For low-income people in North America, “food justice” is a broad concept which addresses the social, political, economic and ecological barriers to food security. Gaining access to affordable, organic food, achieving local self-sufficiency, and creating economic opportunities are major challenges to lower-income people. The People’s Grocery, with its “mobile market” and community gardens, simultaneously addresses these intimately linked issues, and is part of a growing food justice movement across the country.
West Oakland, a low income section of this city across the bay from San Francisco, is home to some 32,000 people, predominantly African American and Latino. Seventy percent of them live below the poverty line and suffer from high rates of crime and unemployment. Prior to WWII, West Oakland was a thriving port and rail terminus with vibrant shipbuilding and rail industries that attracted many African Americans from the Southern states of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. A recession followed the wars end, causing a collapse of the shipbuilding industry in the 1950’s. Railroad employment also diminished as the automobile replaced trains as the primary mode of transportation. However, many who came to the city from elsewhere stayed, precipitating a ‘white flight’ of the more affluent Caucasians into the hills of Oakland and the new suburbs north and south of Oakland’s borders. Despite the economic downturn and fiscal drain, there was still a thriving commercial district of some 1,500 black-owned businesses along what is now the Mandela Parkway.
Eventually this strip was bought up and ripped out to make way for the Cypress Freeway, and many neighborhoods were bulldozed for public housing and ‘urban renewal’. Due to this new freeway, which completely bypassed West Oakland, and two natural disasters–the Santa Cruz earthquake in 1989 and the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991–the area has never recovered, physically, economically or socially. Preventing its recovery is its segregation from surrounding towns by freeways. Ironically, the Cypress Freeway has become the entry into neighboring Emeryville, which is currently booming due to its ability to attract the recent influx of high-tech firms. Much of Emeryville’s poorer population has been forced into West Oakland. However, West Oakland has a reputation for social activism from the 1960’s and ’70’s, where it was the home of the original Welfare Rights Organization, as well as the Black Panther Party, for which it is most famous.
History of the People’s Grocery
Founded in 2001, the mission of the People’s Grocery is to bring healthy food to low-income neighborhoods in west Oakland; cultivate local self-sufficiency in food and economics; bring farming and entrepreneurial skills to youth, and raise awareness about sustainability, health and food justice.
Prior to becoming a co-founder of the People’s Grocery, Brahm Ahmadi was working in a local camp for urban youth. It became apparent to him that in addition to clean air, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, and proper amenities, West Oakland lacked access to good, fresh food. There were few choices for healthy food for West Oaklanders that didn’t involve traveling long distances. There was almost no fresh food available anywhere in the neighborhood and organic foods were almost impossible to find. The most readily available food is canned or processed, found on the shelves of the 40 plus liquor stores dotting the area. Prices are generally nearly double the prices found in regular supermarkets. Fast food outlets however, are ubiquitous. Some 25% of residents are dependent on emergency food programs to feed themselves. Activists see this as an issue of ‘food justice’–the right of all to access to healthy food and the proper tools to make informed food choices.
Ahmadi and co-founders Malaika Edwards and Leander Sellers all had backgrounds in environmental education and community organizing. They decided to create a project that would focus on integrating local self-sufficiency and economic opportunities by bringing healthy, organically-grown food at wholesale prices to low-income West Oakland residents. They also hoped the food issue would act as a catalyst to empower the community and inspire them to tackle the other critical needs affecting their daily lives.
For most people in the community, the People’s Grocery is best known for its orange and purple, hip hop blaring ‘Mobile Supermarket.’ Since the founders couldn’t afford to open a store, they decided they would bring food to the neighborhoods instead. They turned an old postal truck into a grocery store with shelves, bulk bins, and refrigeration. They painted it the highly visible orange and purple and played music to attract people’s attention. A solar-powered generator provides the energy needs of the truck, including lighting and refrigeration. The truck itself runs on biodiesel fuel. The truck travels throughout West Oakland’s neighborhoods, selling organic food and environmentally-friendly basic necessities at low prices. It also distributes nutrition information. At each stop, the mobile unit sets out its ramp and transforms itself into a tiny store that has also come to double as a community gathering place. There is strong demand in the communities to expand its services and routes. After four years, some 160 families were being served by the program.
