At a time of year that often spans the spectrum from overindulgence and great excess to the humility of thankfulness and grace, it’s worthwhile to stop and consider not just where our food comes from and who is producing it, but also how the food we have access to greatly affects our health, our communities and our lives.
Although the American food system tends toward overabundance, there were 49 million people living in food insecure households in the U.S. in 2012, according to Feeding America. Food justice is a social activist movement that seeks to eliminate unjust and unfair practices within the commercial food system that produce inequalities and disparity in how people are able to access good, healthy food. It also provides an opportunity for us to think about accessibility within the food system and how it affects our communities beyond just the holiday season.
Saqib Keval is an Oakland-based food activist and anti-racist community organizer who is working to raise awareness of food justice issues in the Bay Area. Formerly of the People’s Grocery, Saqib spent the past three years working to create a healthy food economy in West Oakland, a community that is without a real grocery store leaving its primarily minority residents without easy access to a healthy food supply (often referred to as a “food desert”). While at the People’s Grocery Saqib built a program called the Growing Justice Institute, an incubator for West Oakland residents who wanted to build small food-related businesses in their community.
I recently spoke with Saqib about how he got interested in food justice and community organizing and about his venture, The People’s Kitchen, a non-profit organization that seeks to help raise awareness for small activist communities through sharing food, story and community. Saqib has recently made his People’s Kitchen project a full-time endeavor, and he hopes to replicate its model in other cities throughout the country.
Saqib Keval came to food justice, in part, as a way to bridge two tracks in his life that seemed to be increasingly divergent—a love of food and working in the restaurant industry and a love of social justice and community organizing. Born in Redwood City, Saqib grew up in Elk Grove, on the south side of Sacramento. His dual loves of food and activism began when he attended school at Humboldt State.
Saqib originally went to Humboldt to study political science and theatre arts, he said. But when he got there he found that those departments were “very white, not very diverse departments and not very welcoming.” That led him to study other disciplines where he felt more at home—ending up doing dual degrees in Ethnic Studies and French and Francophone Studies, with four minors in leadership, Chinese Studies, Women’s Studies and Theater Arts.
While he was in college, Saqib also began working in restaurants. His restaurant experience ran the gamut, from front to back of house (wait staff and kitchen), and he enjoyed them both equally, as well as the pace of restaurant work and the act of feeding people in its simplest form, he said.
After Saqib finished school, he traveled to France where he received culinary staging at a kitchen in Aix-en-Provence. When he came back to the Bay Area, he began working in restaurants in San Francisco and doing community organizing around issues such as housing justice, police brutality, racism, patriarchy and imperialism. Although he loved working in restaurants, he began to become discouraged by both the labor politics and lack of living wages in the restaurant industry as well as how servers are treated by customers, often being subjected to classist and racist comments. He also realized that when he was working in kitchen rather than in the front of house, he missed having a connection with the people he was serving. Between his restaurant and organizing work, Saqib also began to find it difficult to maintain two schedules that did not mesh well.
“The two paths were at odds,” Saqib said.
Looking for a way to bring his two paths together, Saqib realized that, as he was growing up, organizing often happened around food. Food was an important part of his family’s story of migration from India to East Africa, Europe and the U.S. Food was what brought them together—access to food was central part of his culture and who they were. The more Saqib started thinking about how he could marry food and community organizing, the more the question of “What would a politically engaged restaurant look like?” came to mind. He started experimenting with a way of doing restaurant and dinner services that would also support organizing events. With that, the People’s Kitchen was born.
Although Saqib first began organizing People’s Kitchen dinners in San Francisco, they really began to take off when he started doing them in Oakland a year and a half ago.
“Oakland felt like, ‘this is the design, this is the model,’ he said. “We’ve had an amazing reception here, it’s really nice.”
Saqib says the more “town”-like feeling of Oakland and the level of political awareness here have made it easier to both get people involved in the dinners and get people to attend (People’s Kitchen dinners are cooked entirely by volunteers).
