Only one grocery store serves the 25,000 mostly low-income residents of West Oakland, Calif. By contrast, the area has 36 convenience and liquor stores. Only three of the convenience stores sell fresh produce—at prices 30 percent to 100 percent higher than at supermarkets. Part co-op, part nonprofit development organization, People?s Grocery is the brainchild of Brahm Ahmadi, Malaika Edwards and Leander Sellers, who saw this disparity and set out to fix it.
People?s is an ambitious community-based organization that seeks primarily to educate the people of West Oakland about the benefits of sustainable agriculture, but also strives to provide them with a healthy, nutritious and affordable shopping option. ?It?s a disservice to educate a community about the negative consequences of what they?re eating and then not provide them with an alternative,? Ahmadi says. ?You can?t tell people to eat organic foods or fresh foods when they look around them and there?s nowhere to buy it.? So People?s runs a variety of education and development programs, but also provides the community with a co-op on wheels.
Housed in a bright red and purple truck run on biodiesel fuel, People?s mobile market is outfitted with a solar-powered sound system and refrigerator. For the last year and a half, the market has made stops throughout the neighborhood, selling organic produce, bulk food and frozen food, as well as natural personal care products. West Oakland residents can buy memberships for $5 and receive a 20 percent discount, putting prices close to wholesale. Nonmembers also are welcome to shop, though they have to pay the markup.
The market is staffed mainly by local teen-agers trained in People?s Collards n? Commerce Entrepreneurship program, which offers classes in nutrition, business, gardening and sustainable agriculture. The program is intended to educate but also to provide teen-agers with job skills. ?We really believe that providing stable and positive employment is one of the best things you can do for young people,? Ahmadi says.
In addition to Collards n? Commerce, People?s runs two annual Urban Rootz Food & Justice Camps—free to area low-income youth and youth of color—which teach teen-agers about organic farming, urban agriculture, food inequality and nutrition through workshops, games, cooking classes, volunteer garden work and farm field trips.
People?s Grocery also partners with City Slickers Farm—an urban farm in West Oakland—contributing labor, money and community outreach, as well as a co-operative greenhouse at a local middle school.
For People?s founders, healthy food and social justice are intricately intertwined. ?Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in our community,? Ahmadi says. ?But when you ask people here [what?s the No. 1 killer], they jump immediately to gun violence, drug overdoses or even car accidents. They?re not aware that the primary killer is our eating. We want to expose the dire and threatening nature of our position as a community that does not have access to healthy food.?
Although recent news has certainly made the public more aware of the relationship between poverty and health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, People?s Grocery hopes to drive awareness even one step further. According to Ahmadi, people who are poor not only deserve proper food, they ought to have high-quality, affordable organic food.
Ahmadi uses water as a metaphor to explain his position: ?If a community is getting access to water that is potentially contaminated or is simply overpriced, you can say that the basic human right has been met,? he says. ?But if you?re really striving for a greater standard of human civilization, that would not be acceptable.? Food sold or given to low-income families is usually packaged and highly processed and is rarely organic. Lowering the bar on food quality for poor people, says Ahmadi, perpetuates inequality and exacerbates health problems in communities that already cannot afford proper medical care.
Introducing the organic concept has not been without its challenges. Organic food has long been a luxury of the wealthy, and many West Oakland residents simply do not know what it is. It has also been difficult to sell unknown brands in a neighborhood where branding is often tied to status. Because what it is doing is so new and experimental, People?s operates with no real infrastructure and a dearth of resources. Ahmadi hopes the mobile market will someday pay for itself, but so far the organization hasn?t broken even and is kept running by numerous grants and donations. Despite these current difficulties, Ahmadi and his co-founders have their eyes set on the future. They?re working with several other nonprofits to establish a nonmobile food cooperative. They also hope to eventually form strategic partnerships with natural foods companies by selling them on the notion of a secondary price system that would increase their sales in low-income neighborhoods and provide them with a profit while keeping consumer costs low.
The phenomenal growth of the organic industry, says Ahmadi, will soon plateau and necessitate entry into new, emerging markets, including those containing people whose pockets aren?t as deep as those of the traditional organic consumer. ?Most companies assume that there is no profit in a low-income community, that the cultural barriers are too high and that it?s too financially risky,? says Ahmadi, who points out, however, that products such as clothing and music have been successfully marketed to this demographic by catering to its culture. By combining People?s Grocery?s unique cultural knowledge with the resources of a for-profit company, Ahmadi thinks organic and natural products can be successfully marketed in neighborhoods like West Oakland.
But West Oakland, Ahmadi says, is not just a potential profit source—it?s also the kind of community to which the organic industry has a special obligation. The social and environmental ideals that have fueled the natural foods business apply to both the rich and the poor. ?The strong emergence of organic food has created yet another tier of premium, high-priced food that is farther from access for the poor,? he says. ?But what is the organic industry for? What is its real social purpose? The notion of human rights and social change are built into it. If you give anyone the choice to eat better or live better, they will always choose to do that.?
O?rya Hyde-Keller is freelance writer in Madison, Wis.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 178