In just four years, the project grew from providing a needed community service, the People’s Grocery, into a more comprehensive and sophisticated organization addressing broader systemic changes. The hard work of the founders has borne many fruits. They have set up urban gardens throughout the community which provide a substantial portion of the produce sold from the truck. They arrange visits for participants so they can see other agricultural businesses, especially organic farms. And in keeping with their goals of laying the groundwork for more systemic change, they have established education programs on poverty, nutrition and social justice. The People’s Grocery also runs a ‘healthy snack’ counter at the West Oakland YMCA. It is staffed by students from the neighborhood who can earn high school credits in business management as well as receive job skills training. Ahmadi describes the difference the program has made on youth involved with it: “When they came into the organization, all the young people were just like any teenager: junk food eating, clueless about health, ate fast food, ate meat, ate everything. We saw dramatic shifts where by the end of their first year in the summer program, they were very clear that they wanted to eat mostly organic and mostly vegetarian.”
While gaining recognition and trust from the neighborhoods was initially difficult, people have embraced the truck’s appearance, in part because of the Mobile Market’s low prices. The low prices are possible because of an agreement with Mountain Distributors who give the People’s Grocery large discounts to allow them to sell food at wholesale prices.
The People’s Grocery’s allure lies in its success in joining a holistic approach to systemic issues with grassroots action and street-level marketing. The early successes of this young organization have attracted a tremendous amount of media attention. The project’s concept has attracted interest from organizations in various parts of the country, and constantly receives inquiries about starting similar projects. Groups in Los Angeles, Baltimore and Philadelphia are in the process of retrofitting old vans to create similar mobile markets.
In its short history, the organization has developed a diverse number of strategic partnerships that have allowed it to accomplish tasks in a cost-effective way, build a network, and achieve goals which would have been impossible for it to do on its own.
The Mobile Market
During 2004, the Mobile Market doubled its membership to over 200 members, serving an average of 35 customers per day, or 3,500 per year. Besides sourcing food from suppliers and donors, 20% of the fresh produce is grown in one of the urban gardens managed by People’s Grocery. Produce is harvested and cleaned three times a week in coordination with the Mobile Market days. The Mobile Market also has special orders which provide cases of food to after-school programs, seniors, and households at discounted prices. Since its inception, sales have accordingly doubled with total sales reaching $27,000. In a 2005 survey performed by People’s Grocery, 60% of respondents said they had tried new types of healthy foods and 55% regularly eat more fruit and vegetables. Anecdotally, customers report they are eating better and trying more kinds of food, and staff members report their families have also been eating better.
The Market accepts government food stamps as payment. Local youths aged 15 to 17 years work on the truck and make between $8 and $10 per hour depending on their age.
The Market has a two-tiered pricing system, with discounts for members who are West Oakland residents. Nearly 90% of customers are members.
While the Mobile Market is one of the People’s Grocery’s most visible projects, it was intended to be an interim step to setting up a store/community cafe. The store is now scheduled to open in 2006. The Mobile Market will continue to operate though perhaps in a different capacity (see quotes by Brahm Ahmadi below).
Peer to Peer Youth Program
Urban gardens: West Oakland has about five hundred abandoned or vacant urban lots which account for about 7% of the human area. This, along with the year-round growing season, means untapped potential for optimizing unused land for increased self-sufficiency in fresh food. People’s Grocery currently has three urban gardens: the YMCA Youth Garden, the 55th Street garden, and the Ralph Bunche Greenhouse. Another location, the Union Street garden, was recently lost to development. Despite this loss, production expectations were surpassed in 2005, with increases of 256% from the previous year. 1,280 pounds of this produce were sold in the Mobile Market. Additional produce was used in cooking classes and given to residents. The increased production was due in part to the use of a greenhouse to start many of the vegetables. Further, the irrigation system was upgraded by switching to solar-powered drip irrigation. The Ralph Bunche Greenhouse is on the campus of Ralph Bunch Middle School, and the People’s Grocery is collaborating with “City Slicker Farms” running gardening classes for students. The greenhouse has provided 20,000 vegetable starts for use in gardens throughout the neighborhood since the beginning of the program. The 55th Street garden is under a “land trust,” which means it is owned by the People’s Grocery on the condition that land use is restricted for certain purposes. Labor in the garden is provided by school groups, youth programs, and volunteers who come in on open weekly work days.
