This Food Truck Wants to Serve Up Dinner and Social Justice
When Carolina Abolio was developing a menu for her restaurant, she knew she wanted to cook and serve something from Venezuela, where she grew up, that was healthy, that was affordable, that kids would like. Today, many of her fans know her as Miss Arepita, the name both she and her food cart have taken from the arepas—thick, griddle-browned corn cakes that are a Venezuelan staple—the menu is built around. Whether they’re stuffed with pabellón (black beans and beef braised in tomato sauce) or reina pepiada (chicken with avocado), the arepas are loaded with veggies from Phat Beets Produce, a nonprofit food justice collective based in North Oakland, California.
“Miss Arepita cannot be Miss Arepita without Phat Beets,” Abolio said. The organization has provided more than wholesale vegetables and a Saturday market: “Phat Beets gave us the platform to launch our business—the tools, the space, equipment, insurance—a window to the world,” she said. “I owe a lot to the Phat Beets Kitchen Incubator program.”
The Phat Beets Kitchen Incubator program helps women of color launch food businesses by helping to clear some of the thorny underbrush—regulations, access to funding—blocking the path to entrepreneurship. Now, with the Food Justice Food Truck, Phat Beets is trying to help those businesses bridge the gap between serving food at farmers markets and other events and the dream some have to one day own a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The truck would allow incubator program participants, such as Oaktown Eritrea, to park the truck for the day outside a busy grocery store or in a gas station parking lot.
Phat Beets’ goal is to raise $30,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to complete the refurbishment of the truck and bring it up to code, and to have enough money left over to hire a part-time coordinator at $16 an hour who can help secure permits and book events.
“We hope to have it in use seven days a week between three or four organizations under one banner of community food justice food truck,” said Max Cadji of Phat Beets Produce. “The idea is that it’s a collaborative vehicle that’s used for many things and the first vehicle of many vehicles.”
In other words, the Kitchen Incubator’s Venezuelan, gluten-free Eritrean, and Laotian food are just one aspect of the Food Justice Food Truck, which will also hit the streets in support of the Phat Beetz Youth Pickle and Catering Company, the Self Help Hunger Program, the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, and Castlemont High School. More trucks could mean more jobs for the youths ages 15 to 22 who work with Phat Beetz and more women enrolled in the Kitchen Incubator program, which is now limited to three participants.
“We can’t talk about bringing food in communities without talking about bringing jobs in communities,” Oakland chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry, the author of Afro Vegan, says in the fund-raising video.
“It’s a grassroots revitalization of the economy. It’ll be a beautiful way for people to connect to each other, connect to themselves, and really make this a more vibrant community,” Rose Elizondo, cofounder of the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, says in the video.
Phat Beets operates on a system of restorative economics, which Cadji described as the healing of structural and institutional racism. “Restorative economics is about economically healing that harm,” he said, “giving someone equal opportunity to launch something that heals them and provides for the community.”
With a fleet of trucks, Cadji said the Kitchen Incubator program participants and other Food Justice Food Truck partners could roll up to the hundreds of street fairs held in the Bay Area every year and provide more programming throughout the city. Take Aunti Francis, a Black Panther who works with the Self Help Hunger Program. For seven years, she served a wholesome meal to those in need—including low-income, homeless, and formerly homeless people—every week in North Oakland’s Driver Plaza. The Food Justice Food Truck could spread her work, and the women she serves could also benefit from the Food Justice Food Truck and the Kitchen Incubator program, Cadji said, a demonstration of the intersectionality of Phat Beets’ work.
“There are all these women who are amazing cooks who are just scraping by because of gentrification, displacement, police violence, intercommunal violence, and she wants to provide that opportunity for her community,” Cadji said. “The role of our organization is to pull all these barriers out and let people do what they do—which is cook and serve their community.”
On Saturday, Phat Beets’ market in North Oakland will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers and the party’s pioneering food justice efforts. In 1968, in the group’s Oakland headquarters, the Black Panthers began the first organized school breakfast food programs in the country. There will be storytelling, food, and fresh produce. Aunti Francis will be there, and so will Miss Arepita.
“That is the main thing,” Abolio said. “Creating these events for the community, by the community—that’s more important than anything else.”
“One of the main things that I say is you need a village to grow a kid, but you need a whole community growing food businesses,” she said. “You need a whole community supporting you in the good, the bad, and the ugly times. You need the whole community supporting you—and you need to support the community.”