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Letters for the Week of September 11

Readers sound off on gentrification in Oakland, police corruption, and our use of the word eponymous.


"Grease Box, Phat Beets, and the 'G' Word," What the Fork, 8/28

Phat Beets Responds

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 the biased Express article written about us. 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 to emerge from this process.

First of all, Phat Beets Produce is a social justice organization, not a for-profit business, and our mission is to connect small-scale farmers of color to urban communities through the creation of free and affordable farm stands, clinic-based farmers markets, incubator farms and kitchens, and youth gardens. Unfortunately, Phat Beets and many of its programs and vendors are currently being displaced by a new business, Grease Box, at what was formerly referred to as Crossroads. As we tell our side of the story and do our best to clear up misinformation, we also want to open the discussion around how this example of Grease Box ending up in a position to control and profit from what was once a community cafe is connected to the larger issue of gentrification and its effect on the North Oakland community.

A little context and history:

Contrary to the narrative of the Express article, Crossroads Cooperative was very successful in terms of garnering community support. But for Michele Lee — who does deserve a lot of credit for getting the place started and operating — the inability for Crossroads to turn a profit immediately was cause 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 and complex situation for everyone to be in, and Phat Beets was by no means perfect throughout these events. But we carried our own weight with efforts like 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 the back of the space, and much more.

Phat Beets and several vendors also tried numerous times to buy the cafe and take over the role of leaseholder. 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.

None of the members of Crossroads Co-op (Phat Beets being one member) were informed about the sale to Grease Box. Given the cooperative structure of Crossroads, Lee's right to "sell" her share without approval from the rest of the co-op is highly questionable. Furthermore, the specifics of the deal with Grease Box have yet to be disclosed to Crossroads co-op members, so no one knows 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, leaving out Phat Beets and other Crossroads vendors.

Unfortunately, this history seemed to set the stage for a doomed relationship between Phat Beets and Grease Box from the beginning. Contrary to the narrative espoused in the article, we initially attempted to work with and cooperate with Boelter and did hold several negotiations. The first meetings were hopeful, with promises of compromises by both sides, but as time passed, it became clear that Boelter had erased all intentions of sharing the space and decision-making power.

For example, as soon as Grease Box moved in, Boelter demanded that the kitchen become gluten-free. 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 food practices of the vendors who had been cooking and selling in the kitchen long before Grease Box arrived. Not allowing our vendors to use gluten has also undermined Phat Beets' ability to run our Kitchen Incubator Program.

The Kitchen Incubator Program helps low-income vendors start healthful-food-related businesses in order to create their own jobs and build economic justice. The program is, despite claims in the recent Express article and on the Grease Box website, permitted by the Alameda County Health Department. In fact, we have been told by Rebecca Carnahan, Alameda County Environmental Health Department Food Safety Inspector, that Phat Beets is permitted to use the kitchen as long as Grease Box agrees and signs a commissary agreement with Phat Beets. Boelter has not responded to the health department's request for a signed copy of this agreement. This proves that, contrary to Grease Box's statement, it is Boelter, not the health department, that has been preventing Phat Beets from using the kitchen all along.

In addition to providing inaccurate information, we feel the Express article is complicit in constructing a biased narrative of the space that unfairly benefits Grease Box. Phat Beets' representation in the article is one-sided and mischaracterized, even down to the images used; where was the photo of Phat Beets vendors to balance out the photo of Grease Box staff? Why wasn't the story of Misako Kashima and Ikumi Ogasawara presented? Misako is a Japanese vendor, an original Crossroads member and a participant of our Kitchen Incubator Program who has been serving her delicious and healthful cuisine out of the space since the beginning of this year but has been denied permission to continue cooking her food since the appearance of Grease Box.