Last Thursday, Samar “Sammy” Nassar, co-owner of Sammy’s Pupusas, was chatting with one of the residents at Operation HomeBase, a city-sanctioned trailer camp for homeless seniors who are at high risk for COVID-19, located on Hegenberger Road in East Oakland. The man, Mark, was placing his food order with Nassar for the following day and he had a special request: a burrito with rice and beans, sour cream on the side, and no veggies.
“Mark, the burritos have vegetables, that’s the point!” answered Nassar, smiling underneath her mask.
Nassar and her partner Raul Jacobo launched Sammy’s Pupusas, their vegan pop-up, last July on High Street in East Oakland. Shortly after, they began providing free food to residents at the trailer park, where they’ve been distributing meals every Friday.
Although the work at Operation HomeBase began during the pandemic, the idea to start a free food pop-up first surfaced in 2019 after the couple opted not to celebrate Thanksgiving with family members. “There were going to be people who voted for Trump there, so we decided not to go,” Nassar said about the family gathering.
The couple had a friend who was planning to spend the holiday distributing free meals in West Oakland, so they decided to do that instead. Volunteering felt good, said Nassar, and when the pandemic became widespread last spring, the two felt compelled to do what they could to help vulnerable Oaklanders. “With everything going on, we just felt it in our hearts,” she said. “This strong desire to serve again.”
Sammy’s Pupusas specializes in vegan pupusas, but Nassar and Jacobo also make other vegan items like burritos, which are popular with the residents. Serving healthy food is important to the couple, and Nassar said that she and Jacobo will try to “sneak in” vegetables any way they can, including cutting them up into smaller, less recognizable pieces to make the food more palatable for those who may not otherwise choose to consume veggies.
Mark, 57, has been a resident at Operation HomeBase for several months and loves chatting with Nassar and Jacobo. He said he feels blessed to have gotten to know them during a particularly difficult time in his life. The growing divide between rich and poor in Oakland is dispiriting, he said, and living at Project HomeBase away from his wife, who is currently in a rehabilitation facility, has been tough. Still, Mark finds joy wherever he can, and appreciates Nassar and Jacobo for their food, and their friendship.
“Nothing is better in life than when someone who’s never met you before reaches their hand out to help,” he said. ”That’s worth its weight in gold.”
The food that Sammy’s Pupusas distribute at the trailer park is free, but the couple runs their pop-up as if it were a restaurant. They have a rotating menu featuring pupusas and other requested dishes like burritos and grilled cheese sandwiches. All of their food is vegan, but the couple isn’t judgmental. One day, a resident came over with a huge slab of meat and asked if he could cook it on their grill. “I was like, ‘I’m not sure what to do,’” said Nassar. “But Raul is the kindest person you’ll ever meet, so he just let him throw a big steak on there.”
The couple collects donations to pay for all the supplies they need to run the pop-up, which caters to approximately 122 residents at Operation HomeBase. They’ve also been hosting pop-ups at another local establishment, Tacos Oscar, to raise funds for the effort. At their most recent, on Jan. 18, they sold every last pupusa.
When they’re not putting time into Sammy’s Pupusas, the couple are working their regular jobs. Nassar co-owns Hipline dance studio in Oakland with her sister, Gabriela Nassar-Covarelli, and Jacobo cooks for various restaurants as a line chef.
Jacobo, who was born and raised in El Salvador, grew up making pupusas with his mother and sister. He became a vegan a few years ago but wanted to continue eating the food he loved as a child. This meant substituting traditional Salvadoran cheese for a cheese substitute made from garbanzo beans, leaving out the lard, and adding hearty vegetables like chickpeas and mushrooms to replace the chicharrón.
Jacobo hopes that by serving vegan food made from organic produce, he can slowly introduce customers to a healthier way of eating. For some of the residents at Operation HomeBase, getting used to the cuisine has taken some time.
One resident, who was chatting with Nassar and Mark last Thursday, said they thought the food was okay. “I grew up eating soul food, so when you start eating something new, you have to get used to it,” they said.
Nassar and Jacobo expected that some residents would be accustomed to eating pupusas and vegetables, while others might need time to adjust. “We’re there once a week for three to four hours and it’s a process to build that relationship with them,” Nassar said. “Every time, we get deeper with them so we can understand their needs and support that.”
Marichelle Alcantara, a homeless programs manager at the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, was the person who gave Sammy’s Pupusas permission to operate inside the gated Operation HomeBase site. Alcantara has managed the trailer park since it opened in May 2020, and said meeting Nassar and Jacobo was a stroke of good luck. “They were operating on High Street and some heaven-sent person gave them my number,” Alcantara said. “We gave it a try and it was a big hit.”
HomeBase residents receive food from other organizations such as World Central Kitchen, but Alcantara said her clients appreciate the change of pace offered by Sammy’s Pupusas. “They always look forward to seeing Sammy and Raul because it’s like having their own taco truck,” she said, “which really is a treat for them.” The service is especially important for unhoused people, she said, because many of them either can’t afford to buy a nice meal from a restaurant or wouldn’t be allowed entry.
The closer Nassar becomes with the residents at Operation HomeBase, the more she believes access to healthy food is a basic human right.
“There are so many intelligent, talented people in this community. But when you’re not exposed to that community it’s hard to know what goes on there,” Nassar said. “They are just like any other person in North Berkeley or North Oakland or anywhere else.”