Kelly Hammargren
Saturday March 18, 2023 - 01:18:00 PM
alfred twu
Alfred Twu

“Food is to health as air is to breathing” from Empty Tables How It Feels to Be Hungry by Beverly Gologorsky

I never read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America when it was first published in 2001. I picked it up just as the extra COVID-19 subsidies to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, SNAP or better known as food stamps, ran out or more fittingly were snatched away.

For those who never read Nickeled and Dimed, or it has been so long you’ve forgotten, Ehrenreich was already in a comfortable place as a writer when over a pricey lunch with her editor she suggested that someone (not herself) should write about the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA) signed by President Clinton. That someone turned into Ehrenreich herself, who left everything behind and set out in 1998, using the identity of a divorced homemaker, to be hired as a low wage worker and live, including housing, food and necessitiesk on what she was paid. PRWOA was supposed to end welfare and set the path for people to work their way out of poverty.

Not much has changed for the poor in the intervening years, especially the haughty wealthy Republicans accusing the poor of not working hard enough.

As far as nutritious food, that definitely was not available to Ehrenreich or her low paid co-workers. And Soleil Ho (a trained chef in real life) in her full-page Sunday editorial in the SF Chronicle described failing to survive on the equivalent of food stamps for one week. Of course, SNAP is supposed to supplement income, but when that income leaves little to spare, then hunger and the cheapest calories are all that is left, the same empty calories that lead to a long list of diseases, including diabetes and obesity. 

Agenda Item Three at the Health, Life Enrichment, Equity & Community meeting authored by Councilmember Bartlett with co-sponsors Arreguin, Harrison, and Hahn was the “Berkeley Food Utility and Access Resilience Measure (FARM).” Bartlett introduced the item by saying that a friend in Washington called suggesting coming up with a plan for food shortages and that granaries were getting low. Bartlett spoke about the fragility of supply chains and said that even now there is a shortage of eggs. Bartlett went on to describe the intent of FARM as being to protect the local food supply. 

The grand idea includes a Food Security Council, local food production, agreements between the City of Berkeley and farmers, synchronizing local food production with food banks, restaurants, schools and groceries, working with local assistance programs and accessing state funds. 

If the pandemic taught us anything it is how a little panic can clear the store shelves of everything from yeast for bread to toilet paper. 

We’re getting another lesson now with the atmospheric rivers, levee breaks and flooding of farmland. Last night the local news came with the reminder that the flooding isn’t just preventing the ground from drying out enough for planting to begin, it is leaving behind the contamination contained in the flood waters. This is not good. 

As for local production of food, the madness in project approvals for student housing, building ADUs and making small houses bigger leaves little space for food gardens, and those that do exist are left in continuous shadow. Thanks to Wiener, Wicks and Skinner leading the housing charge, and the failure of the Berkeley City Council to establish objective standards to provide protection for gardens and even solar, the grand proposal could do better on figuring out how Berkeley can change the exterior of buildings and rooftops into food gardens and solar micro-grids. 

New District 8 Councilmember Mark Humbert chimed in with his concern about the definition of local, “I think that Climate Action Plan defines local as within 100 miles. I would have a concern about defining local as the City of Berkeley, simply because we’ve looked at some statistics and they indicate that in order to feed the City of Berkeley, we need a whole lot more land than the City of Berkeley comprises.” 

What Humbert didn’t include in his singular focus on Berkeley is that Berkeley shares the area and that agricultural land within 100 miles with somewhere between 7 and 8 million people in the Bay Area and that doesn’t count the other thousands to the east, north and south within 100 miles. 

This is not to say we shouldn’t be looking at food supply, food waste, and putting nutritious food in the hands of the poor, especially children, but however well intended the FARM proposal is, it is definitely less than half-baked. 

California agriculture is often described as feeding the nation. This spells trouble filling that mission with the impact of flooded farmland. 

The disruption caused by a warming planet, whiplash between droughts and super storms, is creeping into every aspect of our lives, including food supply. 

