West Oakland has long been overlooked by supermarket chains. Instead, the corner liquor stores have increased. Such stores usually sell mass-produced items of questionable nutritional value that are harmful to health and contribute to high rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes among African Americans.
“The face of the community … the guardian of food security.” (Fabián Aguirre and Maya Pisciotto, The Understory)
A full-service grocery store * has long been high on the wish list of residents of this community, which has struggled with high crime, pollution and underemployment for decades. West Oakland is considered a food desert by the US Department of Agriculture. The term refers to impoverished neighborhoods with no shops or markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other nutritious foods. A historically vibrant enclave for African American artists, the region is experiencing a renewal triggered by the pressures of gentrification from the technology boom in the San Francisco Bay Area. There is also a resurgence of black culture in the area, from African American chefs and groceries to wall painters, sculptors, and other creative makers – many of whom are in-store shopping, Fike adds. “The cooperative is the face of the community, the guardian of food security here. It is important to use resources in the places where people live, ”says Fike.
Mandela MarketPlace, a non-profit organization with a ten-year-old program that includes delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to corner shops, was instrumental in opening the cooperative. But in the spring of 2018, the grocery store became independent of that organization, says Fike. Now the cooperative is trying to expand by raising $ 1 million through crowdfunding and a proposal for Oakland City’s soda tax fund. It is a crucial time in the history of the cooperative.
In 2017, the grocery store signed a lease on an 11,000-square-foot main lot next to its current dig sites. The cooperative originally wanted to occupy the space, but lost years earlier to a national retail chain. The first location of the cooperative is only 2,500 square feet, and part of that space houses a separate café. For years the store – with its local and perishable goods, bulk and dry goods offerings – had to compete for customers with a 99-cent store next door (this store, which closed in early 2017, offered conventional packaged groceries and produced at a deep discount) .
The cooperative measures success in many ways. Bringing fresh products to the community is one of them. (Fabián Aguirre and Maya Pisciotto, The Understory)
After opening in the midst of a nationwide recession, the cooperative struggled early. But sales grew slightly every year. Customers reflect what is now West Oakland: a diverse group of local residents including black and low-income residents, commuters (across from a BART stop), and a new wave of workers from San Francisco. Some are priced out of town, some prefer the West Oakland culture over the current San Francisco climate, and others are well-paid tech workers. The cooperative also cultivates a strong youth culture among workers and customers alike. The mix has helped keep the cooperative’s doors open in difficult times while remaining true to its mission.
But this is neither a generic grocery store nor a hippie counterculture cooperative. It’s a modern market with African American murals on the window and a playlist that reflects the tastes of the staff. “We did it because we created a comfortable atmosphere,” says Fike, 35, from the team that currently consists of three other co-owners and half a dozen candidates who are on their way to becoming co-owners. “It reflects the eating habits, art and style of African American culture and the people who work in the business are personable and genuine. Customers like the staff, the energy, the music. “All of this helps make the co-operative a destination, which is vital as otherwise consumers can buy whatever they need without ever leaving their home. “Everything in my workplace is enjoyable – on both sides of the counter,” says Fike. “My employees and customers respect what we do here. We create community and culture, and as a former anthropology student, that’s the most interesting thing for me. It is at the heart of what it means to be human. “
In the co-op model, each worker-owner has one vote at the table. (Fabián Aguirre and Maya Pisciotto, The Understory)
The cooperative measures success in many ways. The core is getting products to the people: From 2013 to 2016, the business distributed more than 700,000 pounds of fresh produce, 46 percent of it from family businesses within 200 miles of Oakland, to keep smallholders in the countryside by using their incomes increased. The cooperative has raised more than $ 7 million in circulation within the local community.
The store is looking for ways to make the food more affordable. It offers innovative programs such as Fresh Creds, a Matching Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “Food Stamps”) match incentive. The cooperative fulfills a federal grant secured by Mandela MarketPlace, which grants a 50 percent discount on these items to any buyer who spends money on fresh produce, frozen fruit and vegetables, or canned fruit and vegetables with no added sugar. It was a hit with customers.
The cooperative also provides an opportunity for an owner like Fike to be part of a business based on equality and inclusion in pay, profit sharing and one vote at the table. “This is a sustainable model,” says Fike. “If you act ethically with integrity, honesty and transparency, people will respond and be inspired by it.”
Reprinted with permission from Hungry for Change, a Berkeley Food Institute publication. Read more about other emerging food manufacturers in California here.
* In April of this year, the Community Foods Market (formerly People’s Community Market) laid the foundation for its long-awaited full-service grocery store in West Oakland, which BAB reported on in 2013 and 2011.