Memphis, Tennessee, 1892: An African American-owned neighborhood grocery store was invaded by a mob of white men vowing to “eliminate” competition posed by black businessmen who were becoming “too independent.” The three entrepreneurs— Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart—fought back and even shot an attacker, but were eventually overwhelmed. They were arrested, charged with conspiracy and provoking a riot, and subsequently jailed. Meanwhile, their business was looted and burned down.
Inflamed by sensational headlines that branded the three owners as “Negro desperadoes” harboring criminals in their store, a second white mob stormed the jail, captured the prisoners, and lynched them outside of the city.
In an era of escalating racial tension, the three murdered men were guilty of prospering financially, competing with white businesses, and establishing a gathering space in which the black community could create wealth and independence. It was called the People’s Grocery Company.
More than a hundred years later, on the other side of the country, Brahm Ahmadi and other activists were piecing together the connections between environmental justice, racial inequality, economic dependence, unemployment, and disease in their community of West Oakland, Calif. They traced long-term health problems to structural roadblocks encountered by impoverished inner-city neighborhoods nationwide: the inability to grow local businesses, the funneling of community wealth to other areas, and the resulting lack of jobs and access to healthy, affordable food.
Ahmadi found that West Oakland residents were spending as much as 20 percent of their food budgets on transportation alone, trying to get to a grocery store. The other option was to shop at local liquor or convenience stores. Ahmadi helped found People’s Grocery in 2002, in honor of Memphis’ original company, to change this and restore to the “food desert” the ideal of a healthy, responsible, community-owned grocery.
Eight-hundred miles north in Seattle, Reverend Robert Jeffrey, a longtime community activist and Civil Rights veteran, needed to hear just one sentence about how People’s Grocery was solving the problem of food distribution in the inner city in order to conceive his own project, Clean Greens. Inspired by Ahmadi’s work, Clean Greens now has its own farm and operates a CSA and affordable vegetable stands throughout the Central District, home to some of Seattle’s poorest residents.
Today, the number of people in poverty is the highest it’s been in 15 years. The 2010 census revealed that 44 million Americans now struggle below the poverty line. That’s one in seven people, of whom the worst-affected groups are children and African Americans. Some of the most destructive symptoms of poverty are food-related health problems.
Food justice is about ensuring access to healthy, quality food for all people, no matter their economic position. Ahmadi and Reverend Jeffrey sat down with YES! to explain how a total reorientation of the food system can support community health and wealth—planting local businesses, creating jobs, and growing a public understanding about why our current paradigm fails us all, especially those in the most need.
A Wake-Up Call for Public Health
Christa Hillstrom: Brahm, you were already living in West Oakland when you were inspired to
start People’s Grocery. As an environmental justice activist, you had been looking around the neighborhood at what was happening for a long time. What did you see?
Brahm Ahmadi: We were seeing tremendous health issues that stem from exposure to toxins, which are disproportionately located in these areas. We started to connect the dots to malnutrition.
West Oakland has the highest rate of child asthma in the Bay Area. This is obviously connected to the fact that these children have much lower levels of nutrition. In one sense food justice is only one pillar in the strategy of how to build healthy, resilient communities. I don’t think food is the panacea to all our social problems, but I think it’s a window.
Reverend Robert Jeffrey: I believe that food is the way to bring people into environmental understanding. You’re not only going to learn about food, but you’re going to learn who puts growth hormones in food and why, and what the chemical companies do to other things. It brings up the conversation, and you begin most conversations around the table: around the dinner table, around food. That’s the way to begin to bring excluded people into the conversation as well as to help them begin to grow their own basis of self-sufficiency.
Hillstrom: Food justice contains a spectrum of so many issues within it. What’s so powerful about food? Why does it provide such fertile common ground on which all of these movements can meet?
Ahmadi: It’s incredibly personal. What’s more personal than what you put into your mouth?
Reverend Jeffrey: In the African-American community, food has become a liability because that’s what is killing people: High blood pressure and cholesterol, hypertension—these things are just norms in the inner-city communities and people are dying. I grew up in a church where 80 percent of people had diabetes, high blood pressure, or some form of heart disease. And that was back then. They would talk about it like it’s a common cold.
Ahmadi: That public health crisis is becoming an awakening. It’s a catalyst because more and more families are connecting the dots between their food choices and the health problems in their families. In West Oakland, there’s really not a single family that is not impacted by chronic disease, especially diabetes. A recent CDC study said, based on the conditions in our entire society, we are on track for 50 percent of Americans to have diabetes by 2020. When you zoom in to communities of color, that’s ground zero for this stuff.
Hillstrom: There seems to be a fundamental problem of perception here when people look in from the outside. Many might assume that “poor people” choose to eat unhealthy food. It might surprise people to think of this as a justice issue.
Ahmadi: It’s the number one question I get everywhere I go: Do low-income people want healthy food? Don’t underestimate the power of a store that sells convenient food and the challenges faced by people working two jobs and not having time to cook.
