As Community Program Manager at Bi-Rite Market, Shakirah Simley married her passion for “good food” and social justice, helping to nourish San Francisco’s underserved communities.
On Tuesday, Simley announced her departure from the health-food market after five years and on Thursday, she celebrated her farewell at the Women’s Building on 18th Street.
Champagne flowed and warm words were exchanged, but for those who worked with the passionate “good food” advocate, the farewell was bittersweet.
“It’s a huge loss to me, to the community, to Bi-Rite to have to say goodbye to her,” said a teary-eyed Sarah Arndt, Bi-Rite’s community coordinator.
Arndt and Simley worked together on community development initiatives, including assisting local corner stores in phasing in healthier products and refining Bi-Rite’s vision and mission around youth empowerment and community building.
“She is so intentional and intelligent about the work that she does, but also incredibly caring,” said Arndt. “She is first going to love the individual that she’s interacting with.”
Simley’s road to Bi-Rite began with canned jam. The 32-year-old New York native likened her experience of growing up in Harlem to growing up in a “fruit desert.”
“We didn’t have access to fresh fruit – and when I came to California and saw how much fruit is wasted on fruit trees, I thought, ‘this is crazy,” said Simley, who is the daughter of a caseworker and granddaughter of a Black Panther.
After relocating to San Francisco to start a career in food justice, Simley decided that to improve the food business, she first had to join it.
So, at 24, Simley launched her own company, Slow Jams, and distributed her homemade jams as a vendor to local grocery outlets, including Bi-Rite. Working out of the kitchen of the Mission District food incubator La Cocina, Simley called her endeavor a “one woman show.”
Sourcing urban fruit and food from female and local farmers, Simley’s vision of creating less edible waste soon shifted into one that encompassed supporting her local community and those who, like her, viewed food as a tool for empowerment.
“For me, food is important but the point is not food, its people. Food is a lens to empower people,” said Simley. “Part of that is recognizing that we are here not just to plant anything but to support what is already happening.”
During Simley’s tenure at Bi-Rite, the market has supported some 2,500 local organizations.
Bob Barnwell, a volunteer with Mo Magic, a collaborative of organizations that works to address the needs of youth in the Western Addition, said that the group’s 12-year-old holiday food box program was reinvigorated under Simley’s leadership.
“They brought in free range turkeys and a fresh bag of produce – she gets the real quality stuff,” said Barnwell. “Shakirah is a big inspiration and a lot of families in the Western Addition benefit from the good work she does.
Simley said that some of her most meaningful work at Bi-Rite included running a career readiness program at Mission High School.
“I’d come in, we’d do resume classes and classes on workplace preparedness. The kids would do mock interviews with me and then apply for jobs with us, Tartine, Delfina and Dandelion,” said Simley.
Over the last five years, Bi-Rite has hired about a dozen youth – the program was a “launching pad for them to get into college or have steady income –a lot of the kids do support their families,” said Simley.
For the eldest of five children, working with the the community’s youths was both natural and rewarding.
“When they start as a really shy or disaffected junior and they are like, ‘I hate carrots,’ to a senior…and they are schooling me on food justice, I can’t tell you how important that transformation is,” said Simley.
Simley called Bi-Rite’s community development programs “more than just donating a catering platter.”
“It’s about investing in people’s lives and also paying attention to what’s happening in the neighborhood,” she said. “For youth of color to see that a person like me … start a career in food and shape it the way you want, it’s saying ‘you can do ur own thing.’ You can support your community by leveraging local food businesses to make a change.”
The Mission resident said that this type of work is crucial in times of a growing equality gap in the city.
“I’ve seen evictions and know people who had to leave the city. People are struggling,” said Simley. “As our community manager, I get requests for donations and for needs every single day and over the past five years, those requests have increased.”
Simley will take a temporary reprieve from the city to focus on her work as an organizer with Nourish Resist, a political engagement organization she co-founded, and as a writer in the “good food” movement, but plans to return to ensure that San Francisco is a “healthy, equitable and resilient place for as many people as possible.”
“I’m committed to this city,” she said.
Thank you, Shakirah, for your contributions to the community.