Food for Change

Buy Local, Buy Fresh at Oakland’s People’s Grocery
By David Large

“We envision a future model for the organization in which a farm and a grocery store work together as one whole. This will be an innovative model in reformulating the role of a grocery to become both a central hub of wellness services and of food systems localization.”

Since the 1970s, many of us have come to think of more than taste and convenience in considering food — nutrition and health have also become key issues. But they’re not the only added concerns.

In recent years, spurred by the growth of the organic food movement, the food supply system — where the food we eat comes from and who benefits from its production and sale — has been linked to the larger issues of community control, access, sustainability, and environmental health. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, People’s Grocery, a Rex grantee in 2005, is at the forefront of this new consciousness.

Gathering spot near the People’s Grocery chicken coop.

People’s Grocery is a community-based organization working to find creative solutions to the nutritional needs of Oakland’s residents by building a local food supply system and economy. Believing that “food justice” precedes food availability, they focus on the issues of food supply and quality as grassroots organizing tools for community building, self reliance, socially-responsible enterprise growth, youth entrepreneurship, sustainable agriculture, and health in the largely low-income community of West Oakland, an area currently served by 40 liquor stores but just one grocery.

People’s Grocery staff members grow produce in urban garden plots, then sell it out of a mobile market van that makes regular stops at local senior and community centers. They also operate an after-school snack program in 10 Oakland schools; they hire and train local youth to farm urban gardens and operate the market van, and to participate in interactive workshops for their peers on topics such as nutrition, food-related disease, and the health and environmental issues surrounding the fast-food industry.

Recently Rex talked with Brahm Ahmadi, who along with Malaika Edwards and Leander Sellers founded People’s Grocery in 2003.

Brahm Ahmadi

Rex: What was your initial inspiration for this project, and why did you choose West Oakland?

PG: Two other local residents and I started People’s Grocery after observing that limited access to nutritious and affordable foods in the West Oakland community was having significant impacts on the health and quality of life of its low-income residents. Seeking to stem the tide of diet-related chronic diseases in our community, we developed People’s Grocery to address local food security and related health issues, while also addressing the local need for economic development and youth training and employment.

My personal inspiration for launching People’s Grocery was rooted in a desire to shift away from a type of activism that was focused on fighting against problems rather than working for solutions. I was burning out from a model of confrontational activism that seldom had tangible results. I wanted to do something that had results I could see and feel and point at. Working around food seemed an obvious choice.

I also wanted to transform my lifestyle to live healthier and be closer to the basic elements of the planet: land, food and water. My inspiration also evolved out of interests in the subjects of community economic development, cooperative business and economics, urban planning and sustainable agriculture.

Rex: Could you envision having People’s Grocery in other communities? If so, what factors would you consider in deciding whether or not to pursue involvement in a given community?

PG: Although the staff and board of People’s Grocery have discussed the subject of expansion/replication, we have not felt that this is really a relevant concern for the current stage of the organization. People’s Grocery is still a small organization with limited capacity. And while we are building our capacity at an accelerated rate, the needs in West Oakland alone require everything the organization is able to muster. This will likely continue to be the case for a while and we are committed to ensuring that we establish a strong foundation for change in this community before considering any expansion.

Also, it is not a value of ours to replicate ourselves in the traditional franchise sense. Rather, we believe in honoring each community’s autonomy and unique characteristics that derive from place, culture, history and local sensibilities. Thus, if we ever choose to pursue expanding our efforts beyond our community, we will utilize an approach that adapts our model to the unique needs and ideas of those locations.

We also value community control and would not want to pursue creating a national organization, but rather a type of cooperative network of autonomous entities working together.

People’s Grocery staff.

Rex: How do you acquire plots of land suitable for urban gardening?

PG: We gain access to all of the land we farm through partnerships. We partner with residents, organizations and schools to establish gardens. Partnering saves money and brings value to the garden through greater capacity. Our current partnerships are with the North Oakland Land Trust, the local YMCA, Spiral Gardens, Ralph Bunche Middle School and Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE).

The fact that we don’t own any of the land we work is a vulnerability — we are always at risk of losing land in the future. The North Oakland Land Trust does, fortunately, present the opportunity for some long-term security, and we are interested in expanding the land trust model to ensure the longevity and continuity of our urban gardens.

Rex: What do you think helped influence both the younger and older members of the community to want healthier foods rather than the “junk food” they had been buying before? Why is this happening now rather than before People’s Grocery got involved?

