Oona Robertson

Hiding the condoms



“All Condoms primary location at Customer Service” reads a small sign surrounded by empty shelves that once held condoms, pregnancy tests, and other important sexual health products at the Safeway on Potrero Avenue.

Because of concerns about theft, the condoms now sit among the Nicorette and razors in a row of glass cases near Customer Service, amid the chaos of hurried shoppers headed to and fro. Although Safeway’s recent condom lock-up may have reduced theft, it has also reduced accessibility, and may have deterred customers from buying a product crucial for the prevention of pregnancy and STD’s.

The increased security measures are not contained to the Potrero store, or even San Francisco’s Safeways. “There are a number of products (Oil of Olay for example) that we’ve had to secure under lock and key because of theft,” Susan M. Houghton, Safeway’s Northern California spokesperson tells the Guardian. “It varies by store and city, but yes, condoms were recently added — due to theft.”

Houghton would not go into any further detail about when or why the condoms were locked, but the move has raised concerns by public health advocates.

“We fully understand the position that Safeway is in, but we really would advocate for people having pregnancy tests, condoms — anything that really helps people manage their lives better — to be much more accessible,” Adrienne Verrilli, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood in San Francisco tells the Guardian. “Accessibility is often key, especially for young people.”

Kyriell Noon, executive director of San Francisco’s STOP AIDS project, says he believes locked cases could deter people from buying condoms, “especially for young people who are shy or could be embarrassed about asking for help…Condoms should be as easy for people to access as any other item available for purchase on the market. When there are barriers between people and condoms, I think many people will shrug and give up. But if they’re easy to access there’s no excuse to not use them.”

STOP AIDS knows the importance of condoms in the prevention of HIV, and distributes free condoms to 90 locations throughout San Francisco.

Safeway representatives and staff members refused to say which Safeways have moved condoms behind glass, but a visit to four San Francisco Safeways found condoms locked in cases at each of them, some even locked behind the Customer Service counter.

At the Safeway at Church and Market streets, we found that there is often a line at Customer Service, which customers must now wait in to purchase condoms. The process of acquiring condoms requires requesting the case be unlocked, making a selection under the watchful eye of an employee, and having the employee remove it from the case and walk it back to Customer Service where it can be purchased. Ten minutes had passed before I was leaving with my $8.99 12-pack of Trojan ENZ.

This challenge could affect teenagers more than adults due to embarrassment, hassle, or the now public process of choosing and purchasing condoms at Safeway. “It puts young people in a very awkward situation,” says Leah LaCroix, president of the San Francisco Youth Commission. LaCroix says she does not believe condoms should be locked up, even if it means a company loses profits.

“I think public safety is more important than that,” she tells the Guardian. LaCroix and the rest of the Youth Commission are currently urging the San Francisco Unified School District, “to reevaluate and come up with a new curriculum for health education,” she said. “I’m sure safe sex will be a component of their new curriculum.”

A 2009 Center for Disease Control survey found that 43.5 percent of high school students did not use a condom during sex, and 85.6 percent did not use birth control pills the last time they had sex, making sex education and birth control availability increasingly vital.

“I’m not sure you can criticize Safeway for protecting their merchandise,” says Beth Brown, manager of San Francisco’s New Generation Health Center. “I think there’s a larger issue of a lack of resources and lack of resourcefulness.”

Brown says she believes the Department of Public Health is responsible for providing these resources. One resource that is available is a service called Family PACT, which provides reproductive health services to low-income residents.

“The state of California pays for young people who need confidential services…and you can get all the birth control you want,” she tells the Guardian. The New Generation Health Center enrolls teenagers and young adults in the service, and gives away free condoms to non-enrolled teenagers as well.

“The state of California is actually a very good place to be if you’re young and sexually active,” says Brown, “because they will pay for it.”

“What’s interesting about that,” Verrilli said of Safeway’s condom lockup, “is that it’s kind of going backwards to where we used to be as opposed to moving forward to where we are.”

Today, with condoms available to purchase for any age, public health clinics in most cities, and sexual education available on the Internet, making birth control readily and publicly accessible seems to be the next logical step. Besides preventing pregnancy, condoms are crucial in preventing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“I think we should all be in the practice of increasing access to condoms rather than decreasing it,” Noon said. “I don’t know that Safeway’s decision alone would make a huge contribution to the spread of HIV, but they could be setting a precedent that other stores that sell condoms might follow. If it were the case that Walgreen’s and Rite-aid, etcetera, also began to follow this practice, I think we would have a problem.”


