Bringing Health and Education Home

Story and photo by Paul Supkoff


It was not so long ago, as some folks remember, that ice cream, candy, and doughnut trucks roamed the neighborhoods, chiming their bells to beckon the kids, Pied Piper fashion, to follow the sweets. Today in West Oakland, there’s a rolling market that is more likely to be filled with healthful drinks, dairy products, and organic vegetables-the People’s Grocery’s Mobile Market broadcasts a hip-hop beat to attract urban customers to its graffiti-clad storefront.

This market-on-wheels provides an alternative to the corner mini-markets in neighborhoods where full-size supermarkets are all but missing. But the People’s Grocery goes an extra step, bringing healthy foods at equitable prices. Organic dinosaur kale and Swiss chard, picked only a few hours before, are sold at one dollar per bunch, a lower price than those found at Whole Foods or the farmers’ markets. The guiding dictum of this community enterprise is “Healthy Food for Everyone.”

On a sunny May morning, Jason Uribe, Farm Manager for People’s Grocery’s Urban Agriculture Program, directs neighborhood volunteers in one of the program’s urban gardens where vegetables are grown for the Mobile Market. Bush beans are to be planted that day. To prepare the earth, these urban farmers will be moving compost and clearing out the cover crop of pea plants that helped to restore nitrogen to the soil.

The garden is both a playground and a classroom, where learning is in direct participation with the earth. A few neighborhood kids, who are excited to dig in this rich dirt, are sure to uncover a wriggling host of earthworms as they till the fertile plots. Also among the early season volunteers is a college student interested in health and nutrition. By summer, People’s Grocery will have several young paid interns helping to maintain the four gardens around town. “We are not just gardening, but giving back to the community,” says Uribe, making it clear that the opportunity could have great impact on the futures of the youth. Not only is the garden a source of organic produce for the market, it is a professional training ground.

In the quest to expand production, People’s Grocery is in active pursuit of land partnerships that could widen the food shed of West Oakland. One of the most promising opportunities is being developed through SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Education), a Berkeley-based organization that is developing Urban Edge Agricultural Parks in communities like Sunol (about 30 minutes south of Oakland). The goal is to increase the possibilities for local food production and also to provide a hands-on environment to train young people in sustainable food systems

The commitment to fostering young-adult professional development through paid programs is at the heart of the People’s Grocery philosophy. Through the Collards n’ Commerce Youth Entrepreneurship Program, young people work full time in the summer and part time during the school year studying cooking, nutrition, gardening, and business. During the school year, youth deliver peer-to-peer instructional presentations, help run the Mobile Market, and manage an after-school gardening program at Hoover Elementary School.

People’s Grocery also runs the Urban Rootz Food & Justice Camp, a free youth program that introduces issues related to food systems. The young people learn about the negative effects of processed foods, the inequalities in access to healthy groceries, and how food impacts personal, communal, and environmental wellbeing.

Recognizing the need for continued education and professional development, People’s Grocery has teamed with Bauman College, a holistic nutrition and culinary arts school in Berkeley. People’s Grocery’s own Geralina Fortier is the first scholarship student at Bauman and upon graduation will bring her newly gained knowledge of health and nutrition back to Oakland as a Peer Nutrition Educator. A future outreach alliance through the University of California at Santa Cruz Farm and Garden program will offer a six-month study in sustainable agriculture.

People’s Grocery predicts that the $85 billion spent by lower income families will increasingly become attractive to the nutrition industry that for the most part has directed its business development to other communities. The consequence will be an increased demand for a readied and diverse work force to staff those emerging cultural and ethnic markets. To help lead this growth, companies will look to employ community members trained in programs like those offeredthrough the People’s Grocery.

Yet another aspect of the People’s Grocery is “Eating of Health and Wellness,” a cooking class program offered by Lori Camille that provides the residents of West Oakland with insight into the food system that is the kitchen. Classes honor cuisine and kitchen techniques, with a hands-on sensitivity to testing and a bend towards health and nutrition.

During a winter class, Camille’s interest in nourishing naturally was expressed by her choice of body-warming recipes using seasonal vegetables. Complementing the timely cycle of the earth to the table, the menu included butternut squash soup, quinoa/millet with seaweed and herbs, baked beets with garlic-basil vinaigrette, and a quenching ginger spritz. Camille sprinkled the demonstrations with tips on the medicinal aspects of common foods, explaining how beets and garlic might literally enliven a meal. The healing warmth of the food on that winter’s night matched the warmth in the room as the students joined hands around the table and shared thoughts about what they appreciated in their lives. Some laughs and smiles ensued before Camille led the group through a prayer of thanks for the food. The blessings were sealed with the knowledge learned in the kitchen and the gift of a nutritious and healing feast prepared by the group. It was a lesson to carry to the next meal. That night the students were participants, not only observers, coming together to cook, to learn and to celebrate life’s nutritious offerings.

After four years of operation, People’s Grocery is focused on fulfilling one of its original goals: to create a physical store. But the notion of the “store” is considerably different from our accustomed market experience. People’s Grocery envisions a Wellness Village: a central establishment housing an education center that supports the health needs of the local community. In this learning and service utopia, trained youth workers serve their customers as Wellness Providers, a role focused on proactive and direct health support. Brahm Ahmadi, Executive Director of the People’s Grocery, illuminates, “The grocery store is focused on providing a broad array of services and educational outlets to you as no longer the consumer but now the client, now the member, now the human being and there is a relationship.” People’s Grocery recognizes the “emerging client,” a person on the edge of making a decision to embrace a healthier lifestyle, particularly around diet. “What we are trying to do is to create a host of wrap-around services and educational supports to help them make the full step into that lifestyle.”

Self reliant by design, the growing People’s Grocery network is a comprehensive approach to harnessing and developing sustainable food systems in West Oakland while promoting health and youth professional development. People’s Grocery wants to go beyond the common corporate means of growing, distributing, selling, or preparing foods. They look to foster a network and essential dialog concerning our connection to food and healing. The People’s Grocery store will be a physical hub through which the dialog continues, a central location to sell healthy foods, lead discussions, seminars, and cooking classes, sample urban agriculture, and train the young-all in the comfort of the people’s backyard.