PG: People want to have healthier lifestyles for one primary reason: to avoid suffering for themselves and their families. West Oakland is a community that has been severely impacted by chronic disease. Heart disease is currently the # 1 killer, with diabetes coming in second. We believe an epidemic of diet-related diseases is devastating this and many other communities.
This experience, coupled with an increasing number of efforts to educate people about healthy eating, is resulting in a shift in low-income consumers’ attitudes. This shift is also associated with an emerging desire to experience a higher quality of life through proactive measures. We categorize these consumers as the “emergent shoppers,” which means that many low-income people are at a threshold for changing their lifestyles and desire a healthier, more active and vital way of living.

Every low-income person carries core aspirations for a better life. Diet, healthy eating and expanded food choices are being recognized as legitimate ways of achieving this.

Another significant factor here in West Oakland has been the reaction against local liquor stores, which culminated in the burning of two stores. These events made it publicly acceptable to criticize the prevalence of unhealthy food sources and demand better ones. While little has transpired on the side of city government in response to this, non-profit organizations such as People’s Grocery are seizing the newly opened door to engage in a conversation about changing the way people eat and live.

People’s Grocery staff in the mobile market van, which sells fresh produce at local community and senior centers.

Rex: Your promotional materials make it clear that your work is about much more than just “better eating,” that the inadequacies of the local food supply become a symbol for much larger issues of community-building and self-esteem, of “food justice” and personal growth for young people. Can you elaborate on how you see these issues connected?

PG: The modern industrial food system is replete with social and economic inequities that disproportionately impact poor people on both ends of the food chain: producers and consumers.

The perpetuation of cheap prices for global food commodities is inherently dependent on government subsidies and the exploitation of human labor. The working conditions of global food production are often inhumane and deplorable. For those of us here in California, the sight of immigrant laborers working in difficult conditions is not uncommon. The current model of food production depends on cheap labor precipitated by unjust production practices.

Simultaneously, here in the U.S., there is severe inequity in the distribution of food, to the extent that many low-income communities, urban and rural alike, are faced with severe limitations in accessing better food. Across the entire country hundreds of communities have the same experience: too few outlets for quality, fresh foods, too many outlets of liquor, candy, and unhealthy, processed foods.

With severely limited access to healthier foods, poor people have little choice but to consume foods that are low in nutrition, high in saturated fats and sugar, and loaded with synthetic chemicals. The result is an epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, infertility, and cancers.

Because People’s Grocery understands the dynamic of inequity and social injustice in the industrial food system, we insert social justice and human rights at the center of our movement for change in the food system. From this understanding comes the concept of “food justice” — the belief that all people, regardless of social and economic constraints, have a right to access to healthy foods at all times.

The organic food industry has arisen in astounding success in response to the environmental destruction precipitated by industrialized agriculture. This is a necessary and important movement. However, organic foods are not easily available or affordable to many poorer consumers. Thus, we are beginning to see a two-tiered food system in which the affluent have access to healthy and high quality foods, while the poor only have poor quality and unhealthy foods.

The food justice movement is a response to this development in the organic food system — while we support the growth of organic and sustainably produced foods, we want to ensure that social justice is also central to the production model so that both workers and poor consumers benefit from the organic industry’s growth.

Finally, food justice is an approach grounded in traditions of grassroots organizing that are linked to many social justice movements across the world. Food justice is an approach to change that places those most affected by the problems at the center of leadership and voice. Thus change comes from the grassroots level and is not led by external entities using charity models that do not facilitate self-reliance over time. The inclusion of poor people, especially youth, in building a more just food system is the best approach for creating long-lasting solutions.

People’s Grocery has regularly scheduled work days in its gardens, and community members are invited to come and help out.

Rex: What have been the most challenging issues you have faced in getting your organization to where it is now?

PG: There are three primary challenges we have faced: funding, staff and knowledge.
As with most nonprofits, the staff of People’s Grocery is constantly faced with the anxiety of having to maintain funding. Over the last several years the organization’s growth has really strained the fundraising abilities of its founders. Periodic layoffs and suspension of programs have occurred. Yet the organization continues to survive and show promise for gaining a stronger financial footing in the future.

The problem of finding, recruiting and retaining quality workers has also been a challenge.
The final challenge of knowledge has been related to the staff and board, and the founders in particular having to constantly learn new systems and techniques relevant to the new stages of growth of the organization. For example, the founders are activists with no background in business. The learning curve has been steep and holds the prospect of continuing to be steep for quite a while.

Rex: Where do you hope to go next with the project?

PG: People’s Grocery’s mission is to build a local food system that improves the health and economy of the West Oakland community. Our primary strategy for creating a local food system is to grow a chain of production, distribution, and educational activities into an integrated network.

