The Urban Kiwi

August 2006

A group of neighbors stood chatting by the side of the road in a leafy park in West Oakland, California. Though this is one of the poorest parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, a scene soon unfolded that calls to mind a happy yesteryear of milk delivery and Good Humor men: a boxy van turned down Poplar Street towards the group, who moved expectantly to the curb. But there’s a modern twist: hip hop beats thumped from the orange and purple van’s solar-powered speaker system. Graffiti-style lettering on the side announced “Fresh Produce! Natural Foods!”

This funky van is the Mobile Market, the most visible part of People’s Grocery, a young organization that believes food is the key to the future of West Oakland. The biodiesel-fueled van is cleverly designed so that, when it’s parked by the side of the road with its ramp extended, it is a fully-stocked but very tiny natural foods store. Sumptuous organic produce nestles under a row of bulk hoppers dispensing organic cereals. A small shelf of skin care potions hangs next to a little glass-fronted fridge that entices shoppers with juice blends and natural sodas. Customers wonder in and out of the van, maneuvering baskets as though it were any other food store.

“We try to come as often as we can,” says Misty Maravilla, who had stopped in to get the ingredients for her family’s dinner. “They come right here so it’s accessible to the neighborhood.”

But People’s Grocery’s ambitious plan goes far beyond simple access. The group is working towards something found in no other city in the country: a closed-loop food system in which food for local consumption is grown within the city by city residents.

It’s not news that a revolution in local, organic food is sweeping the country: there are now nearly 5,000 farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs nationwide. But efforts to expand these options to poor urban communities have been limited, focusing on connecting people with outside food supplies: busing residents to farmers’ markets or encouraging stores to carry more healthful products (as has happened in San Francisco), or connecting low-income residents with CSAs (as in Connecticut and elsewhere).

Guillermo Payet, founder of Local Harvest, an online directory that tracks more than 8500 local food initiatives around the country, says that no other program is as ambitious as People’s Grocery. “There are other organizations that focus their work on inner cities, but I haven’t heard of anyone who has the same model,” he says. “Community Harvest in Washington DC probably comes closest, but they don’t have a distribution system like the Mobile Market. Others are promoting gardening in empty lots, as in LA, but the food’s for the people working the gardens. People’s Grocery is unique: they’re creating a self-contained food system. It’s like an ecosystem.”

If West Oakland seems a surprising place for an ecosystem like this to take root, it is needed here more than most places. Though it is in the center of the San Francisco Bay Area, West Oakland feels abandoned: the Naval base is shuttered; the containerized port does with dozens of workers what once took thousands; and the region can come up with nothing more than highways, bridges, and sewage treatment plants for this city of 30,000 mostly African-American and Hispanic—and mostly poor—residents.

In 2001, when they founded People’s Grocery, Malaika Edwards and Brahm Ahmadi had been living in West Oakland for several years. They had come to view problems they were having finding good food as part of a larger pattern: nothing that would be considered basic in richer neighborhoods—wholesome food to clean air to good jobs to safe streets—could be taken for granted here. And lack of access to good food was at the core of a vicious cycle.

“There are 40 liquor stores in the hood, and just one grocery store,” explains Ahmadi. Dressed in a hoodie and baggy pants, he is at one with the urban environment. “The overall consequence of these conditions is an epidemic of diet-related diseases,” he continues, citing county health data. “The number-one cause of death in West Oakland is heart disease. It’s not gunshots, it’s food: it’s related to the way people eat.”

In 2002, armed with little more than youthful energy and conviction—both founders are still in their twenties—they started pulling weeds out of an abandoned lot. “This garden was a jungle,” says Geralina Fortier, 19, who now manages the Mobile Market and is one of the first graduates of Peoples’ Grocery’s youth program. “We’ve really worked hard,” she goes on, “and we’re finally starting to see it pay off; things that we never imagined to be possible are starting to come true.”

Today that once-abandoned lot is a tiny Eden; a riot of leaves and flowers that stands out from the rest of 55th Street. Bees stream in and out of a hive nestled among apple trees. Chipped paths run between raised beds of lettuce and chard, along trellises of passion fruit, to benches in secluded, flowery nooks. Local youths and neighbors work side-by-side in the bright sunshine, pulling weeds, spreading compost, and harvesting greens. Laughter blends with the sounds of the solar-powered fountain and grateful twittering birds.

The same year they started gardening, People’s Grocery found an old postal service truck for sale cheap. They bought it but “we didn’t know what to do with it,” says Ahmadi. “It was an act of faith that the people we needed would show up.” And they did. Over the next year, architects, welders, mechanics, and carpenters from throughout the Bay Area heard about the project and pitched in. In the summer of 2003, as fruits and vegetables were starting to come out of the gardens, the Mobile Market hit the streets of West Oakland. By traveling a regular route on a set schedule, the Mobile Market brings access to people throughout West Oakland’s approximately ten square miles—especially critical for residents who may be elderly or disabled, or who simply lack a car.

The 1100 square foot garden isn’t large, and many of the plantings are not yet mature, but the intensive work and perfect climate let People’s Grocery grow more than a quarter of their produce here. What their gardens can’t produce comes from nearby organic farms. The packaged goods—the Newman’s O’s, Dr. Bronner’s, bulk cereals, and other items you’d find in any natural foods store—come at a discount from United Natural Foods, one of the largest natural foods distributors in the country. This allows People’s Grocery to sell at wholesale prices, making prices competitive with ramen and ding dongs at the liquor store.

But nobody in the neighborhood has benefited as directly as the kids involved with People’s Grocery. Each year more than 500 kids go through one of People’s Grocery’s programs. Sixty kids go to a summer camp that lets them see what it’s like to work on organic farms in the region. Forty kids work regularly at the West Oakland gardens. And a core of 15 young people goes through the full high school credit program. With 600 hours of training in skills ranging from composting and nutrition to business administration, plus a job with the organization that starts at $7 an hour and rises to $10 an hour, this community-building work is easily better than a minimum wage ($6.75) job at a fast food restaurant—the only realistic job option for most teenagers here.

“Seeing the transformation in the young people has been the most inspiring thing to me,” says Malaika Edwards. “The simple act of making healthier food choices ripples out into an entire shift towards a more natural, organic lifestyle.”

“People’s Grocery changed the way I eat completely,” says Charletta Harris, snacking on a baguette and hummus beside the Mobile Market. Sixteen years old, Harris has been enrolled in the program for two years. “It changed my entire way of thinking—I’m a vegetarian now. I bring vegetables home all the time so we can cook them more, and my mom’s more open-minded to it too.”

But if People’s Grocery is establishing production, distribution, training, management, customers, and a workforce for a local economy in West Oakland, it is still in startup mode. Almost 80% of their funding comes from outside sources, most of it from foundations. Nonetheless, the concept is gaining momentum: so far this year the organization has gained another garden plot as well as a contract with Oakland’s School District to provide healthy snacks in local schools. Ahmadi says that the next step is to open a small grocery store—something he hopes to do by next year.

And the idea is spreading beyond Oakland: Edwards says that more than thirty groups from around the country have contacted People’s Grocery—several have gone so far as to conduct feasibility studies in their communities. A mobile market is already on the streets of Philadelphia, though it is not yet part of a more comprehensive closed-loop food plan—the short Eastern growing season makes urban food production more challenging.

“I like doing this type of work, ’cause it makes me feel good bringing organic food to my community,” says Aswad Steele, 26, while taking a break from finishing the kiwi gazebo at the center of the 55th Street Garden. “But the real reason I’m doing it—why I’m pushing—is ’cause I have a son. He’s two now, and I want him to grow up eating organics. This is for him.”

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