Lebensraum (German for living space) is the word that comes to mind with the singular focus on Berkeley and recent reading. 

If we are really concerned about food supply then population needs to go back on the table. Women must not be forced into unwanted pregnancies. And women must not be forced to wait until they are at death’s door to terminate a failed pregnancy. 

In Nickeled and Dimed, Ehrenreich, even as she struggled to pay for rent and food and needing to find a second job, was not a single mother on minimum wage with one or two children in tow. One of the many findings in The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—Or Being Denied—An Abortion, by Diana Greene Foster, was that being denied an abortion was the path to increased poverty. 

The minimum wage in Berkeley is now up to $16.99 or $35,339.20 per year if someone works full time. That isn’t much in view of the high cost of living in the Bay Area. 

For Ehrenreich, finding a place to live close to work never worked out. When a second job was needed to cover housing, food and basic necessities, that meant juggling schedules and needing a car to get there--which leads right in to the presentation by Tom Rubin for Livable California’s online webinar “Land Use, Housing, and Transportation – Wishing Will Not Make It So”. 

Tom Rubin covered so much in the one hour and thirteen-minute presentation that it really is worth watching. Rubin starts out with older statistics and then progresses to problems with “complete streets”, mass transit myths, and how taking away parking from housing hits low income workers the hardest. You can watch the recording and review the presentation slides at https://www.livablecalifornia.org/transportatio-expert-tom-rubins-presentation-to-livable-california/ 

Those of us who question the wisdom of removing street parking and parking spaces from new housing, ask what happens to emergency access and evacuation routes with road diets, and note the hypocrisy of approving 1383 parking spaces in total for two biotech projects in West Berkeley (600 Addison and 787 Bancroft) are called a plethora of derogatory names and accused of being akin to Luddites. 

“Complete streets” which are supposedly complete with bus lanes and bus loading pads, bicycle lanes, vehicle lanes, automobile parking, and safe passage for pedestrians with sidewalks are built on the assumption that all of these different modes of transportation traveling at different speeds will all fit. Emergency access, delivery vehicles, drop-off and pick-up are usually the forgotten needs. Electric bikes which can travel up to 20 mph or more are a complicating factor, as are scooters and pedal and electric tricycles for adults. 

I am hearing from my bicycle riding friends that bicycle lane curbs add one more peril, because the rider is trapped, unable to avoid bicycle lane hazards, be it a slow or stopped rider, a vehicle crossing the bike lane or debris in the lane. I also heard that with vehicle backup cameras, drivers looking at the camera instead of over their shoulder don’t see when there is a bicyclist headed their way. 

In my communications back and forth with several avid bicycle riders, YIMBY advocate Alfred Twu sent me pictures of bicycle lanes in Fremont, his personal favorite. In Fremont the new bicycle lanes are paired with the sidewalk at the same elevation as the sidewalk, instead of at the street level with a curb like on Milvia in Berkeley. 

City staff and councilmembers are enamored of Complete Streets, so it is no surprise that CouncilmemberTaplin’s budget request for $400,000 ($100,000 for community outreach and $300,000 to develop a plan) for Complete Streets passed the Berkeley City Council on consent on March 14. 

Even in the Bay Area, where transit ridership was the second highest in the country, 17.6% of commuters in 2019 pre-pandemic, transit is in trouble with a ridership crash. San Francisco office vacancies continue to climb, with 27% as the latest number I could find. Mass transit cannot survive without massive support including bridge tolls, ballot measures (Contra Costa J) and state and federal funding. 

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), which was not included in Rubin’s presentation, likes to tout its recovery in comparison to BART and Caltrain. The Berkeley Marina Specific Area Plan ( 

) is tied to WETA, with fantasies of bolstering the Marina budget shortfalls with commercialization of public spaces. The Parks, Recreation and Waterfront commissioners were denied advance study as a commission of the March 20 “Update on the Waterfront Specific Plan for the City of Berkeley Public Tidelands Area.” 