Because there is always a risk that soil in vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods may be contaminated, especially by lead, all the gardens were tested for soil contamination through partnerships with local university scholars. They tested the soil and identified areas where the soil was suitable for farming. Food grown in the garden includes collard greens, garlic, potatoes, onions, strawberries, kale, broccoli, eggplant, green peppers, and others. Whatever else is needed in the Mobile Market is sourced from local farmers. Because of the mild winters, gardens are operational year-round.
Composting has also recently begun in the gardens, with 90% of compost and worm castings added to vegetable beds. Over 2.5 tons of raw materials for composting came from sources such as coffee breweries, juice companies, a local ashram, the nonprofit Food Not Bombs, and local households. At the 55th Street garden, a local artist designed the entry way, fountain and vegetable washing station. A bee-keeping program is also being planned. Some 500 visitors have come to the garden each year.
Collards ‘N’ Commerce Youth Program: This goal of this project is to offer opportunities for youth to develop entrepreneurial skills and experience through sustainable agriculture. They are given opportunities to work in the People’s Grocery gardens as well as with other programs. It provides the young people with economic alternatives to flipping burgers. In the summer, new youth staff is brought in, learning from their peers and hopefully going on to become community leaders.
The Good 4U Snack Stand: Designed by the youth staff, this is an entrepreneurial project which features over 40 different kinds of snack products. It is located in the YMCA building, where the People’s Grocery office is located. It is open three days a week in conjunction with YMCA youth programs. “Youth had their hand in everything as far as developing the business plan and the actualization of the model, and they run it. So it’s a very self-contained, very micro-based project that provides one or two jobs. And it is also an additional goal to intervene in the snacking habits of local children,” says Ahmadi. There is a similar project at another local community center.
Urban Rootz Food Justice Camp: This camp brings together youth from around the Bay Area at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center to spend a week eating good food, picking fruit, making herbal lip balm, hiking, swimming, seed saving, and learning about organic farming. This gives them an opportunity to challenge old ideas and a chance to develop new relationships.
Adult Cooking Classes: This was the first effort to expand the educational aspects of the program from youth to adults and seniors. It has been well received. Beginning in the spring of 2005, they are now in their fourth 12-week cycle. The classes are free to the public and there is a waiting list to join.
- Urban decay tip: Less services and amenities in neighborhoods –> more decay –> declining safety and increasing crime –> less interest in opening businesses in the area –> area is “locked out” of economic revival and becomes even harder to develop
- Industrial agriculture and food insecurity (larger farms) –> more subsidies –> cost of production per unit of agriculture goes down –> demise of small farms –> more increase in industrial agriculture –> less local agricultural opportunities –> less local food available –> more dependence on industrial agriculture
- Less local food available –> more dependence on liquor stores or fast-food joints for processed food (captive consumers) –> support for the fast/junk food industries
- Low-income families have less opportunities to buy fresh food –> less time spent in the kitchen –> increased alienation from food growing and preparation –> less demand for fresh food
Obesity, burden to health care system, food stamps and food banks mean more burden on social safety nets or NGOs.
- More urban gardens –> more expertise and know-how –> more gardens
- More urban gardens –> less need for food transported over long distances –> more food security –> more economic opportunities closer to home
- More organic food choices –> more customers –> increased demand for organic products
Income from various sources (see below) in the FY 2004-05 totaled $290,878.00 and expenses were $255,059.00.
Funders: Grants make up 58% of the organizations operating costs; 27.5% comes from individual donors; about 14% is from grocery sales, and the rest is from membership fees, in-kind donations and T-shirt sales. Various businesses and organizations give in-kind donations of materials, food, and technical support. Foundations such as Tides, the Center for Ecoliteracy, and the Rudolf Steiner Foundation give grants. A long-term goal of the project is to reduce dependency on foundations while increasing their individual donor base and income from the various project enterprises. A shift in this direction is reflected in the 2004-05 budget.
Awards: The project won the Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award, given to organizations “judged outstanding for their innovative and creative approaches to fighting domestic hunger and poverty by empowering people and building self-reliance.” Co-founder Malaika Edwards received the Jefferson Award for Public Service.
- On-site visit to People’s Grocery Mobile Market and Headquarters in West Oakland YMCA. (Interviews with co-founders Malaika Edwards and Brahm Ahmadi, Pat Brown, and Gerelina)
- People’s Grocery Website
- People’s Grocery 2004-2005 Annual Report
- Dicum, Gregory. “Green Produce to the People!” SF Gate, March 9, 2005.
- Green, Matthew. “Mobile Market Delivers Fresh Fare.” September 20, 2003.