three meals initiatives that might change the West Oakland meals wasteland

The California Hotel will also host the next People’s Grocery event, the celebration of Black History Month this weekend. The event, titled “Know Our History, Grow Our Future,” will include a group of environmental and activist leaders such as Carl Anthony and David Roach, as well as a dance party for all ages, an open garden day and a farmers market.

But while People’s Grocery efforts go a long way toward improving West Oaklanders’ access to healthy groceries, most of the neighborhood’s 25,000 residents still get by without the convenience that many city-dwellers take for granted: a full-service grocery store.

A grocery store in Jack London Gateway shopping center

This shortage has made headlines lately. Just before the New Year, Oakland investor Tom Henderson announced plans to open a new store in the Jack London Gateway shopping center.

Henderson, the king of EB-5 investments in Oakland, has already poured millions into Oakland projects that are considered too risky to get bank funding. Its San Francisco Regional Center raises funds through a federal Immigrant Investor program that grants green cards to foreigners who contribute at least $ 500,000 to a project that creates at least ten jobs. Henderson also owns the Tribune Tower and the Tribune Tavern restaurant in Uptown.

The new store, located in a long-vacant retail store near the corner of Market Street and 7th Street, will reportedly require an initial start-up cost of $ 25 million. Henderson swears his 20,000-square-foot store “Makes Safeway look like 7-Eleven.”

The neighborhood is of course hungry for it. The residents of this underserved area, many on lower incomes and without cars, have to haul heavy shopping bags home from Emeryville, Alameda, Berkeley and the distant neighborhoods of Oakland. This annoyance robs locals of both money and time: According to a market analysis, the neighborhood loses $ 43 million annually on grocery shopping alone. Reclaiming some of this money could help repair a local economy that is still marred by disruptive urban planning missteps and discriminatory lending practices of the past few decades, activists say.

Tom Henderson’s plans met with cautious optimism. Many city officials, including Mayor Libby Schaff, applaud the investor’s ability to bring new money to Oakland. However, some longtime neighborhood merchants and community activists question the Piedmont local’s ability to thrive in a tough market.

Volksgemeinschaftsmarkt: collect more money for a grocery store

Brahm Ahmadi. Photo: Volksgemeinschaftsmarkt

No one understands the challenges of opening a business in West Oakland better than Brahm Ahmadi, who has devoted most of his adult life to the neighborhood’s food system. People’s Grocery founder and former director, Ahmadi, amicably parted ways with the nonprofit about two years ago to devote his energies to the People’s Community Market (PCM). This profit-oriented, socially conscious organization is currently in the final phase of securing a location for its own 10,000 square meter store. PCM leaders are in discussions with several landowners, but a location on the corner of Market Street and Grand Avenue is a top contender.

Just days after Henderson announced his investment plans, Ahmadi wrote an update to his own investors. Most of these shareholders are workers with ties to West Oakland. Ahmadi and his partners succeeded in increasing PCM’s current capitalization of $ 1.2 million through a direct public offering at the grassroots level. Of PCM’s current 402 shareholders, just over half bought in with the minimum investment of $ 1,000.

PCM’s word of mouth brought in not only much-needed funds for the prospective market, but also social currency and neighborhood support. “The people – our future customers – were involved from the start,” says Ahmadi. “You are happy to support us.”

To continue to ensure that the business does justice to the neighborhood, PCM relies on a Community Advisory Board, put together and supported by People’s Grocery, to help plan everything from store layout and design to product lines and public relations.

Unfortunately, $ 1.2 million isn’t buying a lot in the newly hip West Oakland commercial real estate market. Ahmadi describes unmotivated landowners determined to make $ 80 per square foot on land that would have sold for $ 50 just last year. The organizers originally expected their current funding to cover land and construction; Now it seems like it’s landing on its own.

Ahmadi hopes that more money will come. He says the success of their first direct public offering has earned PCM “credibility” with bank lenders who previously would not have considered touching such a project. More retail investors who missed the first round of fundraising are waiting in the wings.





