By Valerie Luu
City on a Hill Press Reporter
Good food — healthy, fresh produce and affordable staples are harder to come by in West Oakland, a region of Oakland devoid of a full-scale grocery store. Instead, the community is overwhelmingly inhabited by over 40 liquor and convenience stores, small-scale markets, and fast-food restaurants.
In West Oakland alone, there are over 10 advocacy and education organizations and coalitions, ranging from People’s Grocery, a nonprofit, to Mo’ Better Market, which runs provides a farmers market, a rare source of fresh produce in West Oakland.
David Roach, manager of Mo’ Better Foods, spends Saturday mornings in front of the West Oakland BART station with three tents and few vendors. Roach said he started to get involved in food justice while teaching at Castlemont High School in Oakland, where a former student came in feeding her young child candy.
Roach asked her why she was feeding her child candy instead of nutritional food.
She replied, “Mr. Roach, where can I find any good food around here?”
The answer to the mother’s question is a complicated and devastating one for the residents of West Oakland. The community has been dubbed a “food desert,” a term used by food justice activists to describe areas that lack access to fresh, affordable and healthy food.
The lack of food security, or having physical and economic access to sufficient and healthy food, pervades the places that are most in need — inner cities with low-income populations. Other “food deserts” across the nation include East Harlem, Detroit, South Los Angeles, and the South Side of Chicago.
The California Food and Justice Coalition, a food advocacy group, extends the meaning of food security to include safe, culturally acceptable food acquired through sustainable means.
According to Kai Seidenberg, director of the California Community Food Coalition, this focus increases community self-reliance and social justice.
“All communities are affected by food security issues in different ways,” Seidenberg said. “The ones that are definitely most affected are low-income communities.”
The negative effect of a lack of food security can be seen in other Bay Area communities like Bayview-Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and East Palo Alto in the South Bay, where urban sprawl, low-income populations, and crime are all rampant and grocery stores are few and far between.
These effects are particularly pronounced, though, for West Oakland. According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, the area houses about 24,000 residents, bordered by the Port of Oakland and three freeways. The average household income in West Oakland is about $20,000. Approximately half of the population is African-American, followed by approximately 20 percent Asian, and about 12 percent each Latino and White. Oakland is also one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the U.S. In 2008, there were 124 homicides, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Welcome to West Oakland: A History of Hunger
Since there are no full-scale grocery store chains in the area, most residents commute a few miles away to the Safeway and Pak N’ Save in Emeryville, the closest supermarkets to West Oakland. The fact that 35 percent of West Oakland residents do not own a car means a long and tedious trip using public transportation is required to reach the nearest supermarkets. This also means more frequent trips, since it’s harder to buy and carry groceries in bulk.
However, getting a week’s worth of groceries hasn’t always been so difficult.
Larry Johnson, a 43-year-old resident born and raised in West Oakland, recalls walking to numerous mom-and-pop stores with his mother years ago. He notices how different the scene is now, with liquor stores lining the streets instead.
“When I was a kid, it was wonderful,” Johnson recalled. “There were mom-and-pop stores in the neighborhood. There’s none of that anymore. Some of them had groceries, meat packages, fresh produce, fruits, and vegetables. You go into the stores now, all you can buy is liquor and beer.”
The community has had a shaky relationship with the few grocery stores it has seen. In March of 2007, Eugene’s Market closed down. The grocery market was located at the Jack London Gateway Shopping Center, in the least populated “Lower Bottoms” region of West Oakland. Many residents attribute its closing to the fact that, like some other failed grocery stores, the owner was interested primarily in quick profit, rather than in developing a long-term relationship with the community and achieving gradual success.
Other residents recall the once-local Acorn Super. Though markedly better than liquor-store grocery shopping, many residents remember Acorn for being overpriced, limited in selection, and of a notably lower quality than other grocery chains.
Since shutting down in February of 1996, the store’s shape has shifted many times. At one point it was converted into an Asian market. The grocery mart failed to meet the cultural demands of the community, however, and was also closed down.
Currently, there are a few corner markets that offer a limited selection of fresh produce and grocery items. But these corner markets offer only a fraction of what full-service grocery stores do.
A 2005 study by UCSF School of Medicine found that in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco, which bears striking similarity to West Oakland in its lack of a supermarket, a loaf of bread purchased from a liquor store averaged $1.94 versus $1.09 in grocery stores elsewhere in San Francisco.
Johnson expressed sentiments felt by many in the community regarding the need for bigger, full-service marts, since some local markets that supply meat, for example, don’t cater to other basic grocery needs. He also expressed disapproval for the number of liquor stores he has watched move into his neighborhood.
“It’s wrong to have more liquor stores than grocery stores. They should stop selling liquor, period,” Johnson said. “As a kid I saw my parents drink, and as I grew older I started drinking. It makes the community worse.”
Johnson has been unemployed since he was released from prison a year and a half ago and is living off of welfare. His mother, now 65, cannot go to the grocery store anymore.
“When they had the Acorn Super Market a few years ago she was able to drive her motor scooter across the street and come back home with her own groceries.” Johnson said. “But now, she can’t even go outside her door and [get groceries] ‘cause there’s no grocery stores in West Oakland.”
Since Johnson owns a car, he’s able to go to the grocery store for his mother. However, he admits that he goes to fast-food restaurants for most meals — Jack-in-the-Box, McDonald’s and KFC are all located across the street from his house.