A wide variety of unlocked condoms are sold at:

Planned Parenthood — 1650 Valencia St. off Mission

Price: 30 cents each, come individually and in strips of 8 or 10.

Plus: offers STD testing and other health services

Walgreens — 200 West Portal at 15th

Price: 12 count $14 and up

Walgreens — 3201 Divisadero at Lombard

Price: 12 count $8.99 and up

Plus: open 24 hours a day

Walgreens — 3400 Cesar Chavez at Mission

Price: 12 count $13.99 and up

Walgreens — 1496 Market at Van Ness

Price: 12 count $15.99 and up

CVS/Pharmacy — 731 Market at 3rd

Price: 12 count $12.99 and up

CVS/Pharmacy — 2025 Van Ness at Jackson

Price: 12 count $12.99 and up

Plus: open until midnight every day

Free condoms are available at:

New Generation Health Center — 625 Potrero at 18th

Plus: offers bags of 20 at a time

STOP AIDS — 2128 15th at Market

Plus: also distributes free condoms to restaurants and stores in the city including:

Marlena’s — 488 Hayes at Octavia

SOMA Health Center — 551 Minna at 6th

Crossroads — 1519 Haight at Ashbury

LBGT Center — 1800 Market at Octavia

Books Inc. — 2275 Market at Noe

(Oona Robertson)

Banking on misfortune



Unemployed San Franciscans are now receiving monthly benefit payments through a mandatory Bank of America debit card. While presented as a benefit to both recipients and the state, the initiative is the latest chapter in a long history of banks profiting off of the less fortunate.

In July, the California Employment Development Department (EDD) began distributing Bank of America debit cards to all California residents who receive unemployment benefits, “in what is one of the largest pre-paid card programs in the nation,” EDD spokesperson Dan Stephens tells the Guardian.

The cards, a result of a recent contract Bank of America won to implement the EDD’s new debit card system, replace the monthly unemployment check residents receive. The cards are also being used for disability insurance and paid family leave payments.

“We wanted a faster, safer, more convenient way for our customers to access their benefits,” Stephens says. But figuring out the new system takes time, usage fees can surface, and complaints have arisen.

“Now I have against my will been forced to become a B of A customer, which I don’t like,” says Cliff Liehe, a part time business teacher at City College who collects unemployment benefits during the summer. “I don’t want to do business with B of A. I hate them, and there’s a lot of staff members that feel the same way, throughout the state, not just City College.”

Liehe says that he dislikes B of A because it has a “corporate philosophy that I’ve disagreed with,” as well as, “terrible customer service and high fees.” Bank of America, the largest bank in the nation, angered the public by receiving a $20 billion federal bailout after buying Merrill Lynch in 2009, in the wake of the financial meltdown from which banks quickly recovered but the average American still hasn’t.

Money can be accessed on the debit card through purchases, unlimited ATM withdrawals, or transferred to a bank account. Liehe opted to have the money transferred to an account independent from B of A, but says he found the process challenging, and the information and instructions difficult to find.

Bank of America is not paying the EDD, but the new system will save the EDD approximately $4 million in initial savings due to decreased paper, printing, mailing, and check processing costs, Stephens tells the Guardian. He remains vague about the EDD’s plans for this money, but does make it clear that the agreement is a “no-cost contract” between parties.

However, Bank of America’s participation is far from charitable. “B of A is covering its costs through fees paid by banks and merchants who honor the cards. Interchange fees are received from businesses that use the ATM network,” Stephens says.

With 1.7 million Californians receiving unemployment benefits and using their cards at ATMs and retail establishments, Bank of America will be receiving a percentage off all this money spent, as well as gaining more than a million new customers, unless recipients have the know-how to have their money transferred to a different bank. This adds up to a substantial potential profit for America’s richest bank.

“We generally don’t comment on the profitability of individual programs or products, but we are pleased to be working with the EDD to provide more secure and convenient benefit payments to its constituents,” bank spokesperson Jefferson George told us.