Reverend Jeffrey: It’s a proximity issue. You choose to eat what is available to you. If that means corner stores that sell fried chicken and corn syrup, then that’s what you eat.
People want the best for their children and their grandchildren, but they’re not given the options. It’s the same question for everybody: not just, do African Americans want to eat healthy food? But, do they have opportunities to?
Voices in the (Food) Desert
Hillstrom: Inner cities are incredibly dense in population—much more so than suburbs. Don’t they have considerable purchasing power?
Ahmadi: The extraordinary thing is that the community wealth in the inner cities is as significant as in other communities. A lot of middle-class neighborhoods have 2-3 times the household income, but their populations are a third to a half. The math is simple.
In West Oakland, we assessed a $60 million market. There’s a very affluent neighborhood nearby with a $60 million market. It’s the same aggregate spending power! The problem is that the business model that can serve that less dense place cannot serve a higher density place. You actually have parallel markets. They just look different.
Hillstrom: So if there’s a market, why the food desert?
Ahmadi: It goes back to the patterns of policy and urban planning that began to play out at the end of WWII, that segregated communities—relegated African Americans to designated zones with housing covenants that prevented them from buying certain homes, and blocked them from getting loans. And then you have the rise of the suburbs. New families coming home from the war wanted the new American dream. So there was a massive divestment and depopulation of middle-class families from inner-city areas. Then you had a sudden concentration of impoverishment. The grocery stores followed the money.
Reverend Jeffrey: I come from Tulsa, where in the early 1900s there was a thriving business center which was eventually burnt to the ground by white lynch mobs. We called it Black Wall Street, but that whole market system was destroyed: stores, churches, everything.
Those kinds of business infrastructures existed in every city prior to the middle 60s, and now they don’t. In the early 60s, there were a lot of African American-owned stores in the inner cities. But with the coming of integration, that dissolved. These stores were not able to keep up with the bigger ones. You had lawyers, doctors, pharmacies, everything—and it’s all gone. It’s all gone.
Ahmadi: With the rise of the suburbs came this idea that you could build massive supermarkets. Suburbs offered cheap land for big stores and parking lots. Retailers no longer wanted to be small, and dense urban areas can’t facilitate big stores. So they followed the trend in the industry to get bigger. The only place we can do that is in suburbs.
Hillstrom: But there is such a thing as an urban supermarket. Not all city residents suffer from this lack of access. So why do inner cities?
Ahmadi: Larger food companies are not coming into these areas unless subsidized, and the reason for that is a misperception about the market potential and the nature of demand—what it is people want and what they’re willing to support and participate in. Publicly held corporations are driven by that primary mandate to maximize wealth for shareholders. That is the basis that they have to decide on when they’re looking at where to go next and what to invest in, and low-income neighborhoods have certain factors that cost more. You can’t build as big, so your operating costs per square foot will be higher. You do have problems with employee turnover. We have whole generations who have not had a chance to build their efficacy in the work force. If you hire them at a low-wage, menial job at a grocery store, they’re probably not going to last. You have challenges around theft and higher development costs—if you want to build a bigger store, you have to aggregate different parcels, which gets expensive.
We’re also dealing with a lot of contamination in these areas: groundfill and Superfund sites. The cost of remediation is tremendous. These are significant costs, so when the larger operators are doing the math, it’s just not that profitable an opportunity.
We believe it can be done differently. We believe their business models are not adapted to thrive in these communities. We need smaller, more nimble models that are meant for dense urban areas. We have to redesign grocery stores altogether to act as community centers and public health hubs, not just retailers.
Reverend Jeffrey: And the stores we envision will be connected to community-based farms. These stores will help regenerate the whole idea of community-owned land.
Hillstrom: So it’s a comprehensive, transformative vision that has to overcome a lot of obstacles. Does the pressure you’re up against today feel the same as the forces your communities have faced in the past?
Reverend Jeffrey: These are different times. People now understand the failure of the megasystem. The basic thing we have to deal with is the absence of a capacity to economically do things for ourselves, to even have an after-school program without corporate or government assistance.
When you go to the South and see these huge universities like Howard and Morehouse—these were built by African Americans through the wealth accumulated by businesses. They put that money together and built universities and churches that still exist as monuments to economic capacity.
We can’t do that anymore. We can’t build anything anymore without government help. And that is the thing that I think will drive the African-American community toward self-sufficiency, and will lead it into the movement to save the planet and the larger understanding of what this mega-mentality has done to the earth.
Outspent: A New Season for Community Ownership
Hillstrom: The wider food movement certainly shares this critique of the megasystem. When thinking about local alternatives, many might say, grow your own food or go to the farmers market. Why aren’t these viable options in your communities?
Reverend Jeffrey: Inner-city people are not going to the farmers markets. It’s not because they’re not interested. Some of it is because of prices, but mostly it’s because they are not community-owned. The issue of community ownership, the idea that this is ours and that the money spent will circulate to help us, is a real issue.
