By Marissa Guggiana
The Bay Area may be known internationally as a foodie destination, but there are pockets of the region that stand in stark contrast to the world of organic produce, farmers’ markets and artisanal edibles. West Oakland, for example, is what some call a “food desert.” This low-income neighborhood has not sustained a full-service grocery store in years. Now, one man and his grassroots organization hope to change that by opening a “People’s Community Market,” the culmination of many years of groundwork and a lot of vision.
Brahm Ahmadi came to West Oakland more than 10 years ago as a community organizer focused on environmental issues, but he quickly found that the area’s residents were far more concerned with their lack of access to fresh, healthy food. As a result he founded People’s Grocery in 2002.
People’s Grocery is a collection of programs and experiments whose underlying, long-term goal has always been the creation of a brick-and-mortar grocery store — when the time seemed right. Ahmadi, who had no experience in retail, no food background and no history in the neighborhood, knew he had to invest some time into researching the idea and laying the foundation before breaking ground on what is known as the People’s Community Market.
“Failing was not an option. So we created a nonprofit in a patient process to address issues and gain experience,” he said recently. People’s Grocery teaches cooking classes, has sold vegetable boxes, and has offered nutrition counseling, among other projects. The organization has also garnered a great deal of social capital that it is investing in this new phase. Ahmadi is now CEO of the future People’s Community Market and Nikki Henderson, lately seen on stage at UC Berkeley with Michael Pollan helping orchestrate the university’s Edible Education 101 course, has taken the reins as executive director of People’s Grocery.
On a recent week night, People’s Community Market hosted a fund-raising event at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. “We have a brilliant team, a site in mind and now all we need is cash money,” summarized the event’s emcee, food activist, chef and Oakland resident, Bryant Terry. The event sought to garner the financial support needed to complement the goodwill the initiative has already achieved in the community. Buying highly-processed food at a liquor store “affects your psyche and your health,” said Jacqueline Thomas, a West Oakland resident. “This will prove that low-income people can have the best,” said West Oakland resident Quinton Sankofa. The guests at the fundraiser certainly had the best that evening, with songs from local musician Austin Willacy, lots of greens and a warm rhubarb pie as a closing note.
People’s Community Market believes it is uniquely situated to make a store stick and, hopefully, to transform the health and vitality of West Oakland in the process. The desire to break ground gained momentum when the People’s Community Market permit to offer direct public shares was approved by the California Department of Corporations in September. A direct public offering allows the market to offer a reasonably affordable share of ownership to local residents, a move they hope will help the neighborhood to take pride in its future success.
The direct public offering is asking for a minimum of $1,000 initial investment for unaccredited investors and $5,000 from accredited investors, and hopes to pay everyone back within seven years. In the meantime, investors will receive an annual credit of 1% of their investment at the store and a 3% compounded annual dividend, which can be paid after seven years. People’s Community Market seeks to raise $2.4 million and has found matching funds for half. The other $1.2 million will come from the direct public offering and has to be raised while the permit is valid.
The payoff for residents is clear. There is no other grocery store in the neighborhood and this store will offer healthy options, prepared foods, a meeting space, and foods “the neighborhood actually wants,” as Ahmadi put it. After many years in the neighborhood, he feels he can offer residents the best versions of their preferences and in their price ranges, without imposing outside ideas. A study commissioned by People’s Community Market found that $58 million was being spent annually on groceries by people in West Oakland, some of which People’s Community Market hopes to capture. In return, it will offer food that nourishes the body and the neighborhood.
“We want social change not social services. Non-profits come into West Oakland and hire all college-educated folk from outside to deliver services to the poor. The residents have seen the failures of those organizations to fundamentally create change. Sixty years later hunger is worse than it was,” Brahm Ahmadi said earlier this year speaking to Katrina Fried, author of Everyday Heroes, a book that profiled 50 Americans making a difference through nonprofits.
Besides hunger, the West Oakland community absorbs other consequences of poor health from the lack of access to food, including diabetes rates three times higher than the Alameda County average. In addition, 48% of the area’s population are overweight or obese, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department.
The vision for the “more than a grocery store” spot is a 12,000-square-foot open-air food pavilion, constructed from lightweight and some prefabricated components. The planners are hoping for a low-cost, speedy construction that will also prove to be a positive shopping experience for residents. PCM is working with Lowney Architecture, Pankow Builders and UNFI Store Development Services on the project.
There is a strong sense of social duty in this endeavor, but it is also a business. People’s Community Market projects employing 50 people and is committed to hiring at least half of those people locally.
Marissa Guggiana is a Berkeley resident, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild, and author of Primal Cuts: Cooking With America’s Best Butchers and Off The Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants.
UC Berkeley’s edible education course: Stories, revelations [12.12.12]
Nikki Henderson on the frontlines of edible education [08.19.11]