What consumers don’t consider when using a credit or debit card to make purchases is that with each purchase, the merchant is paying a percentage back to the bank or other credit card processor. Here at the Guardian, for instance, we lose a significant percentage of our ad profits when advertisers pay with a credit card. With MasterCard and Visa, we lose 3.5 percent of the sales amount, and with American Express it’s 4.15 percent, on top of monthly processing fees.

“The issues with credit card charges in general is that it’s all about the small print,” says Hut Landon, Executive Director of Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. As with the Bank of America EDD card, unadvertised fees can occur through usage of debit and credit cards. On top of a base percentage, merchants must pay fees for rewards cards, mileage cards, and are sometimes charged for transactions, Landon explains. There is even a fee for manually entering credit card information instead of swiping it. The debit card fee is sometimes less, but merchants still could be suffering from the EDD’s new system.

“While this may be a good situation for Bank of America,” says Landon, “[for merchants] its definitely not a good deal.”

Joel Bleskacek, co-owner of Potrero Hill favorites Plow and Ruby Wine, tells the Guardian he pays between 1.5 percent and 3 percent for credit card transactions at his restaurant and wine store. That’s a significant amount of money lost with each transaction, money that goes directly to the banks or credit card processors. “For what we’re paying at the restaurant, I could hire a general manager to work if we only accepted cash,” Bleskacek says. But credit cards are more popular than cash at both his establishments. “A vast majority is credit card sales. People don’t seem to carry cash anymore. Same at the restaurant. An overwhelming majority of sales are through the credit card machine.” Credit card company’s earnings quickly add up. “Basically 2.5 to 3 percent of our entire economy is going to credit card companies…,” he says. “Somebody’s making some money.”

Fairer trade?



Many people will pay more for a cup of coffee if a significant amount of that money goes to the people who grew its beans, helping improve their lives and communities. That’s the idea behind Fair Trade Certified coffee.

But Fair Trade may not be as lucrative for coffee farmers as people are led to believe, and uncertified San Francisco roasters such as Four Barrel, Ritual Roasters, and Blue Bottle appear to be making more significant impacts on the growers they buy from.

Fair Trade was once just a name for ethical commerce and an idea to fairly pay the farmers growing our food, but Fair Trade Certified* is now a trademarked term owned by Fair Trade USA*, based here in the Bay Area. To label their coffee with the Fair Trade certification, coffee farmers must buy into the system and abide by strict standards set by the cooperatives that oversee their production.

Although Fair Trade Certified coffee sells at significantly higher prices than generic coffee, the coffee producers often don’t see the majority of the increased profits. That’s because all the parties involved in the system take shares of that increased price.

“The buyer buys the coffee at a hiked price, assuming the price is trickled down to the farmer, but it isn’t,” says Masumi Patzel, a political scientist who made a recent research trip to the coffee farms of Guatemala. “The people who are benefiting from Fair Trade are the exporters.”

The coffee producers only receive a fraction of the final cost of the coffee, says Patzel, and her research has shown it hasn’t done much to improve conditions in coffee-growing communities.

“What are these farmers going do? How are they going to feed their families?” she asks.

Patzel says that in Guatemala, a country of mostly farmers and peasants, more than half of all personal income is spent on food (compared to about 20 percent in the U.S.), food prices have risen 80 percent in the last 10 years, and nearly half the population suffers from malnourishment.

Buying into the Fair Trade system and switching to the monitored system of growing coffee can be costly for the Guatemalan farmers who are struggling to get by. “They are just not making the cut,” she says, noting that on the farms she visited, farmers only drank instant coffee because they couldn’t afford the coffee they grew.

Yet Fair Trade USA spokesperson Stacy Geagan Wagner says Fair Trade has helped farmers. “Fair Trade is essentially an agreement between producers, industry and consumers,” she says. “Fair Trade agrees to pay a fair price for the products.”

At Fair Trade USA, which oversees the label, that “fair price” comes to at least $1.40 per pound of coffee beans, with an added 20-cent community development premium given to the farmers and a possible 30-cent organic incentive.

“Essentially the farmers always get higher then market price,” Wagner says, “because they get the premium, the organic incentive and the minimum price.”

However, the International Coffee Organization’s most recent composite had the average worldwide coffee price at $2.15 per pound, higher than the Fair Trade price. To work with the ever fluctuating coffee market, Fair Trade Certified coffee farmers are either paid the minimum of $1.40, or the current market price, whichever is higher.

