The Last Black Woman in San Francisco Wants Everyone to Eat Well

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on print
Rachel Bolden Kramer at a CUESA farmers market demo
Rachel Bolden Kramer at a CUESA farmers market demo. Photo by Anne Hamersky

In a haunting mash note to a city in flux, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Jimmie Fails plays a version of himself, a young black man who grew up poor and is trying to find a sense of home in a city he loves that doesn’t always love him back. He crashes with his best friend, a fish market worker who lives in cramped quarters in Bayview-Hunters Point. The film follows Jimmie, who is determined to reclaim a Victorian-style house in the Fillmore District, once the center of a thriving black middle-class culture. The turreted home, moviegoers are told, was built by Jimmie’s grandfather in the 1940s but the property was lost by the family and Jimmie’s on a mission to make it his again.

The details are a little different but like Jimmie Fails, Rachel Bolden-Kramer grew up in San Francisco and her family lost their home. Bolden-Kramer, the single child of working-class parents, was raised in the Upper Haight in the 1980s and 90s. Her dad, who has roots in the American South, was a driver; her Jewish mom worked for the phone company. Bolden-Kramer qualified for free school lunch. The first in her family to graduate from college, she attended Harvard University, and returned to the Bay Area in the heart of the Great Recession. A few years later, she bounced to New York and then, briefly, Los Angeles before returning to San Francisco in 2014 as a single mother in search of a home and scrambling to make ends meet.

Bolden-Kramer arrived in the nick of time: She was able to stop a foreclosure and avoid a short sale of her family home. But her parents, who had fallen on hard times, had to sell and couldn’t afford to remain in the city. Bolden-Kramer needed to help relocate and care for her aging and ailing parents; her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Oakland was out of reach; the multigenerational family now calls El Sobrante  (Spanish for “the leftovers” or “surplus”) home. Since 2017, she has run a holistic, Spanish-immersion preschool from her house.

Bolden-Kramer misses San Francisco, though her food-focused side hustle sometimes brings her here. And she still has an on-going presence in the city she used to call home. A larger-than-life presence, in fact.

Good Food For All

Bolden-Kramer is literally a poster child for San Francisco. She is featured as one of 15 portraits now on permanent display at the Ferry Building as part of CUESA’s Food Change public art mural installation that celebrates farmers, advocates, and residents who are working to improve the region’s food systems. CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture), the educational nonprofit behind the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, unveiled the project in February. San Francisco-based food and farm photographer, Anne Hamersky, who shot the cover image for this issue, was commissioned to photograph these champions for change.

Saturated in soothing greens and sporting fuchsia-dyed locks, Bolden-Kramer—decked out, made up, carrying a basket filled with produce abundance, and her onion-toting daughter Issa perched on her hip—represents access to good food for all. Indeed, she wrote a book on it. The author of the self-published, crowdsourced My Food Stamps Cookbook penned a primer based on personal experience on how to eat well on assistance. The 2017 guide includes tips and recipes for creating simple, nourishing, plant-based, low-cost meals on a budget.

“Good food is a basic right for everyone. We wanted to bring attention to nutrition benefit programs like EBT and incentive programs like Market Match, which help to make fresh, local food affordable for families on limited incomes,” says CUESA’s communications director Brie Mazurek.

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, Market Match is California’s healthy food incentive program, which matches customers’ federal nutrition assistance benefits, including CalFresh. Formerly known as food stamps and known nationally as SNAP—short for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance ProgramCalFresh benefits are deposited monthly via EBT, the electronic benefit transfer system. An EBT card works like a debit card to buy food at supermarkets, grocery stores, and farmers markets. With Market Match, EBT recipients’ cards are swiped and they receive tokens for a corresponding amount—up to $10 a day per family—to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, doubling the dollars they have to spend.

Mazurek saw Bolden-Kramer as a perfect fit for the project. “Through her wellness education, social justice work, and by sharing her own story, [Bolden-Kramer] works to dispel myths and remove stigmas around food insecurity,” Mazurek says. “Millions of Americans qualify for food stamps.” Make that more than 42 million Americans.

One in four San Francisco residents struggle with hunger, according to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. Some 23 percent of San Franciscans live below 200 percent of the poverty line ($48,500) and qualify for nutrition benefits. The so-called hidden hungry include seniors, college students, and young working families.

Bolden-Kramer is living proof, she says, that poverty doesn’t have to kill you. “I was able to hustle despite my struggles to stretch out a food-stamp budget and eat a healthy and sustainable diet with nutritious foods,” says the 35-year-old, who also works as a doula and is expecting her second child. “It’s important to me to share what I’ve learned with vulnerable communities that face obstacles to eating well on a low income. I’m dedicated to teaching healthy habits to the next generation, their parents, and anyone who is broke.”

When people are nourished and don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from they’re able to reach their potential, says Bolden-Kramer. Now a small business owner, who supports her own family, Bolden-Kramer is living proof of that, too.

“So here’s the deal: You don’t need to be a welfare recipient to be on a tight budget. Ever since I graduated from college in 2006, I’ve been on a super-tight budget, sometimes getting food stamps, sometimes crying about not getting them. And I went to a freaking Ivy League school.”    Bolden-Kramer, My Food Stamps Cookbook

SNAP Hacks: How to Eat Right When Money’s Tight

Bolden-Kramer first became eligible for food stamps when she moved off campus as a student and started paying rent in Boston in 2004. She figured out pretty quickly that she’d need to be strategic to stretch her limited resources. She’d grown up thrifty, in a coupon-clipping household where they ate whatever was on sale at Safeway, much of it highly processed and unhealthy. She also grew up on Popeyes,  McDonald’s, SlimFast, and Snackwell’s.

