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.