Oakland food leaders discuss social justice and how to make change

Oaklandside: Culture Makers 6-23-22 26
From left to right: Reyna Maldonado, César Cruz and Annie Wang. Credit: Amir Aziz

The third Culture Makers event will be on Thursday Sept. 22 at the New Parkway Theater. Tickets are available now.

At the Oaklandside’s second Culture Makers event, which was held on June 23, local food figures César Cruz of Homies Empowerment, Reyna Maldonado of La Guerreras Kitchen and Annie Wang of Annie’s T Cakes sat down with host Azucena Rasilla to discuss how food and social justice can and do intersect. (Special thanks to Wang for stepping in at the last minute, after chef and teacher Tu David Phu fell ill.)

It was a sold-out show, and you submitted lots of questions — so many that the panelists ran out of time to answer them all. Via email, we sent them several additional questions on issues like encouraging change in established farming practices, how to get started on a path of culinary empowerment and the challenges of making sustainable food accessible to all. Their answers, which have been lightly edited, are below.

How do we support local farmers but, at the same time, pressure the establishment to change its practices?

César Cruz: From a practical standpoint we can support organizations like Mandela Partners who shop from local farmers. As Reyna said during the live event, we make decisions every day about the food that we will eat, so making the commitment to support farmers’ markets is deeply critical. 

In terms of the establishment being willing to change, it also has to do with our shopping power. Even the huge corporations pay attention to boycotts, trends, and to how all of us spend our valuable resources. If we collectively stop supporting multinational corporations, they will feel it at their core. We have a lot of power as consumers. We just have to seize that power.

Reyna Maldonado: We create ripple effects every time you purchase anything, we challenge establishments and systems when we invest in the community, and farmers’ markets, be mindful of where your dollars go, and tip when you can. Meet farmers and street vendors, and get to know their names.

Annie Wang: Vote with your dollars, your time, and your actual vote! Find and buy from or donate to farmers that are already doing the organizing work to push for systematic change. You can also find local organizations that are focused on food justice to donate your funds and/or time. Lastly, vote for representatives whose policies demand positive change in our food system.

Cruz: I’m going to talk about recipes and roadmaps as both of these are quite useful for cooking and community empowerment. You start there and then tap into your upbringing, your culture, and what you are trying to create. 

In the culinary world, you can really lean on your cultural roots and your business can be a social-enterprise model that creates resources for you and your family, but also opportunities for the community.

From a community empowerment standpoint, it is important to analyze nonprofit organizations that maintain the status quo and social justice organizations that really push the movement forward. One has to be willing to analyze issues of savior complex, deficit mindset, and the culture that creates the charitable and the charity. Community empowerment means that people have the agency to empower themselves. It is important to study movements that have created those types of outcomes like the Young Lords, I Wor Kuen, Zapatistas, and the Black Panther Party.

Maldonado: Building a relationship with food, acknowledging the truth about my upbringing, and understanding the access I have with food has helped me so much in the culinary industry.

Some of the questions I asked myself to help me get here are:

  • What were some of your favorite dishes?
  • What is your comfort food that helped you through difficult times? 
  • What dishes do you celebrate with?
  • Who are the foodies, the cooks, the restaurant, that inspire you? Why? 
  • What techniques do you love about them?

Have you checked out the latest cookbooks by badass and inspiring chefs in the Bay Area? Read about them, go check them out! I also don’t see the food industry and community empowerment separately. They’re intertwined. 

Decide what food and community empowerment looks like for you, whether it’s supporting street vendors, writing about food, or informing yourself on policies and laws created right now to protect the land and seeds. Who knows? There’s so much knowledge and wisdom in the Bay Area. Volunteer at a community garden! Touch soil. Plant and harvest fruits and veggies. Take it home, cook it, share it with somebody. Learn about the seasons. However you empower yourself to make it delicious! 

Some questions to ground and give permission to oneself with food medicine:

  • How do you want to be part of the change? 
  • Who are the food vendors you are supporting? 
  • How can you explore this gift in food and still contribute back to earth? What is your recipe?

Wang: Make sure you understand, as much as you can, the ins and outs of your product. If your goal is to scale one day, think through how you’d want to do that, who and what you may need to get there, and a general timeline. Talk to folks that have done something similar to you and succeeded so you can get a better understanding of the potential challenges you may face and the resources at your disposal.

Oaklandside: Culture Makers 6-23-22 24
Reyna Maldonado of La Guerreras Kitchen. Credit: Amir Aziz

For Reyna Maldonado: With labor being the largest cost, what policies/actions could you see reducing to make sustainable food more accessible? What could help to reduce costs?

I know there are so many policies going on right now that are really important, and it’s hard for me to say “vote” because I’m undocumented. Because I do not have that access to vote, I grew up organizing and making that direct impact through the efforts of organizations that I see making an impact in our communities. Food security has been an issue way before the pandemic.

