By Emily Mann
Imagine you are stranded in a desert: without access to water and food, surrounded by vast emptiness with only the barest forms of sustained life, isolated from what lies beyond, and without hope of an exit. This scenario is quite analogous (although maybe a bit more dramatic) to the reality for many people living in urban food deserts.
Defined by the USDA as “an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food,” our neighboring community of West Oakland is unquestionably a food desert. In all of West Oakland, there is not one single supermarket—yet 53 convenience stores—to service its 30,000 residents living within a little over 8 square miles.[i]
Access to healthy food is impeded by a lack of physical, economic, and educational opportunities.
West Oakland is the poorest community in the Bay Area. Corner liquor stores and fast food restaurants are abundant on the streets of West Oakland; but the community is a barren wasteland in terms of places to buy healthy food.
In a demographic profile of West Oakland done by the AICP City of Oakland, Bay Area Economic Study in 2000, the average median household income was $17, 945. Compare that to the $39,626 average median household income of the whole City of Oakland.
In the same profile, 45% of the West Oakland population lacks a high school degree. Only 11% have a college degree.[ii]
Given the situation they face, many West Oakland residents feel the future is fruitless (no pun intended) as they are stranded in a food desert. What hope is there for people like West Oaklanders living in food deserts? What is being done to re-landscape this urban food desert?
“Our fundamental mission is to create a local food system that supports the health and economy of the West Oakland community and benefits those who have often been left out of it.” –Brahm Ahmadi, Director and Co-Founder of the People’s Grocery
Founded in 2002, Ahmadi and two other West Oakland residents created the People’s Grocery in response to their discontent with the lack of access to healthy food.
The People’s Grocery advocates for “food justice”: the principle that access to healthy food is a right regardless of income or social standing. The People’s Grocery aims to establish food justice in the West Oakland community by providing organic, locally grown produce as an alternative to processed snack food found at liquor stores.
There are many innovative initiatives taken by the People’s Grocery such as the Mobile Market, a grocery store on wheels that sells produce and packaged foods at affordable prices. Their 6-week adult cooking classes bring West Oakland residents together to teach healthy cooking. An urban agriculture program comprised of 3 community gardens in West Oakland and a 2-acre farm in the Sunol region of Alameda County that produce locally-grown, seasonal, and organic produce and a produce box distribution program that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to West Oakland residents are also People’s Grocery intiatives.
“Pick a fruit. Feed a child. Plant a seed. Feed a nation.”
The 1996 Mo’ Better Food Conference in San Francisco brought together Black farmers, urban gardeners, and community leaders to answer the question of access to food in the African-American community in the Bay Area. Established two years later by a group of students, the first Mo’ Better Food Farmer’s Market was offered at McClymonds High School in West Oakland. And there, a model for community development and health was born.
David Roach, the founder of Mo’ Better Food, collaborated with the People’s Grocery. The Mobile Market, created by the People’s Grocery, agreed to stock their store-on-wheels with produce grown by the farmers of Mo’ Better Foods.
The Mo’ Better Foods Program is also part of a larger collaborative with The Friends of School Program and the Intergenerational Enterprise Program, all spearheaded by the Familyhood Connection Inc., that is aimed at promoting community unification largely through education.
A group of West Oakland community members sought out to provide their community with affordable and healthy food in 2001. The result: an urban garden was developed in a once-vacant lot on Center Street.
From that first garden, City Slicker Farms has expanded drastically. City Slicker Farms now boasts seven community farmer’s markets, over 100 backyard gardens established in order for households to learn how to grow their own food, a weekly farm stand, a greenhouse, urban farming educational programs that teach residents gardening skills, and a Policy Advocacy Initiative that advocates for food justice in Oakland through education and mobilization.
Although these grassroots organizations offer a new community model through educational opportunities and greater access to fresh healthy food, a lot of work still needs to be done in West Oakland. An oasis offered by The People’s Grocery, Mo’ Better Food, and City Slicker Farms has begun to quench the thirsting community of West Oakland.