By Piper Wheeler
It is well known that fresh produce and alternatives to fast-food are both sorely lacking in West Oakland, an area sometimes referred to as a “food desert.” With perhaps one exception, efforts to date to rectify the situation have either not been forthcoming, or failed to get off the ground. However, three initiatives close to the hearts of food-justice activists are picking up steam and promise to bring real and lasting change for the neighborhood.
People’s Grocery: Improving the local food system in myriad ways
Founded in 2003 with the mission of improving West Oakland’s health and economy through the local food system, People’s Grocery is now host to a dizzying array of programs, from foodways education for local kids to subsidized CSA boxes and farmers markets that accept food stamps. West Oakland residents can purchase staple foods at wholesale prices through the organization, as well as indulge in days of “meditative weeding” at one of their several community gardens.
People’s Grocery has been in flux over the last few months, and has recently installed Wanda Stewart as its new director. Stewart hopes to continue to grow People’s Grocery’s presence on the local and national stage, and to make sure that People’s continues to be “a place where people talk about food, where we grow food, cook food, talk about food policy, and empower people to make money with food-based enterprises,” she said.
A key part of her new agenda is to continue to revitalize the land around Oakland’s California Hotel, which re-opened as an apartment building for low-income residents in 2014. People’s has a community garden in the rear of the building, and Stewart hopes to add a labyrinth and medicinal herbs. Stewart places great importance in the act of gardening: “When you teach someone to grow a vegetable, you teach them to grow and change in life, and teach them to transform themselves as well as the land.”
The California Hotel will also be the site of People’s Grocery’s next event, this weekend’s Black History Month celebration. The event, titled “Know Our History, Grow Our Future,” will feature a panel of environmental and activist leaders like Carl Anthony and David Roach, as well as an all-ages dance party, an open garden day, and a farmer’s market.
But while the efforts of People’s Grocery do much to improve West Oaklanders’ access to healthy foods, most of the neighborhood’s 25,000 residents still make do without a convenience many city dwellers take for granted: a full-service grocery store.
A grocery store in the Jack London Gateway shopping center
This lack has been making headlines lately. Just before the New Year, Oakland investor Tom Henderson announced his plans to open a new store in the Jack London Gateway shopping center.
Oakland’s king of EB-5 investments, Henderson has already funneled millions into Oakland projects considered too high-risk to garner bank financing. His San Francisco Regional Center raises funds via a federal “Immigrant Investor” program, which grants green cards to foreigners who contribute at least $500,000 to a project that creates a minimum of ten jobs. Henderson also owns the Tribune Tower and the restaurant Tribune Tavern in Uptown.
The new store, to be located in a long-vacant retail space near the corner of Market and 7th streets, will reportedly require initial start-up costs of $25 million. Henderson vows his 20,000-square-foot market will make “Safeway look like 7-Eleven.”
The neighborhood, to be sure, is hungry for it. Residents of this underserved area, many with lower incomes and no cars, must schlepp heavy grocery bags home from Emeryville, Alameda, Berkeley, and far-flung Oakland neighborhoods. This annoyance robs locals of money as well as time: according to one market analysis, the neighborhood leaks $43 million a year in grocery purchases alone. Reclaiming some of this money, activists say, could help mend a local economy still scarred from disruptive city-planning missteps and discriminatory lending practices of past decades.
Tom Henderson’s plans have been met with cautious optimism. Many city officials, including mayor Libby Schaff, applaud the investor’s ability to bring new money into Oakland. But some longtime merchants and community activists in the neighborhood doubt the Piedmont native’s ability to succeed in a difficult market.
People’s Community Market: Raising more funds for a grocery store
No one understands the challenges of opening a store in West Oakland better than Brahm Ahmadi, who has devoted the better part of his adult life to the neighborhood’s food system. The founder and former director of People’s Grocery, Ahmadi split amicably from the nonprofit about two years ago in order to devote his energies to People’s Community Market (PCM). This for-profit, socially-conscious organization is now in the final stages of securing a site for their own 10,000 square foot store. PCM leaders are in talks with multiple landowners, but a site at the corner of Market Street and Grand Avenue is a top contender.
Just days after Henderson announced his investment plans, Ahmadi wrote an update to his own investors. These shareholders are, for the most part, working people with ties to West Oakland. Ahmadi and his partners managed to raise PCM’s current capitalization of $1.2 million through a grassroots direct public offering. Of PCM’s 402 current shareholders, a little over half bought in with the $1,000 minimum investment.
PCM’s word-of-mouth campaign earned the prospective market not just much-needed funds, but social currency and a foothold in the neighborhood. “People — our future customers — have been involved from the very beginning,” Ahmadi says. “They’re excited to support us.”