So what we do at Clean Greens is have food stands that are run by neighborhood people. They’re in front of churches, and people know that they’re run by members of the community. In this way, we’re bringing food directly to the people in a way that gives them ownership, so they purchase the food. I think that’s the missing link. Inner-city people are tired of others creating things for them and expecting them to participate with no direct benefit.
Ahmadi: People are getting it more and more that we have to plug the leaks through which our own wealth is leaving the neighborhood. They want an economic opportunity to rebuild the fabric of their neighborhoods. They want local grocery stores that are deeply committed to serving their people and providing local living-wage jobs. They’re tired of going to the corporate grocery stores in other neighborhoods that don’t build them a tax base or create jobs for their children.
Hillstrom: Like most everything nowadays, it eventually comes back to the question of jobs. How does your basic distribution model eventually play out in the employment landscape?
Ahmadi: Go back to the amount of spending power that is being siphoned out of these communities from the outspending. If you were able to capture that and put it back in, even at just the retail level you’ve created hundreds of local jobs. From there, you begin to change and localize the supply chain so that now you’ve got manufacturers who are also residents. Maybe they’re batching jerk sauce out of their kitchen, and now it’s a small business. There’s a ripple effect of job creation. Then you dive into the farming element. The raw ingredients and processing create another tier.
Reverend Jeffrey: And then you move into construction.
Ahmadi: And suddenly, you’ve created a demand for health and nutrition professionals. There are multiple pathways.
Reverend Jeffrey: That’s what we believe: It begins with food.
Empowerment to the People
Hillstrom: Realizing a vision like that would certainly change the opportunities for inner-city kids who struggle to find work. Both of your programs focus heavily on tapping into the neglected power of young people and the hope that blossoms out of that. What’s so special about youth?
Ahmadi: There are a lot of stereotypes (and until there’s an intervention, it’s largely true) that teenagers in this society are very much stimulated by processed food—the additives, stimulants, and marketing. Our experience is that with nutrition and job training, young people go (in a matter of weeks) from fast food to fired up about organic, local food. They want to talk to their friends about it, and take it home to their parents. They care about their futures, their families, their friends, and their neighborhoods. They want to be engaged leaders.
This is a tangible way to make a difference as a young person. It’s not some distant “when you grow up, then save the world.” You can help us build a garden today.
Reverend Jeffrey: It’s a mistake to think they don’t understand what’s going on and how trapped they are by the culture. I think that’s why many of them have opted out of the system. They feel hopeless. We have to show them ways they can create alternatives.
Hillstrom: And what about the rest of the community? Have you seen the conversation start to flourish?
Ahmadi: People are more on fire about this than we had even anticipated. One of our early programs was a cooking class, a very basic cooking class targeted to and taught by women of color. The class was as much about social interaction as it was about the food itself. These women were propelled by their desire to break out of certain patterns and get on a new path.
They got so excited about the community that was forming out of these classes that they kept coming back to take it two or three times. They wanted to deepen their understanding of their roles in how food is playing out in their community.
So we trained these women to become educators themselves. Now there’s a whole cohort of women out there doing demonstrations, convening residents in their living rooms, churches, and in front of corner stores, teaching them about the political context of food.
Things have been clicking over the last several decades, and it’s been precipitated by the health problems. These women are really concerned about the well-being of the people they love.
Hillstrom: At the end of the day, we’re talking about real lives and real relationships. A lot of this is economic theory and systems-level thinking. So what keeps you inspired on a human level?
Reverend Jeffrey: It’s about reintroducing people to the basic things of life. When I see someone who’s been alienated from the earth and their own power, and they see that one plant grow, see things come from the ground to the city … That’s what we don’t see every day in the city: We don’t see the capacity to create. This is giving people the capacity to become creators.
Ahmadi: For me, it’s the simple acts of individuals doing something out of their own desire to make life better. These young people go to school, and they’re in the cafeteria and they’ve brought something healthy from home. They’re feeling kind of weird and nerdy, but they still do it. To me that’s a huge act of courage. No one asked them to do that. No one asked them to spread the message, and that’s why this is a movement. A movement is nothing but people trying to make a difference together. It’s not about fancy notions of authority or expertise at all.
Reverend Jeffrey: When I began to think about the whole process, I heard about the People’s Grocery truck in Oakland. That’s when I began to say, “Yeah, that’s the direction.”
I didn’t come to that until I heard about the truck. Just that one sentence: A vegetable truck going through the streets of Oakland. And that set the chain moving. I knew in that moment that this is it. Until then, I knew “it” was about food but I didn’t really understand what to do about it. And just coincidentally, someone once mentioned, “You know, I read this article about a vegetable truck in Oakland.” And bam.
Hillstrom: It clicked because you already understood the problems—the structural problems, the environmental problems, the racial and economic and political problems, all the way back to the Civil Rights era and beyond.
Reverend Jeffrey: Yes. But I didn’t know how to fix them. And there are other people out there like that, who will hear about things, and it will click.
That’s why this is a movement.
Christa Hillstrom interviewed Reverend Robert Jeffrey and Brahm Ahmadi for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Christa is web managing editor at YES!
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