Bringing healthy food and food education to a food desert.
In a kitchen in East Oakland, chef Sarah Germany is prepping roasted chicken with rice pilaf and butternut squash, along with a nutritious carrot juice to wash it all down. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that she is in an area challenged with a lack of healthy food choices, a designated food desert in California. Germany has been working on changing this scenario since January of this year. At Youth Uprising’s Corners Café, the chief culinary officer and café manager and native New Yorker is aiming for the improvement of overall health and wellness of residents via a revamped menu.
“The goal is to create an eatery to serve as a community spot for everyone to access and enjoy healthy food options to better their overall wellness,” says Germany. “This cafe is a continuous opportunity to speak to our neighbors about what we are offering and why.” Corners Café is a social enterprise arm of Youth Uprising, one of the longest established youth organizations in Oakland which has been in existence since 2005. “We are invested in the community and committed to the young people who are going to become the adults in this neighborhood,” she continues.
Germany’s staff at Corners Cafe consists of a dozen high school students whom she has partnered with to provide training. Her staff is paid between $13.89 and $15 per hour for an average of about 20 hours a week. But the training doesn’t end there. The students also receive career and educational guidance to learn goal setting, financial planning, resolution workshops and more. “As a youth development center, our primary goal is to help young people align themselves for success,” she shares. “My philosophy is professional success starts with personal wellness and wellness is a totality.”
Learning from the Past
Germany grew up in a large family from the South in New York’s South Bronx borough in the 1970s. A community of friends and neighbors ensured Filipino, Puerto Rican and Jamaican culinary influences surrounded her. “However, by the time I was 20, people were dying left and right. At one point, I had attended 13 funerals in 11 months. Every single person had died from a health-related illness that could have been prevented with a better diet,” she shares. Germany’s sister too passed on from illness around her 30th birthday. “Somewhere before 35, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. I was at a threshold.”
Though Germany was cooking professionally and had bought into the philosophy that health and wellness were good, she hadn’t translated what she did publicly to what she did at home. “There is something fundamentally wrong about how we eat. I needed to invest in food as education and not just as a culinary interest.” She wanted to learn more and she did. “I liquidated all my assets, went to southern India and lived on a rice paddy, to study food in communities where health and wellness were a priority. What does that look like in your daily functions and how to translate that into how I live here.”
The ability to grow food year-round and incorporate that philosophy of wellness and health into not just her work but also her life fuel Germany’s move to Oakland. A background in teaching helped; she taught undergraduate composition and adult literacy in addition to working at two universities. To combine her knowhow, she wrote a proposal titled, “A Blueprint for Wellness,” for low-income populations living on fixed incomes in undesirable situations. “What could you do if you could feed yourself for $3 a day with something healing — that’s how the work started about 12 years ago,” she says.
Planning for the Future
Having lived in Oakland for about ten years now, those efforts have evolved into a workforce development program that supports foster youth and Germany managing Corners Café. She also created a nonprofit, The Food Commonweal, designed around wellness education, and what it would mean to create a mobile food distribution process featuring quality food. When initially approached by Youth Uprising to join their team and reopen the café that had been closed for a few months, she was apprehensive about whether they shared any commonality in terms of the cuisine to be offered.
Germany provides her personal story as well as statistics on area demographics substantiating the connection to healthy food and personal wellness. “When I started this process, I was weighing 363 pounds but lost 153 pounds and kept it off,” she says. “So when I say I live my work, it’s my testimony, it’s part of my life. I didn’t do anything but cook differently.” Teaching cooking methods and the importance of balance in diet, reducing sugar, salt and fat at every possible turn and still enjoying all of the foods that you know is possible. That apart, the numbers don’t lie.
She shares, “Children born in East Oakland on average die 14 years earlier than those born five miles away. That’s a mortality rate that can absolutely be changed based on health and wellness access.” And so the work at Corners Café began. Germany hopes the cafe will become more of a community spot working with other nonprofits in the long run. She also would like to see it offer wellness education, making it a centralized hub for people to access quality food and food education.