To further ensure that the store will cater to the neighborhood, PCM relies on a Community Advisory Board — assembled and facilitated by People’s Grocery — that is helping to plan everything from the store’s layout and design to product lines and community outreach.
Unfortunately, $1.2 million doesn’t buy much in West Oakland’s newly hot commercial real-estate market. Ahmadi describes unmotivated landowners determined to garner $80 per square foot for land that would have sold for $50 just last year. Initially, the organizers had expected their current funds to cover land and construction; now it seems it will go to land alone.
Ahmadi is hopeful that more money will come. He says that the success of their first direct public offering has earned PCM “credibility” with bank lenders who previously wouldn’t consider touching such a project. More small investors, who missed the first round of fundraising, are waiting in the wings.
The activists behind People’s Community Market are nothing if not patient. For years they have been researching, preparing and planning this store. At stake is not just their own success, but the redemption of a neighborhood long stigmatized by store closures. “We were looking to open a store fifteen years ago,” Ahmadi says, “but the risks were too high. … Failure would be too damaging to the community.”
Such painstaking preparation stands in stark contrast to the hustle of Tom Henderson’s enterprise, which has reportedly not yet commissioned a feasibility study. Ahmadi emphasizes that he welcomes Henderson’s efforts, and isn’t concerned about a competitive threat. But he is worried Henderson’s project will fail, leaving the neighborhood in the lurch.
People’s Community Market had already rejected Henderson’s selected site, unimpressed with its location. The Jack London Gateway shopping center, while convenient to several freeways, is on the edge of the neighborhood, with poor street frontage and limited public transit nearby. “We had to consider the limitations of this community, [in which] most people are walking or taking the bus, and shop every few days instead of once a week,” Ahmadi explains.
He speculates that Henderson is perhaps counting on gentrification to bring in more affluent customers — but those drivers who might come in off the freeway will have their choice of other markets within an easy drive. And while Jack London Gateway is technically bracketed by two fast-changing neighborhoods (Jack London Square and the area around the West Oakland BART), it’s not an easy walk from either.
One key to solving the crisis of food deserts, Ahmadi contends, is understanding how to market to low-income communities of color. In urban areas across the U.S., much-needed supermarkets have failed to gain traction when their physical plans appear too high-end. Even if prices are kept low, he says, locals won’t patronize a store they perceive to be pricey.
One success story in West Oakland is the much-loved Mandela Foods Cooperative, located in a small retail space across the street from the West Oakland BART. The worker-owned shop is ideally positioned to catch foot traffic, and its clever pricing system allows it to sell fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy staples at a significant discount, while charging more than usual for more frivolous products, like organic unbleached paper products.
People’s Community Market plans to adopt a similar two-tiered pricing model: a foundation of familiar, affordable products will be supplemented by a few higher-end choices. And the “center aisles” of the store — where chain supermarkets typically house vast swathes of packaged sweets, sodas and snacks — will be shrunk to make room for larger offerings of produce, dairy, and other fresh foods.
While the store seeks to make a profit, its central mission will be to improve the neighborhood’s health and economy, as well as to stem the tide of displacement spurred by gentrification. Eventually, the store’s 100 employees will become owners of the business. Employees’ loyalty, as well as their value to the community and the business, will be increased through extensive trainings in nutrition, cooking, and financial literacy.
Ahmadi speaks of West Oakland as a community fractured by divisions between rich and poor; newcomer and native; and black, white and Latino. As a business enterprise, PCM must win over all segments of the local population. As a social experiment, it will strive “to attract the full diversity of the community.”
“For us, a grocery store is in some ways just a medium,” Ahmadi says. “We’re building a laboratory for community engagement.” An in-house venue space, managed by PCM’s community partners, will offer educational and cultural programs. A cafe will provide a place for socializing. These additions are vital for this neighborhood, Ahmadi says, whose public spaces have long suffered from neglect. The store will represent a much-needed space for neighbors to rub shoulders.
It’s admittedly a lot to ask of a grocery store.
On a recent sunny afternoon, though, PCM’s future neighborhood seemed primed for bottom-up growth. In the tiny Tamales la Oaxaquena on Market and 30th streets, visitors were delighted with Rosa’s homemade chicken mole. A dimly lit corner store across the street was doing a brisk trade in hot fried chicken, steamed corn and biscuits. Just over on San Pablo, shoppers maneuvered their baskets through the tight aisles of Produce Pro, where a well-staffed meat counter, bright Mexican piñatas and heaps of fresh produce take up every available square foot of floor and ceiling.
These independent operators have found a foothold where chain stores dare not go, and won a loyal customer base by tailoring services to their neighbors’ cultural backgrounds, spending habits and tastes. People’s Community Market seeks to recreate the responsiveness of such small enterprises on a larger scale, with a generous dose of social consciousness.
Until then, People’s Grocery will continue to fill in the gaps with education, urban farms, and community events.
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