Here are some points to remember when looking at the staff report submitted by Scott Ferris, Director, Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, for the March 20, 2023, special council meeting. It is a mystery where the $1,048,596 cost of the hired consultants Hargreaves Jones to come up with the Marina Plan is buried. There is no mention that while the Marina is supposed to be an enterprise fund covering its operation costs, the hotel taxes go into the general fund. Pre-pandemic events in the Marina were an expense, not income, because the cost of police overtime for events was more than any money that was taken in. 

The proposed commercial event area in Cesar Chavez Park is still in the drawings, on page 28, the same event plan that resulted in such an uproar when it was originally proposed that Martin Nicholaus published it in the book Love Letters to the Park: Public Response to the Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan ( 

) April – July 2022. You can read it at https://chavezpark.org/new-book-love-letters-to-the-park/ 

Council likes to hear what it wants to hear, kind of like the Fox watchers that tune into the evening spread with Tucker Carlson. That might be why that public comment alternative, from Robinson as the author and Wengraf as the co-sponsor, with Taplin, Kesarwani and Humbert eager to support it, had the language, “Public comment will occur for each Action item—excluding public hearings, appeals, and/or quasi-judicial matters—in separate but consecutive public comment periods before the Action Calendar is discussed by Council and staff.” These councilmembers gave way in the end to a small compromise, adding the phrase, “as the item is taken up,” but we should not forget preference of the five. 

WETA, according to their own documents, lists fare recovery (the portion of costs covered by each one-way trip) as 20%. WETA got to that 20% by eliminating everything but the crew, fuel and keeping the vessel running and facilities open. The actual fare recovery is 15%. If a rider had to pay the cost of each trip based on total spending so far this year, that works out to $42 each way using everything not cherry picked and total riders through January 31, 2023. And that low total cost of $42 per ride as a systemwide average is reached by WETA underspending what was budgeted for maintenance, facilities, infrastructure and ferry purchases. 

Accountants can argue that capital expenditures need to be discounted over the projected life of any project, but it is still money out the door, and what was spent so far this year on capital expenses looks more like an installment payment, as it is only 5% of the Total Project Budget for vessel rehabilitation, refurbishment, replacement, facilities maintenance, improvements and infrastructure. 

More important is the peak hour utilization in the ridership reports. During the busiest hour of the day, in the morning, the ferry from Richmond is 19% filled, Oakland & Alameda is 12% and Vallejo (where the city subsidizes fares) 32%. For the entire system during the busiest hour in the morning the ferries were 25% full, which means most of the time the ferries running on diesel fuel going back and forth across the Bay are near empty. During the month of January that was 292,858 gallons of diesel for near empty vessel trips. 

There is a lot of fuzzy accounting and wishful thinking that goes into the 

(called the Tidelands Area) for the March 20th presentation. And lots of romanticism around a boutique ferry service for high-income riders. 

The WETA survey of rider income published for the December 8, 2022 meeting found that 30% of riders had household incomes of greater than $200,000 with another 18% with household incomes between $150,000 - $200,000. 

The real problem with transit is that it doesn’t get people to where they want to go. Using transit means longer trips with regard to time, and it often isn’t available for workers with shifts ending late into the night. Even getting home from a City Council meeting after 11 pm can be a problem for someone who doesn’t have a car or extra money for an Uber, Lyft or taxi. It would have meant a long slow walk home for a person who uses a cane, had I not arrived by car and offered them a ride. 

I am less worried about available parking at the Marina for ferry users than for others, as I have doubts that the projected ridership is realistic. 

There were five meetings running at the same time Thursday evening, I chose the Design Review Committee (DRC). The DRC gave an unfavorable recommendation to the 10-story housing project for students at 2920 Shattuck with 221 units, 22 of which will be for very low income households. Those 22 units gave the project all the extra floors. The DRC was right. 2920 Shattuck is unattractive, looking like an office building or something out of eastern Europe after the collapse of the USSR. I asked for bird safe glass on every project but since we still have one more step to go it is a request to be responsible to the environment and the birds that live in it with us and not a requirement. Landscaping with California natives was a success this week.