The activists behind People’s Community Market are nothing if not patient. For years they have been researching, preparing and planning this shop. It’s not just about their own success, but also about redeeming a neighborhood that has long been stigmatized by shop closings. “We wanted to open a business fifteen years ago,” says Ahmadi, “but the risks were too high. … Failure would be too detrimental to the church. “

Such careful preparation stands in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Tom Henderson’s business, which has reportedly not yet commissioned a feasibility study. Ahmadi insists that he welcomes Henderson’s efforts and is not concerned about a threat to competition. But he’s worried that Henderson’s project will fail and let the neighborhood down.

People’s Community Market had already rejected Henderson’s chosen location, unimpressed by its location. Jack London Gateway shopping center, while convenient to several highways, is on the edge of the neighborhood. There are poor street fronts and limited public transportation nearby. “We had to take into account the limits of this community, [in which] Most people go or take the bus and shop every few days instead of once a week, ”explains Ahmadi.

He speculates that Henderson might be using gentrification to attract wealthier customers – but those drivers who may be off the highway will have a choice of other markets within a one-way trip. And while Jack London Gateway is technically surrounded by two rapidly changing neighborhoods (Jack London Square and the West Oakland BART area), it’s no easy walk either.

Ahmadi claims a key to solving the food desert crisis is understanding how to market to low-income paint communities. In urban areas in the US, much-needed supermarkets have failed when their physical plans appear too high quality. Even if prices are kept low, locals will not patronize a business they find expensive.

The Mandela Foods Cooperative, located across from West Oakland BART, has been a model of success.  Photo: Mandela Foods CooperativeThe Mandela Foods Cooperative, located across from West Oakland BART, has been a model of success. Photo: Mandela Foods Cooperative

A success story in West Oakland is the popular Mandela Foods Cooperative, located in a small retail store across from West Oakland BART. The worker-owned store is ideally positioned to catch foot traffic and its clever pricing system allows it to sell fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy staples at a substantial discount, while more than for frivolous products like unbleached organic paper Usually products are charged.

People’s Community Market plans to introduce a similar two-tier pricing model: a foundation of familiar, affordable products is complemented by some high-end options. And the “aisles” of the store, in which supermarkets usually house large quantities of packaged sweets, sodas and snacks, are being reduced in size to make room for larger offerings of products, dairy products and other fresh foods.

While the business is looking to make a profit, its central mission will be to improve the neighborhood’s health and economy, and contain the tide of displacement caused by gentrification. Eventually, the 100 employees in the business become the owners of the business. Employee loyalty, as well as their value to society and the company, is increased through extensive training in nutrition, cooking and financial literacy.

A representation of the People's Community Market shows a dining area at the main entrance.  Image: VolksgemeinschaftsmarktA representation of the People’s Community Market shows a dining area at the main entrance. Image: Volksgemeinschaftsmarkt

Ahmadi speaks of West Oakland as a community broken by divisions between rich and poor. Novice and native; and black, white and latino. As a commercial enterprise, PCM has to win over all segments of the local population. As a social experiment, it will seek to “attract the full diversity of the community”.

“For us, a grocery store is just a medium in a way,” says Ahmadi. “We’re building a laboratory for community engagement.” An in-house venue managed by PCM’s community partners offers educational and cultural programs. A café provides a place for socializing. These additions are vital to this neighborhood, says Ahmadi, whose public space has long suffered from neglect. The shop will be a much-needed place for the neighbors to rub their shoulders.

Admittedly, a lot is to be asked of a grocery store.

However, on a sunny afternoon, PCM’s future neighborhood appeared poised for bottom-up growth. In the tiny Tamales la Oaxaquena in the market and on 30th Street, visitors were delighted with Rosa’s homemade chicken mole. A dimly lit corner shop across the street was briskly selling hot fried chicken, steamed corn, and cookies. Immediately behind San Pablo, shoppers maneuvered their baskets through the narrow aisles of Produce Pro, where a well-stocked meat counter, bright Mexican piñatas, and loads of fresh produce take up every available square meter of floor and ceiling.

These independent operators have gained a foothold where chain stores dare not and have gained a loyal customer base by tailoring services to suit their neighbors’ cultural backgrounds, spending habits and tastes. The community market seeks to restore the responsiveness of such small businesses on a larger scale with a generous dose of social awareness.

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