When Brahm Ahmadi founded People’s Grocery four years ago, he wanted to do more than offer West Oakland residents healthy meals ”” he wanted to use food as a vehicle for social change. Ahmadi, a long-time resident of West Oakland, was motivated to start this nonprofit organization by the social inequities he saw around him. West Oakland, a community of about 25,000 residents, is a post-industrial area that was thrown into poverty after an extremely active period during World War II. During the war people moved into the neighborhood in search of work, but once the war ended, jobs disappeared, leaving many people unemployed and without the economic resources to relocate. Today, this community is predominantly comprised of people of color ”” 60% of whom live below the poverty level. Within this population, diet-related diseases run rampant.
“People’s Grocery focuses on how food can be leveraged to impact the lives of West Oakland residents ”” first and foremost in terms of diet and nutrition,” explains Ahmadi. “However, we are also trying to leverage the use of food toward other outcomes, which include economic development and job creation for the community ”” particularly with a focus on young people.”
In West Oakland there is only one grocery store. According to Ahmadi, it has proven to be very insufficient in providing for people’s food needs. “It’s a Korean-owned business in a predominantly African American and Latino community,” says Ahmadi. “Not only do we have just one food retail center, but it is culturally inaccessible and does not provide the products desired by residents.” The result is that a majority of residents rely on other convenient options for food””primarily liquor stores, convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Unfortunately, these outlets do not offer the variety of whole foods necessary for a healthy diet.
“Heart disease is the number one cause of death here, and diabetes is a close number two,” continues Ahmadi. “The two of them combined represent over half of the deaths annually, which goes against the stereotypes of Oakland. It’s not the violence, the drug use or the car accidents that are the primary sources of death. Instead, it’s actually the diets and food choices coupled with an increasing lack of physical activity. And a number of studies make a direct correlation between a lack of grocery stores and high levels of diet-related diseases.”
Initially, Ahmadi set out to open a grocery store to provide more options to neighborhood residents. After realizing he did not have the resources to do so, he set up the nonprofit organization, People’s Grocery, to work toward that ultimate goal. In order to begin remedying the food access inequities immediately, People’s Grocery began offering community programs aimed at developing a local food system””including community gardens, a summer agriculture program for local teenagers and a farm where employees and volunteers grow fresh produce that they sell to residents out of a truck. Now that People’s Grocery has developed roots within the community, Ahmadi is much closer to realizing his initial goal. A grocery store is in the works and should be open within the next two years.
The People’s Grocery summer program has also been a success. Teenagers in this program receive training in nutrition and healthy eating while also working in the five community gardens and the two-acre farm. They regularly discuss the issue of food justice””which is the integration of a social justice lens when looking at disparities in food access. “By the end of the summer these young people are equipped with an understanding of what the problems are as well as the solutions,” says Ahmadi. “They then move into an academic year where they have the opportunity to work as peer nutrition counselors or gardening interns,” he continues. “We have gotten a great response from the youth.
This being a community without many employment opportunities for young people that are particularly meaningful, it provides a steady wage-paying job that feels like it is making a difference. It brings a sense of pride and possibility.”The individuals behind People’s Grocery come from a perspective of human rights” says Ahmadi. They believe that everyone should have the right to healthy and affordable food regardless of their economic and social conditions ”” and that’s what this organization is working toward.