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Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Nikki Henderson and
Jacqueline Thomas of the People's Grocery in West Oakland, CA.

Carol Boss: Nikki, what’s been the mission of the People’s Grocery since its inception in West Oakland in 2002?

Nikki Henderson: The mission of People’s Grocery has been to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through a local food system.

Boss: We’ve invited you to talk about this program on our show about peacemaking and non-violent conflict resolution. How do you see the People’s Grocery work as making peace and reducing conflict in a community?

Henderson: Well you know when I ask people when they feel the most at peace, a lot of times the response I get back is when they’re sharing a meal with a loved one. And I also feel like if you want to create peace, especially between two family members that may not be speaking to each other, you get them together over a meal and I think that the act of eating food, but more importantly sharing food, is a way to really create peace and inspire peacemaking among people who may be at conflict or who just want to build a deeper relationship with each other.

And I also think that we have a couple of programs that are really specific to conflict resolution and building relationships.

Boss: Well in regards to the first thing you said about people sharing a meal together and sitting down and eating, how does that relate in terms of what you do at People’s Grocery?

Henderson: A majority of our work I’d say starts with community celebration. When I think about all of our programs, they’re very wrapped up in community dinners and major events at our garden and weekly garden events. I think our first interaction with quite a few people in the community is come share some food with us. So then when we start talking about more abstract concepts like nutrition and diabetes and how much access do you have to healthy food. If they have a mouthful of really good salad then they’re much more engaged in terms of having a conversation.

Boss: When the People’s Grocery was founded in West Oakland in 2002, it was with the understanding that the health and economy, the well being, the quality of life of a community can be improved with access to nutritious food. What was the significance of making that connection?

Henderson: You know, when People’s Grocery first started, I think there were a lot less healthy foods activities happening there than there are now.

We do have a small cooperative, “we” as in West Oakland. West Oakland now has a small foods cooperative and there’s a small farmers market, there’s a few urban gardens.

But the situation was really dire ten years ago. There weren’t any grocery stores. There’s still not a full service grocery store and the kinds of food people were eating and sharing was destructive frankly to their bodies and to the community.

And so really thinking about a way to not just improve the economic vitality of the community through development, but to do that in a way that actually improves people’s health at the same time. Food was a natural nexus between those two and so that was why the connection I think was made.

Boss: Nikki, why don’t you give us a little history of West Oakland. How would you describe West Oakland in the ’50, 1950s and ‘60s?

Henderson: And to be clear, I wasn’t even alive then so this is what I’ve read from books and stories and things, but it seems like in the 1950s and ‘60s, especially when it came to grocery stores, there were actually mom and pop grocery stores. There were several large, full service grocery stores and more importantly people gardened a lot more frequently than it sounds like they do now. So the abundance of healthy food in the community was really, really vibrant.

And West Oakland was also full of people that were really, really active in trying to transform their community. So if we’re talking about the ‘60s, the late ‘60s, when it comes to the rise of the Black Panthers, the Panthers started in West Oakland so people in West Oakland, not only did they have access to certain services and resources that they don’t have access to now, but they were so concerned with the transformation of their community and they were so empowered to do something about it that they acted.

Boss: Yeah, I was alive at that time myself and actually I was doing some reading too and it sounds like with the construction of freeways and also the BART system, it really demolished a lot of buildings and homes and it isolated the community. A lot of the stores that were there providing food left.

Do you have anything you’d want to say about the impact of that change in the local food system?

Henderson: Well I think what you said was actually right on. A lot of the development projects, not only in West Oakland, but across the country, kind of the rise of the urban inner city has a lot to do with the way that development projects happen in inner city communities. And the entrance of freeways, the entrance of things like post offices and BART stations and all of the things that bar the community in on all sides and make it unattractive for certain industries to stay in.

So once the industry leaves, you still have a large concentration of people that don’t have access to basic things like grocery stores. So the supermarkets, once they left, they stayed away which was really unfortunate.

Boss: West Oakland has been called a food desert. Can you tell us what that means?

Henderson: Sure. You know, sometimes we don’t like to use the phrase “food desert” because a desert is actually a place with a lot of abundance. They may not have a lot of water, but they do have critters and cacti and all kinds of wonderful things.

So I think of it more as a food wasteland and when we talk about that term, what we mean is a place that has limited access to fresh and healthy foods and not just limited access when it comes to distance.

Because there is a debate right now about whether food deserts actually exist because people tend to actually live in close enough proximity to a grocery store to get there with the cars that they generally do have access to even if they don’t own.

