by Kenneth Hill for the SEFA Food Guardians
Throughout the history of humankind, violence, war and terror have been shown to have a ripple effect on society, creating a vast array of unfortunate consequences for affected communities. For example, when the United States was at war with Japan in World War II and dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, it immediately caused tragedy and immense heartache to the Japanese people. Yet years after the bomb had been dropped, Japanese health officials discovered that the atomic bomb had left harmful chemicals in the air and water, causing birth defects that could affect many future generations. In September of 2001, when Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked two American planes and crashed them into New York's Twins Towers, it too caused immediate tragedy. And now, years later, the firefighters and first responders who helped save lives began to develop chronic lung conditions and battles with cancer.
Examining these two occurrences speaks truth to the fact that violence has a ripple effect, and lays the foundation for looking at the fact that Bayview, a disenfranchised neighborhood in San Francisco, suffers from similar ripple effects as a result of community violence. Though violence in Bayview isn’t nearly as extreme as the dropping of the atomic bomb or the 2001 terrorist attacks, it has suffered from decades of drug and gang-related violence that evokes fear into the community, which creates life-changing circumstances that affect the overall health of the community.
When violence increases in Bayview, it raises the level of fear felt by the community and limits the opportunities that the community has access too.
"I’ve lived in Bayview all my life, 24 years, up here in Hunters View and I hardly ever venture off down into the flatlands," a Bayview resident stated at a community planning meeting held in the West Point Housing Projects. When the Bayview resident was asked why, he stated "Because it’s not safe for me or my friends to go down there."
Yet the flatlands in Bayview are where the majority of stores, shops, clinics - and gangs - are located. This area is very much an asset to the Bayview community in terms of accessing fundamental resources needed for life. However, because of the level of fear this portion of the neighborhood evokes in many parts of the Bayview community, resources are limited for many community residents.
Just as Bayview is known a place where violence frequently erupts, it is also unfortunately known as a food desert. Living in a food desert has major negative health consequences for Bayview residents. According to the US Department of Agriculture, a food desert is an area where a substantial number of residents don’t have easy access to supermarkets that sell affordable produce and healthy food items. This is a reality that many Bayview residents face daily. Many Bayview residents live a mile or more from a full service grocery store and the closest stores are liquor stores and candy houses, which typically sell chips, soda and assorted sugary candies.
Living in a food desert has a real impact on the health of many Bayview residents. Residents of San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood have a life expectancy on average 14 years less than their counterparts on Russian Hill, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. As chronic disease is the leading cause of death, the shorter lifespan is due in part to the limited amount of healthier foods found in the neighborhood and the lack of physical activity that results from living in a dangerous neighborhood. Most of the illnesses that plague Bayview residents are diet-related illnesses, which means that the foods we eat have a negative impact on our bodies. For example, the SF Department of Public Health estimates that over 40% of African American women in Bayview over 45 years of age have some form of diabetes.
With the health outcomes amongst Bayview residents being deplorable and unequal to other neighborhoods in the city, there is an opportunity for food advocates to help shift the food dynamic in Bayview. The Southeast Food Access (SEFA) Food Guardians are working as “Food Ambassadors” to change this food desert by working to improve the access to and the availability of fresh produce and healthy food items. One way that they do this is by working with neighborhood retailers to stock produce and healthy food items. Lee's Food Mart on Jennings and Revere is their recent project where produce is now available. The Food Guardians are also conducting Food Justice Workshops where they educate about healthier eating and the social causes of poor health, in an attempt to make people aware of their circumstances as they pertain to food access. However, as the Food Guardians address the issue of Bayview being a food desert, the persistent issue of community violence never fails to surface.
When a member of the San Francisco Healthy Homes resident committee was asked what could be done to improve the health of Bayview, the answer was, “I don’t know. No one in Bayview cares about their health when people are outside shooting and dealing drugs.”
This perception about health as a secondary concern to the more pressing issue of violence is widespread throughout Bayview. Before anyone can care about their long-term health, they first must feel safe and protect themselves and their families from the violence around them.
Bayview has to be transformed into a safe place before many Bayview residents will start to care about their health. This is not to say that no one here cares, but preventative health isn’t at the forefront of the concerns of a lot of people who live here. But it has to be! Our lives literally depend on it. The efforts of SEFA and the Food Guardians, the Bayview HEAL Zone and many other community organizations in Bayview, along with the San Francisco Police Department, need to work together to address the issue of community violence along with other factors of the health of Bayview, making it a safe place for all of us to live and thrive, not just survive.
Kenneth Hill is a Food Guardian and is writing on behalf of that program. See his other articles here.