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As in many urban communities, fresh and healthy food is hard to find in West Oakland, Calif. The city is home to few grocery stores, farmer’s markets or other sources of healthy goods, putting its mostly low-income residents at greater risk for obesity and other health conditions.
But for nearly a decade, the People’s Grocery has worked to bring a healthy and sustainable food system to West Oakland. In the Q&A below, program director Jumoke Hinton Hodge talks about the history of the People’s Grocery, its work in West Oakland and what the future might hold.
The People’s Grocery isn’t a single grocery store. It’s actually an organization that leads several different programs designed to improve the food system, including through community gardens, education programs and even a greenhouse at a local low-income housing development. How do all of these programs work together, and what do you think unites them?
People’s Grocery is NOT a Grocery Store. We are a food justice program that focuses on leadership development, health education and encouraging food enterprise development. The original vision of People’s Grocery was to build a health food system that included a grocery store. The co-founder has spun off and created the People’s Community Market. People’s Grocery programs extend into public institution and community based events. We are consistent with delivering a strong message about improving our health through food, but also by building community. We lift up people’s cultural relationship to food. We currently are doing a listening campaign to enlist 10,000 food stories from the people we communicate with. Specifically, we have a garden that is a part of a residential hotel where we engage residents weekly through harvesting food from the garden, providing food demos and even art workshops. The residents independently take responsibility for watering the garden, caring for the chickens and just using the garden to relax and reflect there. Our residents have many challenges with their health beginning with poverty, recovery from cancer and often mental illness. Growing Justice leaders are focused on creating health and wealth solutions for our community through food. They bring ideas to community about health and explore ways to engage community members in their own health.
One of the things that stands out for me is that your focus isn’t just on food, it’s also on equality and justice. How do you think the two areas come together?
Food is vital to all life, so is justice. We are honest about acknowledging the inequities that exist within our nation. We see how access issues manifest in low-income communities and communities of color. We have a failed food system that does not adequately feed people but also abuses the very people that make sure we have food. The process by which we get our food at this time in our nation is [produced] by large agri-businesses, not farmers. There is no longer an emphasis on the land, the food we grow or even the rituals or culture of agriculture — our food is a created in a manner to ensure profit is made for businesses. When we look at food related illnesses that are preventable but instead we are forced to eat food that is unhealthy, we must recognize that our health — our food is tied into our basic rights as humans. A fair and humane food system benefits everyone.
The goal of the People’s Grocery is to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through the local food system. Can you explain what the local food system is like in Oakland? What was it like 10 years ago when your work began? How has it changed?
The local food system within West Oakland has been incredibly inconsistent. There have been periods of mid-size grocery store outlets operating in West Oakland. They operate for three to five years. Ten years ago, there was a proliferation of liquor stores — there was little-to-no regulation of stores — and [liquor stores] were great contributors to blight and loitering in the community. At the beginning of the movement there were several other organizations involved in addressing food insecurity, [including] City Slicker Farms, Mo Betta Foods and Mandela Foods. Each group had a slightly different focus on addressing the issue. There were many attempts at collaborating but ultimately each project went [its] separate way. West Oakland had at one time the most visible and active movement. It has since spread to other communities like East Oakland. There is greater collaboration now.
One of the things the People’s Grocery has done is hand off some of the programs and projects to partner groups. Why do this? Why not just run everything yourself?
Because we see ourselves as a part of a movement to ensure equitable and fair practices it requires partnership. We have resourced ourselves with other organizations and partners to ensure we are effectively making a difference. Practically speaking, our capacity as a small nonprofit could never cover all of the aspects of this work. We must work on all fronts, policy to direct services. We have partnered with a younger organization and can provide support and mentorship as they take their place in the movement to improve the food system.
How is the work you are doing effecting the health of West Oakland residents?
We are raising awareness with residents about the root causes behind the lack of healthy affordable food. We are providing access to food for approximately 50 families a week.
I know that many of your projects have been replicated in other cities nationwide. What advice do you have for people looking to do this work in their community?
Create spaces for the most effected members of your community to shape the work. Ask questions of community about what they want. Work hard to unlearn and dismantle racist and oppressive attitudes. Recognize your privilege and power when working with communities that have often been disempowered. Collaborate with others to ensure you are most effective in building your system. Work cross sectors when dealing with food. Think about how food impacts the environmental or educational needs of a community. … Food has a direct impact on our health — spiritually, physically and mentally and will directly impact our work. Be conscious of these areas of our work.
What is next for the People’s Grocery?
We are building stronger networks with residents in West Oakland. We will continue to create economic opportunities to empower the West Oakland community. We will also begin to work more with health institutions.