West Oakland’s food desert is thriving with retail
The opening of a community grocery store in West Oakland marked the first time in 50 years a fresh fruit and vegetable market had opened in the neighborhood.
For most people in West Oakland, the Community Foods Market is an oasis in a food wasteland.
Before it opened on San Pablo Avenue last year, the neighborhood hadn’t had a market selling fresh fruit and vegetables for nearly 50 years.
Alex Grant appreciates the fact that he no longer has to travel outside of the neighborhood. He says he eats healthier.
“There was nothing nearby or convenient,” said Grant, who used to shop in Safeway by bus.
In an urban setting, a good desert is defined as an area where people have to travel more than a mile for fresh food, according to the Department of Agriculture.
“I was looking for fresh vegetables, fresh fruit,” said Grant. “So it was divine timing.”
According to a study, 10% of all Bay Area households report having difficulty finding fresh produce in their neighborhood.
The Community Foods Market is more of a social enterprise than a business, said owner Brahm Ahmadi.
“It is a fundamental purpose for existence and business to serve the social and public health needs in this community,” he said.
Fresh meat, seafood, and a deli counter are all part of the grocery store, but the emphasis is on fresh produce at competitive prices.
Around half of the neighborhood’s residents do not own a car. Bringing a bus to market affects what people buy.
“If they do this trip, they will likely buy less than they normally need and make this trip less often,” said Ahmadi. “And if you shop less often, you will buy food that will last a long time. And that’s usually not fresh food.”
Many residents rely on corner markets and liquor stores. However, some food and poverty analysts say the lack of convenient access to food markets is only part of the problem.
“Being able to afford to eat is often the biggest obstacle,” said Eli Zigas – SPUR director for food and agricultural policy. “They stretch their budget as much as possible. And often, fresh food isn’t a good budget option for the amount of calories you’re getting.”
Alameda County has partnered with a local farm to provide fresh and healthy food to people in need.
“Places of food insecurity reflect where there is food apartheid,” said Dr. Steven Chen, of the Alameda County’s All-In Program.
“If you don’t have a healthy choice, you have more of what I see in clinics. More diabetes, more obesity, more hypertension.”
In the past, large supermarket chains stayed away from certain parts of the city as part of their business model.
However, this market has proven that other business models can also be successful.
“When the purpose is not necessarily to maximize profits, but to serve the community over the long term. That’s an economic equation that works,” Ahmadi said.