So we’re not talking just about proximity. We’re talking about the convergence of proximity to healthy food with affordability of that healthy food and accessibility when it comes to the type of healthy food.

Because if you are a Vietnamese family and your healthy foods look very different than the USDA food pyramid, then you may not have very much access.

Boss: Very often when you hear the word “food desert,” paired with that is “food insecurity.”

Henderson: Yes.

Boss: How big of a problem is this nationally?

Henderson: Oh it’s a very big problem nationally.

I think there was a study done a little while ago that said something like one out of ten people in the country, maybe even more than that, are food insecure and that’s a big deal especially when you look at the fact that the most food insecure homes across the country, across the board, are African American women-led homes.

So this is a serious problem in communities of color and especially with people with limited incomes.

Boss: Jacqueline Thomas, having lived in West Oakland from the early to mid ‘90s, then leaving and returning again, you experienced this food insecurity. What was it like for you to be living in a food wasteland?

Jacqueline Thomas: It was very difficult especially knowing that I was living in a wasteland or a food wasteland and not having grown up in that dynamic. I actually grew up in a place in Santa Rosa which was abundant with foods and farms and so forth around.

When I came and moved to West Oakland it was somewhat of a shock and it was difficult, especially once I became ill, it was difficult to maintain my health because it was difficult to get healthy food. And that often entailed taking a BART ride and a bus ride or three buses, if I did not take the BART, to a store where I could actually get the type of foods that I needed.

And even then, having the income to purchase healthier foods was also difficult because it’s more expensive for some reason to eat healthy than it is to not eat healthy.

So a lot of that fell on my children to follow the shopping list and go shopping for me once I was unable to do that.

Boss: It sounds like even with the intention of wanting to eat well, it was a tremendous challenge.

Thomas: It was. It actually entailed shopping at possibly two to three places in order to get the right balance of foods that we needed. We would go to a major grocery store in Emeryville for meats. We would go to Chinatown for our vegetables and things like that or for fresh vegetables that we could actually afford. Not that the major store didn’t have fresh vegetables, we could not afford those vegetables there so we would have to go to Chinatown to the venues that had the more affordable fresh vegetables. So that entails allocating a nice chunk of your budget for travel just to go shopping.

Boss: Nikki Henderson, what was the original approach People’s Grocery took to pursue community change, that is to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through food?

Henderson: Originally we approached that using urban agriculture first, so growing the food then taking that food into enterprises that were led by youth in the community.

Our first enterprise was the mobile market; a market on wheels. Then through that enterprise, doing health and nutrition demonstrations and nutrition education so that you could raise the demand for healthy food. That would then go back and feedback into the enterprise which would create more money to do the production which would create more food and it was a feedback loop that was all eventually supposed to culminate in a grocery store, hence the name “People’s Grocery.”

Boss: Can you tell us about the mobile market and what the impact of it was in West Oakland?

Henderson: The mobile market was a converted postal truck that we painted brightly purple and orange with youth, with purple and orange t-shirts, with hip-hop music blasting and healthy produce.

From what I hear, this was before my time at People’s Grocery, but from what I hear, we hit every house in West Oakland over the course of the summer and made sure that if they weren’t home we went back again.

So I think one of the greatest successes of the mobile market was that it was an outreach strategy to really introduce People’s Grocery to the community so that once we started our produce box, which actually is much more effective in getting food to people on a regular basis, people knew who we were and they trusted us and they knew that we were actually trying to solve a very serious problem.

Boss: Well tell us about, I think you were referring to The Grub Box.

Henderson: Yeah, The Grub Box. So The Grub Box is a food distribution program that’s kind of a fusion community-supported agriculture program. A community-supported agriculture is a system in which customers pay the farmer directly at the beginning of a season and purchase a share, so to speak, of the farm so that if the farmer suffers from blight or weather or any of the other things that happen that you just can’t anticipate when you’re growing food, then customer is bearing the burden in addition to the farmer.

So we use that model, but we also subsidize that with food from an aggregator who aggregates food from local producers and all of that is outsourced to a farm called Dig Deep Farms & Produce which is in the San Leandro area.

So functionally what that looks like is that if you want to get a produce box, you can order with us and then on Tuesdays and Fridays you can choose what size bag of groceries that you get and it’s all fresh and local produce.

Boss: In terms of purchasing that as a consumer, it’s affordable for any resident that would like it?

Henderson: Yeah, we actually just debuted our new pricing system. So you can pay ten dollars for a five pound bag of food. You can pay fifteen dollars for a ten pound bag of food, twenty dollars for a fifteen pound bag of food and twenty-five dollars for a twenty pound bag of food.

