchen, wherever that may be.
Furthermore, just to be clear, Phat Beets Produce has also never called for a boycott of Grease Box, though we do inform our supporters of the history of the space and the ongoing conflict. Lizzy has also told several Phat Beets members that “you are not allowed in the cafe anymore,” has called the police on Phat Beets members, and has threatened Phat Beets staff with restraining orders and slander law suits, making our own work space a hostile environment and forcing us to work from home. No one from Phat Beets has ever advocated for or used any sort of violence towards Lizzy or any of her staff.
We feel these lies have been created in an attempt to paint Phat Beets and its members as violent and threatening in order to justify our displacement so as to eventually take complete control over the cafe and kitchen. The Phat Beets collective, as well as our supporters, allies, and neighbors, however, will continue to speak out against these injustices. Not many folks want to talk about gentrification, which is why these injustices still fester and persist, hushed and squashed by irresponsible phrases like the ‘G word’ used in the EBE article that try to conceal the violence of displacement. This is precisely why Phat Beets highlights the injustices of gentrification taking place not only at the Phat Beets Farmers Market but in addition all over North Oakland by Better Homes and Gardens and their NOBE campaign.
Finally, we must remember that Phat Beets has no interest in fighting with the Grease Box. They are merely a distraction for the food justice work we do and an obstacle for the North Oakland community building self-determination and access to healthy food. We operate 6 programs — including a farmers market at Children’s Hospital, a free produce stand at Arlington Medical Clinic, a community garden that supports healthy activities for neighborhood youth, and a 15-acre Pinole Creek Farm Project in support of PUEBLO and the International Rescue Committee – all with very little resources, which is why we rely on the community’s grassroots support to continue. But now we are losing our home, and so we are asking for supporters that value food justice to work with us to build out our food justice vision, including helping us find a new home.
Support Healthy Food for All by supporting Phat Beets! We have been informed that our sublease will not be renewed by Grease Box and Lee, which means the North Oakland Farmers Market will be moving. Make a donation to help us a find a new space and continue this work in Oakland for as long as it takes.
~The Phat Beets Crew