The future goals of the organization are to engage in activities that are spread out across the entire food chain. On the one hand we will increasingly become a producer of food by developing urban gardens and micro-farms in the local area. Eventually we hope to develop a larger farm that can make direct linkages back to our activities in West Oakland. And on the other hand the organization will increasingly become a low-cost distributor and retailer of healthy foods in West Oakland. This will primarily take the shape of a cooperative grocery store and wellness village in which food is placed at the center of personal and community health.

We envision a future model for the organization in which a farm and a grocery store work together as one whole. This will be an innovative model in reformulating the role of a grocery to become both a central hub of wellness services and of food systems localization. The grocery and farm together will become a model for how a new food system might look — one in which there is a closer relationship between the producers and consumers of food in a local region. And all of this will be supported by a foundation of education and social marketing focused on engaging residents in transforming their lifestyles towards healthier living and engaging them as participants in forming a local food supply system.

Rex: What else would you like our readers to know about the issues facing the West Oakland community?

PG: An important challenge facing the West Oakland community right now is gentrification — the influx of more affluent populations drawn to the community for its rising real estate values and its ideal location. While an influx of more affluent populations will strengthen the economy and facilitate much-needed development, it also poses the risk of displacing many low-income residents who cannot afford to live in these new conditions.

The challenge before us is to facilitate community development that celebrates and welcomes the new residents while ensuring that existing residents are also honored and included. Our hope is that West Oakland’s future is one of true multiculturalism in which all residents of diverse backgrounds can live productively together. Such a vision has many positive attributes for a future food system in which all cultural traditions are honored.

People’s Grocery mobile market worker Aswad, with kids of PG staff members.

Aswad, working the mobile market van out of a park in Oakland, pats two little kids on the head as they pick up two bags of organically grown corn chips. He’s 27, with two young children, and was formerly unemployed. Now he’s “the man” for those kids, and for the adults that he hopes will follow this day.

His enthusiasm for the work is infectious. When we asked him what he has gotten out of his work with People’s Grocery, he responded, “Getting close to the earth and helping people get better food is good, and I’ve learned to focus.”
Aswad is just one of several young people in West Oakland that this organization has helped as they in turn help their community.

“Every low-income person carries core aspirations for a better life. Diet, healthy eating and expanded food choices are being recognized as legitimate ways of achieving this.”

Additional Resources
To learn more about the environmental, health and economic implications of our corn and petroleum-based industrial food system, we recommend Michael Polllan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (The Penguin Press, 2006).

Another great read is Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
To find markets nearest you that specialize in locally produced, fresh foods, go to https://www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarketsfarmersmarkets.

For a quick guide on how to eat right, and other interesting articles on related subjects, see the “Eating Smart” section on Time’s Web site.

Buying produce that is in season is always preferable to buying items shipped from distant growers. Search the Internet for a seasonality chart that applies to your area: for northern California go to www.cuesa.org/seasonality.

Other recent Rex grantees that have food-related programs are NextCourse (2006), Organic Farming Research Foundation (2005), Sustainable Fishery Advocates (2005), Californians for GE-Free Agriculture (2005), and Community Harvest (2005). Descriptions of these programs and others can be found on the Rex Web page under the “Grants and Awards” link.

“The current model of food production depends on cheap labor precipitated by unjust production practices.”

Rex Board Perspective
The idea to fund People’s Grocery came from Sandy Sohcot, Rex’s Executive Director, who says:
“I first heard about People’s Grocery about a year ago. A friend and I were discussing various issues related to providing greater accessibility to healthy food. At the time I was talking about my daughter Hilary’s work in the Bayview/Hunters Point district of San Francisco in conjunction with her Community Fellowship work at the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. Hilary’s project involved analyzing why there were not more food choices in these communities and identifying strategies for increasing access to healthy food. As a Commissioner on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, I was also interested in this issue. As I related this to my friend, she suggested checking out People’s Grocery as an example of a community-based program addressing these issues.

“With this introduction, I did my own research, including talking with people who were familiar with the program from their own funding research and work in Oakland. It became clear to me that People’s Grocery was a program that was doing work consistent with the Rex Foundation’s mission.”

Rex believes that the “food justice” movement has legs. Programs like that of People’s Grocery are springing up in communities all over the world. The author Michael Pollan (see above) explains it this way: “…food is a powerful metaphor for a great many of the values to which people feel globalization poses a threat, including the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities, the survival of local landscapes, and biodiversity.” We’re glad to have had the opportunity to make a contribution to this movement.