Let Them Eat Figs! A Councilman’s Fruity Plan To End Hunger In Hayward

Hayward Councilmember Francisco
Zermeno to the hungry:  there’s fig and
kumquat trees near Southland Mall.
PHOTO/Zermeno for Mayor 2014

HAYWARD | As elected officials in Hayward attempted to sidestep guilt surrounding an ordinance that ostensibly makes it much more difficult for small-scale free food providers to feed the poor in its parks, one city council member had an idea for curbing hunger in the self-proclaimed “Heart of the Bay.”

“One of the things I’ve always talked about is allowing fruit trees on our streets,” said Councilmember Francisco Zermeno, “because that certainly allows for folks to eat fruit.”

Zermeno, who is a candidate for mayor next year, said although the practice was deemed “too messy” by the city, he nonetheless gave residents suffering from hunger pains a tip for filling their empty stomachs. There’s fig and kumquat trees already teeming with fruit on a street near Hayward’s Southland Mall, he said, during Tuesday’s council meeting.

This idyllic scene of a downtrodden and hungry soul suddenly walking up to an oasis of apples, orange and plum trees along Foothill Boulevard, or any other street in Hayward, is a bit contemptible and, if plausible, would undermine the downtown merchant’s argument against the weakest among us loitering around their shops and costing them business.

In fact, the idea is already negatively tainted in the public mind by the link to homelessness. Fruit trees on city streets now signifies a bad neighborhood, homeowners might say. Conversely, those living in the poor neighborhood of Hayward would protest the likelihood of the Homeless Orchards flourishing in front of their homes as signposts for poverty.

And what of the potential for liability on the city’s part? This aspect is what Zermeno referenced Tuesday when he said past recommendations for fruit trees in Hayward were nixed by staff who envision pedestrians spraining ankles on heaps of fallen fruit. Who cleans up the apple cores that pile up next to sidewalks and streets? What about those who are not homeless, nor without money, who simply desire a healthy snack? Can they snatch a few plums off a tree on B Street? And, what to do about plum smugglers?

Zermeno is not immune to weird public statements. Last year, while running for re-election to his council seat, he lodged several bizarre populist statements against House Republicans and another against Wall Street malevolence, of which, he was compelled to write a scathing letter in protest. Neither diatribe was even remotely in context to anything the City Council was discussing those nights or any before.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, I asked a few outside what to make of Zermeno’s fruit trees comment. Many immediately confused his idea with community gardens, which are dedicated plots of land for an assortment of plants to be grown for the poor’s use. These types of gardens are quite common all over the Bay Area. However, Zermeno specifically called for fruit trees on city streets. The common reaction was then silence, a widening of the eyes and a big shrug. A big no comment that spoke loudly to its sheer goofiness.