But after she left home she discovered farmers market produce, seeded bread, and fresh-pressed almond butter. To someone who had grown up with very basic food choices, these foods were a revelation. “I was super excited to try all these things, which were fancy to me,” she says. “I also had to figure out really fast how to make my money last.”

And she did. Bolden-Kramer frequented farmers markets and surveyed the stalls in search of the best buys. She’d also come at the end of the market when farmers often offer deals to sell surplus fruits and vegetables. She made a point to eat in season. She frequented urban farms and paid to belong to a community supported agriculture (CSA), which offered a sliding scale and allowed EBT recipients to pay weekly, not a season in advance. She scouted for staples on sale at the grocery store. She frequented the food bank and food pantries. She sourced affordable proteins like beans, tofu, and nut butters.

She also made almost everything from scratch: juices, smoothies, nut milks, salads, soups, and stews. She stored food so it would last as long as possible and she made sure no food went to waste. One of the biggest myths Bolden-Kramer says she likes to debunk: Eating well has to cost a lot of money. She says she shifted to more wholesome eating when she was receiving around $200 a month on food stamps. The notion that the only option for food stamp recipients is low-quality, highly processed, unhealthy foods that are cheap and have a long shelf life “is simply not true.”

It’s even possible to access nourishing food without spending a penny. “I’m blown away by how much free food is available through the food bank and food pantries, including fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. “There is a ton of food discarded by grocery stores and bakeries that makes its way to the food bank and food pantries. A lot of it is high quality, sometimes even organic, but just beyond the timeframe a store can sell it. This is good food that might otherwise go to waste.”

Another stereotype she’d like to put to rest: Food stamp recipients are lazy welfare cheats milking the system. Back in her Harvard days, she knew PhD and MD students who were utilizing the program. And newsflash: Even people who aren’t welfare recipients are often on tight food budgets, especially in a city like San Francisco where so much of almost everyone’s income is eaten up in housing expenses.

Bolden-Kramer was drawn to a holistic approach to living and what she calls radical nutrition, which she describes as a harm reduction approach to eating and a belief in the body’s innate ability to heal itself through a healthy diet. She trained as a yoga teacher and ran a yoga studio in Brooklyn, New York for several years; she has studied radical nutrition at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C.; and she attended a mindfulness yoga and meditation training program at Spirit Rock in Woodacre in California.

All those skills helped her to handle a violent trauma, which, she says, occurred in the Bay Area and left her suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. During that challenging period in her post-college life, she qualified for disability in 2010 and became adept at dealing with the public assistance system, including accessing food stamps, which she utilized on and off for about six years. In the process, she learned how to navigate the confusing and complex social welfare bureaucracy, and incorporated her skills and strategies for survival at the margins in workshops for low-income residents that she was invited to lead by the New York City Housing Authority in 2012.

Since relocating back to the Bay, Bolden-Kramer has sought to share what she’s learned with communities in need here. She spent a year teaching culinary classes for a YMCA youth program in the Tenderloin. She periodically teaches cooking classes with children and families at the African American Art & Culture Complex in the Fillmore, and for women and children at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice’s Cameo House, a long-term, transitional, alternative-sentencing program for homeless and formerly incarcerated women and their children in the Mission District. This year she taught a series on food access and nutrition at her alma mater, Mission High School.

One of the biggest obstacles to living well on a budget, says the food advocate, is simply time. “It’s challenging to source and prep food when you’re exhausted from the daily demands of working, running a home, and being the chief caregiver of a young child and an aging parent,” says Bolden-Kramer, who recommends one-pot meals, sharing dinner duties via community potlucks, and learning to grow some of your own food, whether in a community garden or at home. With the help of the nonprofit advocacy organization Planting Justice, which installed raised vegetable beds in her backyard, Bolden-Kramer has recently begun growing her own produce. To date she’s harvested beets, broccoli, kale, chard, collards, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, carrots, radishes, herbs, and strawberries.

Another time-saver: She has a hot tip she shares with anyone signing up for SNAP. “Shout out to the food bank staff, whose outreach line can help manage the CalFresh paperwork from start to finish, thus avoiding long, frustrating, and discouraging lines waiting for assistance when you first apply,” she says. “They can also assist with the many requirements needed to keep a case for assistance open.” Bolden-Kramer has helped potential recipients sign up online as well, via the CalFresh website, getcalfresh.org.

Research reveals that the longer a person receives food stamps, the greater the risk for poor health, Bolden-Kramer says. Several studies show beneficiaries of the program have higher levels of obesity than people who aren’t food stamp recipients, though the reasons for that aren’t clear cut.  “I fought to change this in my own life,” she says, “by deconstructing the stigma about food stamps and the scarcity thinking that falling within low-income standards meant that I had to consume sub-par, unhealthy foods.” She learned so much in the process, she wrote a book about it.

My Food Stamps Cookbook is available on Amazon. Find Bolden-Kramer at babymommarachel.com or on Instagram @babymommarachel.

Photo: Anne Hamersky