But despite a high-level of awareness around food and food culture in the Bay Area due to the foodie movement, Saqib believes people need to think more about who is left out of that movement. Part of the mission of the People’s Kitchen is to bring awareness to how food informs all cultures and how it sustains people even in the face of oppression.
“The People’s Kitchen is opposite [of the foodie movement] in some ways. We’re trying to create a community based system where we mix food with story-telling and talk about food colonization, embrace respective indigenous food histories native to various cultures and communities. We explore that and ground ourselves in that to better appreciate other food cultures. It fits with Oakland so well, with other food justice organizations…it’s been easy to organize here, there’s so much support in the community, tickets sell out in a week.”
The People’s Kitchen model revolves around partnering with small, grassroots political groups in the community to create a meal that honors each group’s heritage, culture and history. Dinners are free, but goodwill donations are used to fund the dinner preparation, with the proceeds from the dinners going to the organization.
Menus are created and curated specifically to highlight the food history and culture of the grassroots group each dinner is honoring and to tell the story of their movement, who they are and what they do. Food is used as a medium for storytelling and for educating attendees about the group and their cause. Hosted on a monthly basis, each dinner can take approximately three months to research and organize, with sell-out crowds of approximately 150-200 in attendance.
“Each dish tells a part of the story,” Saqib said. “We do a fair amount of research and menu building with the various organizations in the community—researching histories of their food. Our belief is a recipe can tell the story of who we are—our history, migrations, displacements, etc.”
A new organization is highlighted every month, with the pop-up dinners hosted at Cosecha in Old Oakland. Cosecha’s chef, Dominica Rice-Cisneros, graciously turns over her kitchen for the dinners, with the volunteers cooking and prepping for two days beforehand. Dinners can be upwards of anywhere from six to 10 courses, Saqib says, and they include narrative, visual and performance art to match the menu. To foster the community aspect of the dinners, everything is served family style on long, communal tables where you have to interact with each other. Each course is also served with discussion prompts.
“The through-line is connecting to food history and educating and learning and building a toolset for decolonization and reclaiming parts of our histories.”
The People’s Kitchen has hosted dinners for a wide variety of organizations, including FACES (Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity,a Filipino environmental justice group), Kulture Freedom and the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Black History Bowl, the People’s Grocery, Phat Beets Produce and VietUnity. The Black History Bowl meal, for example, included a menu that tracked migration patterns based on a competition the organization had done with Oakland youth outlining the paths of the African diaspora.
“We were able to show the shifting food histories that reflect the resiliency of the community and the diaspora,” Saqib said. “How people were able to nourish themselves in the face of so much oppression, resisting colonization, the resilience of the African diaspora through food, how the community goes through that change, how food and access to ingredients changes the history of stuff. We teased that out through our research. Sometimes we do different iterations of the same dish based on how things have changed.”
Now that he’s running the People’s Kitchen full-time, Saqib has plans to take the model to other parts of the country. He has recently partnered with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization that is working to improve wages and working conditions for the 10 million restaurant workers in the U.S. The organization has two worker-owned coop restaurants—one in New York, the other in Detroit, that serve as models for restaurant worker rights by providing different worker models, with fair wages and health coverage. Plans are to expand the People’s Kitchen model to other cities such as Detroit, New York, New Orleans and Washington D.C. Saqib is hoping to redesign and incorporate the two projects to open a worker-owned ROCUnited supported restaurant in Oakland in the next couple of years.
To get involved in the People’s Kitchen, volunteer or sign up to attend one of their dinners, please visit http://www.peopleskitchen510.org/.
To find and support local restaurants in your area that practice just work policies for restaurant workers, please visit ROC’s restaurant guide or download their app at: http://rocunited.org/dinersguide/.
Logo courtesy of the People’s Kitchen. Video courtesy of La Peña Cultural Center.