“The Fair Trade minimum covers the cost of sustainable production,” says Wagner, “so they don’t starve to death when the market crashes.”

Some of San Francisco’s most popular coffee roasters have chosen to buy their coffee directly from the farms that grow it, bypassing the Fair Trade system and paying the farmers significantly more while forming a strong relationship between producer and roaster. Without the middlemen, there is suddenly a smaller separation between the farmer growing the coffee and the consumer purchasing it.

I saw that illustrated on my recent visit to the Ritual Roasters facility where roasters convert raw beans procured worldwide into aromatic coffee. As I was drinking a cup of very fresh coffee, owner Eileen Hassi showed me pictures of the exact farm where my coffee had been grown.

She had made a recent trip to this Costa Rican coffee farm, and taken pictures of the farm, the processing facilities, and the owners. It is this visible connection, as well as high quality coffee, that contribute to the growing popularity of some San Francisco independent roasters.

Local roasters Ritual, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle Coffee Co. follow this model of buying coffee directly from the producers and forming beneficial relationships. Some roasters call this direct trade.

“For me, it’s the only way to get the best quality coffee and the only way that you can continue to get the best coffee is to pay good money for it,” says Four Barrel owner Jeremy Tooker. “If you pay your pickers better then they pick better coffee.”

Hassi believes that the cost of coffee will continue to increase because of a volatile, heavily fluctuating market, increased consumption, and global warming causing some places to lose their capability of producing coffee.

“If all of us in the developed world want to keep drinking coffee,” she says, “we need to get used to paying a lot more for it.”

James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee Co., says he believes there’s a place for Fair Trade. “It’s a certification and, like all certifications, there’s the pluses and the minuses,” he says. Yet his coffee is uncertified and purchased directly from producers and organic cooperatives. “The cheapest we buy coffee for is probably two, two-and-a-half times the fair trade minimum,” he says. “In a way it’s better for fewer farmers, but at least it’s better.”

Wagner disputes several San Francisco roasters’ claims that the $3–<\d>$4 minimum price they pay is double Fair Trade’s. “The market has been over $3 on many occasions in the past year,” she says, reiterating FairTrade’s policy to pay producers either the Fair Trade minimum or the market price. “So to say you’re paying double the fair trade minimum without knowing what is going on that is actually you distorting the information…We love people’s efforts to trade more directly with farmers, but we do not appreciate spreading misinformation about Fair Trade. That doesn’t help anyone.”

Fair Trade’s popularity stems from its altruistic image, and to lose this image through “misinformation” might do damage to its popularity. But challenging people’s assumptions about Fair Trade could help raise its standards, which Patzel says need to be “upgraded and improved”.

“It is my belief,” she says, “that the FTA [Fair Trade Association] and other certifying entities may want to consider how to improve the Fair Trade calculator, ensuring that it is not the exporters that are making the majority of the income and instead, increase the wealth distribution starting at the very base and bottom of the pyramid, not in the middle.”

Even Wagner concedes, “We’ve made significant impact but we can do more.”

Patzel says Fair Trade farmers may not even be treated better than convention coffee farmers. “Just because a farmer is producing Fair Trade coffee does not mean — not at all — that they are being treated better than farmers who are not. It depends on what kind of relationship they have with the producer,” she says. “It really is a case by case basis.”

Gilbert Ramirez has been working to run a cooperative in Costa Rica for 25 years that is 70 percent Fair Trade. For him, the monetary increase between Fair Trade and conventional coffee is 15-20 percent.

“But if we’re taking into account the added value, I’d say that we get 50 percent more in added value when we work through Fair Trade,” says Ramirez. “There’s a long list of things we consider added value, and the largest added value Fair Trade allows us is knowledge.”

Ramirez says he believes that Fair Trade has significantly helped his community. “Farmers are happy in Fair Trade because it’s a model that respects them. And it’s a model that gives farmers a guide on how to develop themselves better.”