“I can walk across the street to the McDonald’s but I can’t walk across the street to the grocery store,” Johnson said.
Although Johnson knows the importance of eating healthfully, he still opts for the conveniece of a fast-food diet, regardless of its consequences.
“I get stomachaches more [when I eat fast food]. When I eat cooked food, my stomach don’t hurt. Fast food’s not good for you, not good for you at all.”
Unfortunately, he isn’t alone. Johnson said he often sees the same faces going in and out of the fast-food joints near his home multiple times a day.
When the bulk of a community is trading in home-cooked meals for hamburgers and convenience-store items, the results can be dire.
The fact that a fast-food diet is an unhealthy one is nothing new. Studies, including the Alameda County Health and Ways of Living Study, which was first done in 1974 and has been updated multiple times since then, conclusively linked poorer health with greater consumption of fast food. The study determined that residents of West Oakland face higher rates of illness and live 7.3 years shorter than those who reside in higher-income communities within Alameda County like Oakland Hills, where grocery stores are significantly more accessible.
Yet despite knowledge of the epidemics created in food deserts like West Oakland and East Palo Alto, and despite food budgets designed to help combat food injustice, more work to combat the problems still needs to be done.
Wolfram Alderson is the executive director of Collective Roots, a food systems advocacy organization that runs a farmers market in East Palo Alto.
Alderson said that the food budget in the city of East Palo Alto, a two-and-a-half square mile community with 37,000 residents, is $68 million per year.
“It’s not chump change,” Alderson said. “It’s a significant amount of money [meant to be] spent on food. [Residents] deserve some sort of solution — a supermarket or farmers market that would provide more food access.”
Alderson’s farmers market in St. Francis of Assisi Church is the singular source of fresh produce in a five-mile radius, aside from a corner store. Alderson said that the only food sources in the area are a Chevron gas station food mart and fast-food restaurants, including two McDonald’s located a mile apart from one another.
Residents in East Palo Alto and West Oakland have higher rates of diabetes and obesity than their neighboring communities, some of the wealthiest and healthiest cities in the state.
“In these low-income communities, it becomes a matter of life and death,” Alderson said. “It’s shaving years off people’s lives, and that’s the bottom line.”
Local Heroes: Creating Alternative Food Systems
Various organizations in West Oakland use advocacy, education, and farming programs and markets to fill the void created by the lack of supermarkets while improving the health of the community. While Mo’ Better Foods is selling food at the West Oakland BART station, City Slicker Farms provides farmers markets at the community’s Center Street Farm.
Leslie Pilcher, a fourth-year community studies major, interned with City Slicker Farms for her field study during fall quarter and worked at the farmers market.
“City Slickers is accessible for people who have been left out of the ‘green’ movement,” Pilcher said.
The food is grown in urban gardens maintained by City Slicker Farms’ employees, volunteers, and local community participants. The organization attempts to make organic and healthy food accessible and affordable to West Oakland residents by offering produce on a sliding donation scale, so people can pay what they can afford.
Since 2005, City Slicker Farms has helped 85 residents grow their own produce through their Backyard Gardens Program. They provide residents with all the tools, seeds, and fertilizer they need.
“It’s tapping into reclaiming this space and turning it into a thriving system,” Pilcher said. “Not only in our gardens, but in their backyard.”
John Watkins Sr., a construction worker who uses seeds and fertilizer from City Slicker Farms, grows a variety of vegetables in a 100-by-30-foot backyard lot that he proudly gardens all by himself.
“City Slickers is number one,” Watkins said. “I love them because they can get more organic gardens and that’s what it’s about.”
A 60-year-old man with excited eyes and a curly beard, Watkins has been growing food in his backyard since 1961, when he moved from Cleveland, Ohio to the temperate climates of West Oakland. He hasn’t left since, except for the occasional trip home and to protest alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement.
For Watkins, gardening satisfies him in a multitude of ways. He talked enthusiastically about growing organically, working in the dirt, and giving away his produce to neighbors. He says that urban gardens could work as a solution to food access issues.
“It’s nothing for a person to scratch some dirt out. It’s amazing what you can squeeze out in a little area,” Watkins said. “It’s a solution if you get enough people involved in it.”
Developing an Organic and Just Economy
Julie Guthman, a UCSC community studies professor, teaches a course titled Agriculture, Food and Social Justice and has written many articles analyzing the success of community agriculture projects. While she applauds programs such as City Slicker Farms for redefining food systems, she’s critical of those who hail it as the only accessible solution to food security issues in West Oakland and areas like it.
“There’s been a lot of focus on providing access. [Community agriculture] doesn’t get the major problem of food security,” Guthman said. “It’s a little Band-Aidy.”
The problem, Guthman said, is not only about food accessibility but also poverty and economic development.
Food justice activists often attribute the existence of food deserts in communities like East Palo Alto and West Oakland to supermarket “redlining,” or large-scale supermarkets migrating to the more profitable suburbs while closing up shop in lower-income communities.
Keeping money in the community is a concern for locals and food activists alike. Experts estimate that 25 million retail dollars are spent outside of West Oakland — money that, if spent within the community’s boundaries, could help foster local development.
“A lot of reasons why there are food deserts is because of the historical practice of redlining, denying capital to neighborhoods. You can’t create markets,” Guthman said. “We need neighborhoods to have access to capital, to build stores, so that they’re not devalued.”