Berk, a West Oakland resident, speaks from personal experience when he dismisses chains such as Safeway in favor of cooperatively- and community-owned stores like Mandela: “They’re just out there to make their buck. There’s no interest, and they can just pack their bag up and leave. There have been grocery stores here in the past, but they don’t last long.”
While stores like Mandela may be in for the long haul, they still have some growing to do. Its vegetables might be fresh and its employees friendly, but Mandela does not yet sell household goods like toilet paper and cleaning products, and has received mixed reviews by local news outlets for its mobile produce truck that sold fresh food to West Oakland residents. It’s since left the grocery business to focus on nutrition education classes, an affordable “veggie box” service, and a food industry job training program, according to Victoria Fabella, operations manager for the nonprofit. The organization sees this education and training work as building the foundation for a better food system in West Oakland, she says.
Brahm Ahmadi, a co-founder of People’s Grocery and one of the brains behind the produce truck, is now raising funding for a West Oakland grocery store that would, in a model similar to Mandela’s, serve low-income West Oakland residents. Hank Herrera, who once led Oakland’s HOPE Collaborative, a WK Kellogg Foundation-funded community food project, has also started a for-profit company working to build grocery stores around the city’s underserved areas.
Similarly, the Chicago-based Fresh Family Foods, a project of food justice activist LaDonna Redmond, aims to be a community wellness center, offering nutrition workshops to local residents while also selling healthy food. Like Mandela, Fresh Family Foods differs significantly from mainstream grocery stores in its offerings and operating hours. And like many food justice cooperatives and alternative food provisioning models, it’s been a long, slow slog for the store to get up and running, mostly because of difficulties in raising money, says Redmond.
“You can’t get enough capital to actually open the store, and if you are lucky enough to get someone to open the store, you have to get enough volume for the equation to work for you. You have to purchase food at an affordable price so you can sell it to people at an affordable price. And a single store isn’t able to be competitive because you can’t get the volume,” she explains.
Redmond ran her project, formerly known as Graffiti and Grub, as a produce market with limited hours last year. She opened full time in August, and managed to do this by spreading out the risk and expense involved in starting a store. Redmond teamed up with a Chicago restaurateur and community businesswoman to open the 3,000-square-foot shop, which not only offers staples, fresh produce and meat, but also sells several local African-American producers’ wares, including bakery goods, specialty popcorn, and prepared meals.
Watch video of the newly opened store:
Release the chains
Chain grocers, although perceived as more convenient by residents, come with their own well-chronicled issues, such as displacement of local businesses and creation of primarily low-wage jobs.
Chicago, home base of both the Obamas and Redmond’s small-scale food project, has recently approved Walmart’s expansion into low-income, underserved areas in the city’s South side. Walmart and the city tout this move as directly following Michelle Obama’s push to eliminate food deserts, part of the Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign. Obama’s campaign has been supported by the Department of Agriculture, which is providing $400 million this year to bring grocery stores into underserved areas.
When the grocery store that comes in is Walmart, however, food justice advocates have a hard time celebrating, says sociologist Alkon.
“Michelle Obama and her Healthy Kids campaign is in the process of making all this public money available for large chain grocery stores to go in inner-city neighborhoods, and, for example, Walmart is really excited about it.” says Alkon. “And food justice activists are kind of like, hey, wait a minute, we helped make this problem well known, but the solution is really different from what we envisioned.”
Hesterman, of the Fair Food Network, says at this stage in the game he appreciates experimentation to increase access at multiple levels. He points to Detroit’s “Double Up Food Bucks” program, which allows food stamp recipients to get a matching dollar for every food stamp dollar they spend at a farmers market, up to $20 per visit.
“The great thing about on-the-ground projects is that you can create living, breathing examples of how the system could work differently,” he says.
Hesterman hopes these smaller projects — popping up in places like Nashville, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Durham — will lay the groundwork for a broader movement politically and socially.
“We need to find ways to really connect a much broader population and much broader interest area to this issue,” he emphasizes.