Archive for Food and Drink

Lunch Trucks

One point I did not really cover in my previous post about West Berkeley is how a walk in this part of Berkeley can really illustrate why it is not advisable to make sweeping judgments about a city or feel like one can summarize a city in a few words. Hippie. Yuppie. Foodie. Wacky. These are some of the words that have been used in the media to describe Berkeley residents. If I just went by what I read, I might believe these descriptions. But by getting out on foot I have hoped to discover for myself what it is like and share those discoveries with others. About a week ago I was waiting for a friend to take care of an errand at a West Berkeley business. I was jolted out of my thoughts by the sudden arrival of a mobile vending cart with its blaring horn. I thought to myself, I wonder if many people will really come and purchase food from the lunch truck? And sure enough, within a couple of minutes people were wandering out of nearby industrial buildings to purchase donuts, sandwiches, soft drinks, and the like.

This experience came back into my thoughts a couple of times over the past few days, and I wondered why. It is not unusual to see a lunch truck (and particularly a “taco truck”) in the Bay Area. What I finally realized is that the lunch truck is a stark contrast to the image of Berkeley being as a “gourmet mecca” or a “foodie’s paradise.” Not everyone is taking a break at lunch from their white-collar office job (or their leisure time) to dine on expensive meals of grassfed beef, organic baby greens, and local wine. Fourth Street and its upscale restaurants are just a few blocks away, but many people who work in West Berkeley probably never get over there. And, as I noted previously, many people seem to drive directly to the Fourth Street shopping area and never stray outside of those few blocks. Walking a couple blocks from here, one might see the aforementioned lunch trucks, the factories, the day laborers waiting along Hearst Ave. for work, the grocery outlet store, people rolling carts full of bottles to sell at the recycling center. There is a lot more going on in Berkeley than one can see from the window of a passing car.

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Grocery Stores

So much has already been written about food in Berkeley that I have put off writing about it here for a long time. And — unlike many other topics related to walking in Berkeley — I find it very difficult to see anything food-related without letting all of the other information I have work into my impartial observations. I do have some thoughts to share, though, so I will start with grocery stores. Unlike parts of Oakland to south, Berkeley has a fair number of grocery stores in most neighborhoods. Most stores are concentrated in the flatland areas throughout central and south Berkeley. No grocery stores exist in the Berkeley hills, a part of town that is pretty much devoid of businesses. The stairways and pathways would make it a little easier to carry groceries up the hill, but this part of town does not seem to be the easiest place to walk with heavy bags or packages.

There are currently no standard grocery stores in West Berkeley, although there is a Grocery Outlet (with dented, overstocked, almost-expired items) and several ethnic markets on San Pablo Avenue. Fourth Street has small gourmet pasta and meat markets. A second Berkeley Bowl store is planned for southwest Berkeley, and has been the subject of controversy throughout the time since I moved to Berkeley and started this walking project. The current Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, in South Berkeley, is very well known in the Bay Area, mostly for its large selection of inexpensive produce. The feelings about the store from those who have shopped there often fall into the extreme ranges of the love-hate spectrum. A good way to get an idea of what I mean, if you are not familiar with Berkeley Bowl, is to read the Yelp reviews for the store.

Elsewhere throughout town, the grocery stores include Safeway, Andronico’s (a local chain), Whole Foods Market and Berkeley Natural Grocery (natural food stores), Monterey Market (similar to Berkeley Bowl but smaller), and many smaller specialty stores (Indian, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, cheese, meat, fish, bread, and many more). In addition to Berkeley Bowl, a recently-approved Trader Joe’s in central Berkeley has sparked a fair amount of controversy particularly due to concerns about parking and traffic in residential neighborhoods. On one walk past the planned site of the Trader Joe’s, I noticed that the posted public notice was scrawled with notes expressing concern that a store that sells alcohol would be so close to the Berkeley campus.

Along with my observations about the locations of grocery stores, I have two other major observations resulting from my walks. First is that grocery store parking lots have generated some of the biggest dangers for me as a walker, especially on walks at peak shopping hours. Walks near Berkeley Bowl have been particularly hazardous, with Whole Foods following closely behind. I think this is mainly due to Berkeley being somewhere in-between a dense urban area and a spread-out suburb. Stores in large cities often have no parking lot at all, whereas those in outlying areas often have enormous lots with plenty of parking spaces. The lots at most Berkeley stores are fairly small, and on many walks I have seen lines of cars backed out of parking lots waiting for a spot to open up and other cars circling the surrounding neighborhoods looking for a spot on the street.

Based on what I have seen on walks, I have also been thinking about the overall picture of food availability in Berkeley. So far I have concluded that the range of food available here is very wide, and it would be very easy to get pretty much any food ingredient that one needed without leaving town. This all seems good from perspective of a walker. On the other hand, there appears to be much more in the way of choices for those who have plenty of money to spend on food. There is a huge emphasis here on “sustainable food,” which can include organic, locally-grown or produced, fair trade, minimally packaged, and other qualities in food. I have been wondering just how possible it would be to eat sustainably on a more modest budget, and partially as a result of observations on my walks — I have been pondering some sort of project to test this out. This will have to wait until I finish walking every street in Berkeley, but in the meantime I did have one experience that did somewhat confirm my thoughts that there is the desire for reasonably priced food in Berkeley. A group of people are attempting to start a cooperative grocery in Berkeley, modeled after the Park Slope Cooperative Grocery in Brooklyn. A cooperative grocery did exist and ultimately fail in Berkeley under a much different model. What Happened to the Berkeley Co-op? (available at the Berkeley Public Library), proved to be an interesting read, and provided quite a bit of insight into the history of the old co-op. I went to a crowded introductory meeting for the cooperative, and one of the first things that happened at the meeting was for everyone to say why they were interested in the cooperative. The majority of people who attended, who were mostly from Berkeley, were very interested in a source for high-quality, sustainable, but affordable food. As of this writing, the cooperative has over 300 members, and I imagine based on my experience at the meeting and my observations on walks that there may be room for more affordable grocery shopping options.

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On Farmers Markets and the Transport of Goods Without a Car

I admit to being slightly obsessed with farmers markets. In Berkeley the farmers market runs throughout the year on Tuesdays (North Berkeley), Thursdays (South Berkeley), and Saturdays (downtown). I visit one or two of the markets each week, depending on my schedule, and often I will plan a walk in one of the neighborhoods surrounding the markets. Although people come from all over town (and from out of town) to the markets, all of them have the distinct feel of the neighborhoods where they are held.

I also admit to having spent a fair amount of time researching all sort of devices to transport items without a car. Never mind that I usually do not have large items to carry, I still enjoy imagining how I would carry a kayak (if I had one) out to the water on a bicycle or looking at photos all of the large packages others have carried around. Carrying bulky and heavy items is relatively easy on a bicycle. On foot, it is a different story. There are few alternatives to the poorly designed, flimsy “granny carts” for walking with large loads. They are difficult to manuever on many public transportation systems, and — outside of New York City — many people under 60 wouldn’t be caught dead rolling one of those carts around. Recently I was actually able to locate a reasonably priced, fold-up roller bag from a company that obviously markets to a young, hip audience, so perhaps there is hope after all for more options in the walking cargo transportation market. On Saturday I spotted the first of the season’s watermelons at the farmers market, so I will be keeping an eye out for others who have found innovative ways to carry melons, winter squash, and other heavy fruits and vegetables.

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