Oasis May Be a Mirage in a Food Desert

Comments (4)

Corner store in West Oakland

West Oakland is an eight-square-mile area with roughly 25,000 people, 53 liquor stores and no grocers. (photo: Xan West)

“When I go to the grocery store I have to buy enough food for my entire family for at least a week. I need formula, diapers, frozen food and other things that I can’t get anywhere but big grocery stores. I don’t have time to spend my whole day going to different grocery stores; if I can’t do it all in one place, I can’t do it,” says Angel, a mother of two and lifetime West Oakland resident. She, like the majority of West Oakland residents, buys day-to-day and perishable goods at corner markets, while traveling long distances to full-service grocery stores, completely overlooking recent co-op grocers that have been created in the area. 

Prior to the opening of at least five different food cooperatives in West Oakland, this area was known as what social justice academics have begun to call a "food desert," where the only local food options for residents were neighborhood corner stores, fast-food restaurants and food banks. The food offered at corner stores, which mostly cater to beer and alcohol demands, tends to be canned, highly processed and excessively more expensive than most grocery stores. 

Many residents had hoped that these new co-ops offering healthier food items would turn the tide of disproportionately high diabetes, obesity and other diet related disease figures in West Oakland. But these markets cannot be taken out of context from the dynamics of the rest of the neighborhood. West Oakland, particularly the area closest to port, is rapidly gentrifying, partly due to its proximity to San Francisco. Oakland as a whole has seen the departure of more than 50,000 African-Americans in the last 5 years, most of them from East and West Oakland. For many, especially those who witnessed or have knowledge of West Oakland’s underserved past, the timing of these co-op markets seems too much to be a coincidence.

“For the Black people that live here, our food go back to slavery when they gave us all the most unhealthy food the master refused to eat. Sure, quinoa is good for you, but you also have to know how to cook it. It’s about stores, yeah, but about education, too,” says Kaiser, a West Oakland resident, referencing why he believes he and his neighbors don’t visit co-ops. Critics of co-ops have pointed to high-priced specialty health foods and few ethnically appropriate items as evidence of an attempt to appear more attractive to a wealthier lifestyle that is becoming increasingly present in the residences of West Oakland.

However, few could disagree that something needed to be done about an eight square-mile area with roughly 25,000 people, 53 liquor stores and no grocers. While there has been much attention paid to co-op markets in West Oakland filling the void left by a lack of grocers, little attention has been paid to the consumption habits of folks who live in this area, and if these alternatives are truly making inroads in the health consequences for the community of West Oakland.

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About Xan West

Xan West is currently the senior producer of Childhood Matters and Nuestros Niños (Spanish language), two parenting radio programs that air throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Xan holds a BA in Broadcast Journalism from American University's School of Communications. She has worked extensively in talk radio for outlets such as XM Satellite Radio, NPR and Pacifica. In addition, she has produced programs including Interfaith Voices, All-American Talk Radio, Prison Abolition Radio and many more. She is thrilled to have interviewed people as wide ranging as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Eminem. A proud Oakland native, Xan has lived in the Foster-Hoover area (more familiarly referred to as “Ghost Town”) of West Oakland for the past six years. This is the area directly southwest of the MacArthur Maze, bordering Emeryville. She has worked in community organizing in West Oakland with organizations such as Critical Resistance and People’s Grocery. Also, for two years, she was a teacher at Westlake Middle School, serving the West Oakland community. Her favorite offerings in West Oakland are Mosswood and DeFremery Parks, the Black Dot Café and Nellie’s Soul Food Kitchen. In her spare time, she enjoys gardening with children in the neighborhood, and running and hiking through Oakland.

Comments (4)

  1. I for one, have been consistently amazed at the inability of food justice groups in Oakland (including those who’ve opened co-ops) to connect with the people who’s lives they intend to improve according to their missions. We probably have more food justice orgs per-capita here than anywhere in the world and it’s infuriating that with so much money and federal support for these kinds of initiatives there is not a bigger impact.

    I will say that I think City Slicker Farms’ back yard garden program has made a difference I can see in my immediate hood (i live as close to the port as you can get).

    But the scale of that program is nothing compared to the need, and its leadership doesn’t at all reflect the community it serves.

    Yes to ethnically appropriate foods from organic local suppliers. Yes to grocery stores running community outreach events to make sure that traditional residents of West Oakland feel they have the same access to the space as newer residents, who feel entitled to it regardless. Yes to KQED and Xan West providing this platform to raise these issues.

    I’ve gotta run… the Ice Cream truck is coming and it’s the only food I can walk to in my hood.


  2. Pingback: Civil Eats » Blog Archive » In the Belly of the Good Food Movement Beast: What We Ate For Lunch At ALBA.

  3. Brahm Ahmadi says:

    Thanks for raising critical issues around how West Oakland groups are (or are not) offering relevant and real food choices to residents and engaging those residents in defining what solutions and products are most desired by them. I do think it’s important to distinguish the coops in the neighborhoods from the nonprofit organizations. There is only one coop in West Oakland: The Mandela Foods Coop. All of the other organizations are nonprofit organizations. I also don’t think it’s accurate to generalize that all of these groups don’t engage with and get input from residents. Some definitely don’t. And some definitely do. The company I’m now working on, People’s Community Market, which is a spin off from People’s Grocery, is in deep engagement with the community. We’re holding luncheons every month with residents to get their feedback and ideas for our store concept. We have a Community Advisory Council that’s working on aspects of the business planning from the product mix to the store layout to the social programs we will offer. Three of the five people who have been identified as candidates for key management positions are long-time African America West Oakland residents. At least 70% of the workers are going to be from the community. And we plan for at least 20% of our food products to be ethnic foods that are identified and selected by the residents involved.

    While you criticisms are fair and real and point out some of the complexities and important underpinnings taking place, it’s important to not generalize. It’s also important to accurately reflect what is and is not going on with regard to each respective organization. These organizations are very different from each other in makeup, community engagement, strategy and effectiveness. Thanks.

  4. First of all, to be completely transparent, I am the programs coordinator for Mandela MarketPlace a non-profit that works with Mandela Foods to provide health and wealth in low income communities of color like West Oakland. So obviously I have a bias.

    However, I am also a young black man that grew up in the ghetto and is still dealing with the health issues from living in the toxic, concrete jungle. So my comments are coming from both of these experiences.

    I can’t speak about other organizations and what people plan to do in the future but for the past year Mandela Foods along with Mandela MarketPlace has:
    -Purchased 100,000 lbs of produce from local farmers, the majority of which are Latino.
    -Delivered over 6,000 lbs of produce to 2 corner stores in West Oakland; Bottles Liquor and Millennium Market
    -Hosted a block party on 7th street for 200 residents with a guest appearance by Rosario Dawson
    -Held 35 Nutrition Education Classes for more than 100 residents
    -Provided an ownership opportunity for 7 low-income Oakland Residents (5 of which live in West Oakland)
    -Turned a 19 year-old high school dropout into a business owner
    -Turned an ex-offender into a business owner