Volunteers with the East Oakland Burrito Roll prep, cook, wrap and deliver 500 vegan burritos to houseless individuals in East Oakland. They also provide fruit, water and food for pets. Photo: East Oakland Burrito Roll

Kira Clarence chooses to fight hunger the Bay Area way: with burritos.

Clarence, aka Liveya Kira, is the founder of the East Oakland Burrito Roll, a group that hosts events that have provided thousands of burritos to the homeless in East Oakland. Once a month, volunteers wrap 500 hundred fresh vegan burritos at a time and deliver them, along with fresh fruit, water and dog food, to Oakland’s houseless individuals, a population that’s grown over 47% in the two years.

“Getting fresh veggies and fruits out there is part of my personal belief system. I don’t want to hand out candy bars. That’s not my jam.”

“A lot of people think they’re being nice by handing out macaroni, and chips, and different kind of processed foods. Getting fresh veggies and fruits out there is part of my personal belief system. I don’t want to hand out candy bars. That’s not my jam,” said Clarence.

Clarence isn’t a working chef; she’s a 33-year-old former business manager-turned-professional dog walker. But her lack of cooking bona fides didn’t stop her from pursuing her idea to bring burritos to the needy. She started the East Oakland Burrito Roll two years ago this month on the spur of the moment. Clarence says she felt powerless in the age of President Donald Trump and she wanted to do something so she could “look at herself in the mirror.”

“I was taught by my family to just keep walking, and donate to a charity. Don’t give money, don’t enable people, don’t break that fourth wall, that barrier,” Clarence said. “And it just was hurting my soul not to kind of go there, and reach out, and share humanity with my neighbors, as they are my neighbors. And it’s not just this problem over here. They’re my community.”

“I just said, ‘Let’s go feed folks. I got all these burrito supplies, let’s make it happen.’”

East Oakland Burrito Roll founder Kira Clarence (left) with her best friend and the group’s director of operations, Marissa Pinone. Photo: East Oakland Burrito Roll
East Oakland Burrito Roll founder Kira Clarence (left) with her best friend and the group’s director of operations, Marissa Pinone. Photo: East Oakland Burrito Roll

One day in February 2018, Clarence and her best friend Marissa Pinone made 100 burritos at Clarence’s house in Eastmont. That night they drove around East Oakland, an area she’s lived in for over a decade, and handed out the tasty cylinders at encampments. The experience moved her, and she posted about it on Facebook.

Her social media posts received a lot of attention, with friends and complete strangers reaching out to Clarence to see if they could volunteer at the next handout. Soon, entire families were spending their nights making rice and beans with Clarence. Some early volunteers, like 24-year-old Maaz Ahmad and 33-year-old Adam Clayton, became essential members of the Burrito Roll team.

East Oakland Burrito Roll grant writer Adam Clayton (left) and volunteer coordinator Maaz Ahmad started as volunteers before becoming integral team members. Photo: East Oakland Burrito Roll

As the organization expanded to handle making and delivering 500 burritos in one night, Clarence needed to find a professional kitchen. While looking, she found a supportive non-profit community of direct action groups in Oakland. Groups like East Oakland Collective, The Village and West Oakland Punks With Lunch provided her with essential information and connections.

Clarence also discovered the defunct Oakland Burrito Project, part of a national group that provides burritos to unhoused people that has a satellite in San Francisco. The remains of the Oakland Burrito Project helped the Burrito Roll find a new kitchen.

“There are so many wonderful people of color who are doing this work every day,” Clarence said of many of the groups that have helped and supported her. “They’re great leaders, and I definitely look to them all the time for what’s going on, and where to go, and what to do.”

Currently the Roll operates out of the Oakland City Church, where the team cooks everything to make the burritos. It’s a lot of work and prep takes a few days, but over the past two years Clarence’s gathered a dependable crew that goes beyond just cooking and cleaning, going as far as helping her raise the $500 she needs to pay for ingredients and supplies they hand out each Roll event. (The group also accepts donations on its website.)

“It brings me great happiness knowing that on the day of the Roll, every encampment in East Oakland has been given a proper meal,” Ahmad said.

Volunteers meet at the Oakland City Church to prep ingredients for East Oakland Burrito Roll deliveries. Photo: East Oakland Burrito Roll

But Clarence says she’s always looking for volunteers to do the most important job: delivering the burritos. It’s the job that has the most impact as it requires volunteers to interact with the unhoused. Clarence and other volunteers say that the task has changed their outlook on the situation, making them realize that a person’s stability can change in an instant, and that finding basic needs such as food and water can be difficult.

“I have talked with people who have constantly been vacated from place to place and forced to find a new safe place they can rest for the night. I have realized that so many of our unhoused community have been forced to live on the streets because of a financial situation that was out of their control,” Ahmad said.

As the East Oakland Burrito Roll celebrates its two-year anniversary this weekend, Clarence and her crew plan to keep rolling along. Her impulsive act of kindness became something bigger and as long as they can pay for the ingredients, they’ll keep making burritos for their unhoused brothers and sisters.

“We can’t solve the entire housing crisis, and all the ridiculous things the city of Oakland is doing, but we can at least make sure some people go to sleep with something in their bellies tonight,” Clarence said.

The next East Oakland Burrito Roll events takes place this Friday and Saturday. Volunteers are needed to help prep food from 6-8:30 p.m. Friday, and to cook, roll burritos and deliver food from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday. Volunteers meet at Oakland City Church, 2735 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland (enter the building on the right, look for ‘Chapel’ sign on the left of the door, go down stairs to the right and enter the cafeteria/gym and find the kitchen at the back of the cafeteria). Sign up online to volunteer.

Kevin L. Jones

Kevin L. Jones is a freelance journalist and audio producer who lives in El Cerrito. See more of his work at kevinljones.com.