Photo by Graham Prentice

En Español

The café that appeared at Florida and 21st St at the end of January was reminiscent of many popular Mission brunch spots:  mimosas flowed, a live band strummed soul tunes, and cups of artisan coffee and delicate muffins circulated among the waiting crowd.

Two key factors, however, set the affair apart: everything was free and it would disappear once the day was through. It was an All Access Café event, an experiment in community-supported dining.

“We were thinking about a way to address urban food justice, locally sourced food, and community building,” says Abigail Wick, a 27- year-old Mission-based writer and activist who, along with the late Kirsten Brydum, co-founded the project in the spring of 2008.

Their idea was to explore the intersections of food justice, local produce, and gift economies by transforming public spaces into temporary full-service gourmet restaurants that ask diners for donations or labor rather than delivering a check at the end of the meal.

The first two cafes held in May and July of 2008, were well attended, but both had problems. The most significant, Wick says, was accessibility. “We’re white kids in this community of artists and activists,” she says, “but we’re often serving these alternative ends that might not be rooted in true community outreach.”

A third event was planned for the fall of 2008, but was put on hold in the wake of Brydum’s murder. The young activist was on a two- month cross-country trip to research alternatives to capitalist economies, and made a stop in New Orleans. After a concert on the night of September 26th, she biked home alone and was later found shot in the head, the victim of an apparent robbery.

Café organizers stepped away from the project for a year and a half following Brydum’s death, but supporters failed to forget it. “People would approach me,” recalls Wick, “and say ‘what about All Access Café? It was so important to me.’”

With the January brunch, All Access Café has come out of mourning, thanks in large part to 23-year-old activist, artist, and food-lover Nikole Lent.

“I felt that we owed it to Kirstin’s memory to keep the project going,” says Lent, a key member of the project since its inception. “It’s important to carry the torch.”

All Access Café is not the first organization to use food to strengthen community. Soup kitchens, common during the Great Depression, exploded during the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Panther Party organized free breakfast and lunch programs that eventually pushed the federal government’s free or subsidized public school lunch.  Food Not Bombs, which began serving free meals made from farm and market surplus in the 1980s, has also inspired similar programs.

The January café at the Box Factory served close to 300 people in four hours – an efficiency Lent credits to great volunteers. “I was amazed at how many people were so eager to contribute in any way they could,” she says.

Those who didn’t pitch in with dishwashing, cooking prep or cleaning up, donated funds, all of which will go towards the next All Access Café later this spring.

The problem of outreach, Lent says, has not been solved. Like its predecessors, the January brunch failed to incorporate the wider Mission community. Flyers were translated into Spanish and advertisements placed on various web sites but most diners were connected with the Mission’s artistic hipster establishment.

Like Brydum and Wick, Lent is set on making the project more accessible. Ideally, she says, “we want to create a place that’s comfortable for (a greater cross-section of) people from the area to get involved.” To that end, she hopes to collaborate with Mission-based community groups like the Latin American Cultural Center and Galeria de la Raza.

Aside from plans for another event, Lent and her fellow volunteers are focused on how to expand and sustain All Access Café. “It provides people with an opportunity to be generous,” says Lent. And that, she thinks, is something today’s urbanizing world can’t have too much of.

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I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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