Why prisons buy individually-cut bananas: Oakland wholesale produce market

At 4:30AM today, Nap and I met with four Eat.Think.Design. students at the intersection of 2nd and Webster in Oakland.

This year we’re engaging in optional out-of-class activities with students to tap into specifc food systems interests and to more deeply explore design methods. This morning, we took an ad-hoc tour of Oakland’s wholesale produce market in Jack London Square. The students who were with me and Nap: Laura Vollmer (MPH Nutrition & RD), Shaon Barman (PhD Computer Science), Nora Gilbert (MPH & Master of City Planning), and Tomas Leon (MS/PhD Environmental Health Sciences).

We conducted a quick walkthrough of the market together and then split into three pairs to do a more in-depth investigation that involved talking to people. (This process was guided by the advice of our friend Hani Haddad, who is a food retailer in Hayward and Palo Alto.) After an hour, we moved to Ole’s Waffles in Alameda for an early breakfast and a debrief. And of course a reflection on the process.

I was amazed by the breadth – and depth – of insights that the team was able to gather in just an hour: the nature of multi-year relationships between buyers and sellers; the excessively high price of limes due to rains in Mexico; why prisons buy individually cut and packed bananas; produce markups in East Oakland versus Berkeley; the impact of the California drought on produce quality; the weirdest requests that sellers have received from buyers; daily revenue numbers; and plenty more.

I asked each person on the team – including me – to capture her/his top insight about the market in a text message.

The insights follow.

Team 1:

Nora: Three different people told us about how many decades they’d worked there for, or how many generations their families had been coming for — the produce business was a source of pride and identity. They talked about relationships between buyers and sellers, and so much of it is about trust. “Taking care of each other” is part of their business model.

Nap: A small operation is $2.8 million a year in revenues, with 3 employees. A large operation [company name omitted] estimated 15-20 times that: $40-50 million.

Team 2:

Shaon: The market seemed very “traditional.” Individual relationships seemed to dominate business transactions, and most people we met worked there for decades.

Tomas: The wholesale produce market reminds me of the street markets common in Thailand and across Southeast Asia, which strikes me as indicative of how many additional steps there are in our American food supply chains.

Team 3:

Laura: Come early for the good stuff (or, show up to make sure you’re getting the best price for the best product).

Jaspal: Owner of La Raza market in East Oakland, a natural storyteller. 30 years in US, from Yemen, speaks enough Spanish to move to Mexico tomorrow. Because he serves low income customers demand varies within the month – sometimes people buy six tomatoes, sometimes they can only buy one.

For more on prisons and bananas, you’ll have to ask Tomas and Shaon. And we left with an 88-count box of extra fancy Fuji apples from Fujii Melon.

JaspalWhy prisons buy individually-cut bananas: Oakland wholesale produce market