Mission High and Bi-Rite Market partner in a neighborhood divided

Dec 2, 2014

Over the past few years, San Francisco has been getting a lot of press about the tensions in our quickly changing city. It all seems to be magnified in San Francisco’s Mission District: a sunny destination with a growing number of expensive restaurants and rent prices. It’s a neighborhood where Mark Zuckerberg now owns a home, and a place where an affluent, whiter population is displacing lower-income residents, many of them Latino.

But there are partnerships that defy these divides, and one of them is taking place on 18th Street, right by Dolores Park.

On a windy day in San Francisco I’m at the back of Mission High School with teacher Rachel Vigil and her urban agriculture class. We’re outside on the edge of their football field. Students are moving between carefully laid dirt beds, each stretching 30 feet long.

“Listen up,” Vigil says as this class period comes to a close, “we have ten minutes before we have to head to the college center so I’d like everyone to just do a sweep of any green material that is on the paths. Please put it in the compost and pick up any gloves that are hanging out.”

A little over a year ago, this plot was concrete. Mission High staff, students, and volunteers tore it up, brought in dirt and made it the oasis it is today. Mission High senior Alejandra Ramos points out some healthy-looking strawberries.

“It was during the summer and we were like shoveling dirt through the lots,” Ramos says. She took part as a volunteer.

“I guess I just wanted to follow-up and see what it could actually become,” Ramos says of the work putting together the garden. She says that now seeing what the Mission High students grow is a kind of success.

Ramos is now in the two-year urban agriculture course created by teacher Rachel Vigil. Students in this class learn to grow food, spiff up their resumes, and get involved in the local food and environmental movements.

The resulting Mission Youth Garden, or “MY Garden,” has hundreds of shades of green. It’s run by students and supervised by Vigil.

Vigil says her colleagues and she felt “there was a big need to tap into the work around local food systems and have students really develop out their skills and connect that to what's happening in the industry. Particularly in San Francisco because there's so much happening in the local food movement.”

Not only is there a lot happening with the local food movement in San Francisco, there’s also a lot happening with San Francisco, especially the Mission. Technology money has brought big changes to the city, and some neighborhoods, like the Mission, are almost unrecognizable from what they were ten years back.

Census data crunched by the news site Mission Local shows that the Latino population fell by 22 percent from 2000 to 2010. According to the data service Priceonomics, the median rent for a one bedroom in the Mission was $3250 in April, up from $1900 three years ago.

These numbers are frustrating for a lot of people. They’re exclusive and disconnecting. But if you look closely at a local shop, you can find connection.

Shakirah Simley, Bi-Rite’s community outreach and giving manager points to a produce refrigerator in Bi-Rite Market and shows the variety and color. We’re looking at a shelf with purple eggplants, orange and yellow peppers, and red rhubarb stalks.

“This is our cold case,” Simley says. “Generally the student’s produce would be mixed right in.”

She’s pointing to student produce harvested just up the street at Mission High School.

“We definitely have had guests ask about it,” Simley says. “They're like ‘Mission High?’ and we really enjoy that because it gives us an opportunity. If the students aren't here their produce is.”

Mission High School produce on display at Bi-Rite Market.
Credit Laura Klivans

Even though Mission High and Bi-Rite are close physically, there is a mismatch. Many students can’t afford Bi-Rite’s products.

Another student in the urban agriculture class is Tanusree Chakraborty. She says, “I think the only reason that students don’t shop there as much is because of the pricing. They prefer going to the corner store instead, which is you can get a bag of chips for $1.50 and you can basically get nothing at Bi-Rite for $1.50.”

And there are some other issues playing out at Bi-Rite, which mirror the ones in the community. The majority of Mission High students are youth of color, and 74 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch last year. Bi-Rite, with specialty foods at high prices, tends to have customers who are affluent.

Bi-Rite’s prices, however, are related to the larger impact of their organization. “We understand that good food costs more,” Simley says. “And for us it's hard to sacrifice -- do we pay our staff less and provide less benefits? Do we not pay our farmers a competitive price for their amazing products or our artisans for their amazing products?”

This isn’t just lip service. Bi-Rite not only buys MY Farm produce, but Simley partners with Vigil and Mission High to teach students how to make resumes, how to talk and act in an office, and for some students like Tanusree Chakraborty, how to get a job at Bi-Rite.

Walking with Chakraborty, she gives a tour of the buildings related to the market on 18th Street. “We’re going to Bi-Rite, the place I work,” Chakraborty says. “That’s The Creamery, that’s 18 Reasons, and on top is our marketing department,” Chakraborty points to a maroon building housing 18 Reasons. “There’s a kitchen back in there, because we have a lot of cooking classes.”

Chakraborty applied to and was hired by Bi-Rite after her first year of urban agriculture. She spent the summer working at Bi-Rite full time, and now that school has picked up, she continues working there part-time.

She says she likes it. “This is like my first real job,” Chakraborty says. It’s nice to not have an internship where she is treated like a minor, she continues, “They treat me as like I’m a regular employee. It’s good to be able to have such experience before going off to college.”

The connection between Bi-Rite and Mission High has been around a long time because they have been neighbors for a long time. Mission High was founded in 1897; Bi-Rite opened in 1940.

Rachel Vigil and Shakirah Simley use the Mission, a neighborhood with people on both ends of the income spectrum, to show that all people are welcome in the food and environmental movements. Teacher Rachel Vigil says some people see San Francisco as a wealthy place without kids or communities of color.

For Vigil, however, “Being from SF and working in a school like Mission I'm like, ‘we're here.’” She says “Mission High is 90 percent students of color. We are still here. And we cannot be forgotten and we shouldn't be forgotten.”

They’re not being forgotten at one local business. Like the rich soil in the MY garden, the Mission High School and Bi-Rite partnership is creating fertile ground for growth and development.