In 2010 his cooperative received $8 million in premiums to invest in the community. And yet he says, “The situation is a bit difficult because the cost of living has gone up a lot. In Costa Rica, there’s a higher cost of living than in other countries. We have a really high tax environment in Costa Rica, and also really low production so it doesn’t allow the country to have a lot of economic development.” In the end, consumers can choose to buy a pound of Peet’s Fair Trade Coffee for $15.95, or a pound of Ritual’s Los Crestones coffee for $22.50 and know that it was produced in Costa Rica by Grace Calderón Jiménez before I probably watched it being roasted here in San Francisco.

* This article was changed to correct the name of the organization and its trademark.





Protesting another police shooting

Raheim Brown Jr., 20, was killed on Jan. 22 by an Oakland school district police officer, after a fellow police officer was allegedly attacked with a screwdriver. This rally protests the latest in a series of killings by police, and supports Brown’s family, who will be confronting the Oakland School Board for its part in the death. After the rally, protestors will march to the Oakland School District headquarters where the family members will be making their address.

3:30 p.m., free

Lake Merritt Bart Station

Oak & 9th St., Oakland



Mayoral debate

Watch the mayor mayoral candidates face off in a debate. The forum will be hosted by the San Francisco Young Democrats, Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and the City Democratic Club, who have partnered with the Huffington Post and YouTube to broadcast and discuss the event. Melissa Griffin will be the evening’s moderator, with commenting by Beth Spotswood and Pollo de Mar.

6 p.m., free

African American Art & Cultural Complex

762 Fulton St., SF




Climate change and the EcoHouse

Learn how to reduce your carbon footprint on a tour of Berkeley’s EcoHouse, a toolshed built with straw bale, rammed earth, clay, and cob. The center has a living roof, laundry greywater system, 1100-gallon rainwater cistern, a native rain garden and three kinds of compost. The tour features tips on the best ways to save energy and reduce climate impact, with the EcoHouse as its prime example.

10 a.m.-noon, free


1305 Hopkins St., Berkeley

(510) 548-2220 x239




Iraq War Veterans Speak Out

This event organized by March Forward!, an organization of veterans and soldiers on active duty, gives Iraq War Veterans a chance to speak out about their experiences, and against war. A former Marin Corps infantryman, former Army infantryman and former Army intelligence operative will share eyewitness accounts of their time in Iraq. They will explain how their Iraq war experiences turned them into anti-war activists, the current situation for veterans and veteran care, and how they are building an anti-war resistance among active duty troops within the military.

5-7 p.m., $5-10 donation, no one turned away

2969 Mission St., SF



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Chase bank appeal could impact neighborhoods


An appeal hearing June 8 on a JP Morgan Chase branch on Divisadero and Fell could affect the future of small neighborhood retail in San Francisco.

The Planning Department gave Chase a permit to build a branch in a space protected by formula retail law. According to the department, the bank provides “financial services” — which are not specifically mentioned in the Planning Code section limiting formula retail.

Neighborhood activists are fighting the proposed bank, which would occupy three retail spaces on a stretch of Divisadero already home to numerous chains — and just six blocks away from another Chase branch.

Divisadero’s heavy traffic makes it a prime advertising street, and could explain why Chase is looking to build another branch so close to its existing one.

Community activists say the bank is clearly a formula retail establishment — which would mean it doesn’t comply with the Planning Code for the neighborhood. Since the space is more than 4,000 square feet, that would mandate a conditional use permit and a public hearing.

Quintin Mecke, a neighborhood resident who will be speaking at the Board of Appeals hearing, said  evening, the Planning Department privately measured the space but did not include areas normally listed when measuring square footage. The department did not return a request for comment.

The exemption of Chase from the formula retail law could affect more than just the Western Addition neighborhood.
“There’s clearly issues with the planning departments interpretation of this law,” says Mecke, “we’ve just happened to find a very specific, and what we call egregious, version of it.”

Mecke said he believes that if banks are exempted from this law, so could many other chain establishments — including adult entertainment and auto body shops — that don’t happen to be mentioned in the code, and small San Francisco neighborhoods could radically change.

Former Sup. Aaron Peskin, who was on the board when the formula retail law passed, told us that “it was written very broadly and what the planning department is asserting is that financial services are not part of that broad category.
“Had the board of supervisors intended to exclude financial services, that would have been specifically written into the law,” he said. “Instead the board passed a very broad category and financial services falls in that category. It was intended to be construed and defined broadly and should apply to financial services as much as it does to a restaurant or shoe store.”