It’s hard to say that the cost of labor should be reduced. We all know inflation is hitting everyone and the minimum wage is not the living wage in the Bay Area. We really need to start honoring and paying people for their work and skills. We learned so much with the pandemic about who essential workers are and how the pay is not enough. During the shutdown, we also witnessed the efforts of the community to provide access to food.

We can make food more accessible by supporting organizations and coalitions that are already building and organizing.

One example: we have been a part of Mission Meals, a coalition in the Bay Area that started during the pandemic. They were able to raise funds from people through Venmo donations to purchase groceries and meals for vulnerable communities in SF and the East Bay. They also supported small family-owned restaurants in the Bay by purchasing meals from them. They helped restaurants stay open and helped provide secure jobs for workers.

During Culture Makers, we learned the impact of Homies Empowerment and shared the work that they are also doing to provide this access here in Oakland. Get involved, donate, volunteer, and share the work that is being done in the community. We are currently collaborating with a program that provides weekly meals to new Black moms in the Bay Area. You will soon be able to buy a mom a meal and the program will focus on delivering this on a weekly basis. You can also support this cause.

When dealing with business roadblocks, what is your process for managing this rollercoaster ride of emotions?

I think it’s no secret that the restaurant industry is a really hard industry. It’s hard on the body and mind, and we live under so much pressure that we are expected to make no mistakes. Managing the rollercoasters of emotions comes with self-awareness for me. I’ve left jobs because the environment was toxic and that’s how I learned the boss I did not want to be, as well as the leadership skills I gained and appreciate.

I work with my family, so things can get very emotional. I also work with my younger sisters. I remind myself of the role model I needed at their age, and I’m learning how to process emotions under chaos, stress, burnout and so much more. They notice my behavior and words, and as women of color, it’s important that I learn and teach them how to voice it, acknowledge, give light, take your time, and also heal from the energy of emotions that exist in us, around us and many cases forced upon us because of how fucked up this society is. 

How we respond means a lot.

With that being said, I am human and there are many cycles I need to break, so yes I’ve made my mistakes and will always acknowledge them. Forgive yourself each night. Have grace for other people. It’s difficult right now, you don’t know what people are dealing with in their heart and at home. Take your time.

Oaklandside: Culture Makers 6-23-22 31
César Cruz, co-founder of Homies Empowerment. Credit: Amir Aziz

For César Cruz: How did you build your organization? You must be bringing up new leaders.

We started working with young people in 2009 and developed an organization that could see young people through their strengths. Thirteen years later we now have multiple youth in the organization who are playing leadership roles at Homies, including Selena Quiroz, who is the young adult development coordinator, and Lila Duran, who is the volunteer coordinator. We are evolving away from an executive director model and have a team of eight caretakers who are ensuring that the organization sustains itself and grows in a good way.

You talked about how food is medicine. How can those in the medical field support this message?

I think that many folks in the medical field support the “food is medicine” philosophy. However, like in everything else, corporate greed has created conditions where in the medical field there is more money to be made on keeping people addicted to pills for profit than in actually healing themselves. More patients mean more profits; food as medicine is a threat to that.

What do you mean when you say that the freedom farm won’t charge for produce the way a store does?

We believe in FREE(dom). We believe in sharing what we have. We believe in radical redistribution. The food at FREEdom Farm will always be FREE for the community. You can shop for free, you can grow for free, and you can share for free.

Is the freedom farm taking new supporters to help?

We are looking for folks from the barrio who want to learn or have wisdom to share. They can email us at [email protected] and let us know why they want to grow food to feed the people.

Oaklandside: Culture Makers 6-23-22 34
Annie Wang owns and operates Annie’s T Cakes. Credit: Amir Aziz

For Annie Wang: How did your cookies end up in the movie Everything, Everywhere, All At Once?

Definitely a “stars aligning” kind of moment! The directors and A24 films were looking for a local baker to recreate the almond cookies to give as gifts to attendees at the premier. I was put in touch with their team through a local Asian-American media nonprofit that had been working with the team. Thus, the adventure of the Annie’s T Cakes almond cookie was born!

How did you spread the word about your business? Are you happy with the progress of where your business is at?

Mostly it’s been word of mouth, social media, and pop-up events. I have also had the opportunity to work with other local businesses that have helped promote my products, and welcomed me into their spaces for pop-ups, and the like. In addition to local businesses, I’ve also done corporate and private event catering orders that have given more folks the opportunity to try my snacks.

I have been happy and grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had so far to bring Annie’s T Cakes to more people around the Bay Area and California. Building a business is a long-term grind, and I’m learning more and more each day to take everything as it comes. 

Next up for Annie’s T Cakes, we’ll be starting the next leg of our journey at the Grand Lake Farmers Market starting Saturday, July 9th. It will be our first farmers’ market, and we’d love to have The Oaklandside readers and staff there to share our delicious, handmade treats. We’ll also be showcasing new items at the market periodically, so if you want to be one of the first to try our upcoming products, be sure to come through!