Boss: Tell us for a moment something about Dig Deep Farms.

Henderson: Dig Deep Farms & Produce is a really, really wonderful program. It’s fiscally sponsored by the Sherriff’s Activity League in the Ashland/Cherryland of California and it’s a program whose goal is to create an alternative way for youth in the community to engage instead of being on the streets. So many of the people that work there; people of color, African Americans and Latino’s, the goal is actually for community benefit. So we wanted to find a farm that actually shared our social justice values and we were very, very happy to find them so that we could work with them.

Boss: So it’s really working with so call vulnerable youth?

Henderson: Yes.

Boss: It seems that People’s Grocery does a lot of collaboration and forms partnerships and the one that you have with Dig Deep Farms seems to be spreading (I know you’ve called) the “health and the wealth.” Do you think part of what people’s grocery is doing is extending community in a sense?

Henderson: I would definitely say so and with things like The Grub Box you can see it really obviously, but I would also say that it goes between communities as well because one of the symptoms of being an organization like People’s Grocery is that it’s not just people that are vulnerable and in food insecure communities that like us. It’s people that are actually very food secure who care very much that down the street from their house is a community that’s really food insecure.

So I think that we do a lot of bridging of social capital as well when those who are more privileged come and see what we do and really, really want to figure out ways to support us.

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Amy Anixter Scott and Vitoria Apodaca of
The Fiestas Project in Santa Barbara/Martineztown, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Carol Boss: Amy Anixter Scott, there are different ways of thinking about peace. You mentioned to me seeing the film 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, and he was asked about the conflict in the Middle East and what can be done to make peace there and you told me his response.

Amy Anixter Scott: His response was “more picnics and more festivals.”

Boss: What did you think when you were watching that film and heard that response? That’s probably not a response we might think the Dalai Lama would give to such a question.

Scott: It resonated with me. It surprised me. I didn’t expect that. But from the work in community, with community, that I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with, and what you’ll hear more of during this discussion, it made sense.

Boss: So in way, when you walked out, did you think that was kind of a profound remark for him to make? One might take it as whimsical coming from the Dalai Lama because he can be whimsical.

Scott: He can be. The Dalai Lama through this film and other things that I’ve seen of his; presentations and readings, he’s approachable. He is really about personal relationships, about individual happiness, happiness and practice in action with others in community.

So when he responded to the question “more picnics and festivals,” it meant to me why not sit in community with people, share food, break bread, watch our children play, get to know each other, discuss things in our community or in a safe place or maybe it’s not so safe. Maybe that was to have more picnics and festivals in the Gaza Strip. But how do we come together? Coming together around food can create a peaceful environment.

Boss: Well I thought about the phrase, “coming to the table together,” which we’ve certainly heard in regards to diplomatic efforts; one side negotiating with the other, making peace agreements. So any thoughts on that and how you see that as a metaphor and how this meshes with your project and about the communities you’ve worked with?

Scott: Well it’s interesting that you say “coming together at the table.” I mean there are summits, yes, and in fact the Dalai Lama has said we should have more picnics and less summits. I mean summits are important; The World Food Summit, many places for people to come together to discuss policy and action points.
But when I talk about coming to the table, I mean who can sit at the table? Who has access to the table? Who can bring food to the table or if you don’t have food, can you come to the table and share food with someone? So there are opportunities. To me “the table” means access, it means opportunity, it means equity, it means healthy food, to share our stories, our needs and how we can work together to achieve our aims in community.

Boss: So how does all this mesh with your Fiestas project?

Scott: Well it meshes on several different levels. I work with the Office for Community Health. I work in community. I work with community partners like Veronica Apodaca and others in Santa Barbara-Martineztown.

Here we have a community that is really in the middle of Albuquerque, very close to downtown, a couple of miles away from the university, next to the largest high school in the community.

It was once an agricultural community. There are Acequias. Those are small irrigation channels that run throughout the community. They’re now dried up through urban development. These Acequia’s were actually shut down, but there is still some farming going on there, small gardens.

It’s a food desert. There is little access to affordable and nutritious and culturally relevant food in this community. It’s a food desert.

Often when we think about food deserts we think about a rural community. Many communities in Albuquerque, people may have to drive 100 hundred miles roundtrip to be able to access food.

But here is a community where the ability to access food is not based on – some of it is based on mileage, but it’s based on are there community stores. Can people afford food? What types of food is accessible? There are fast food stores in this community; a few small community stores which support the community.

Boss: Some listening to this conversation might ask; why aren’t there decent grocery stores in Martineztown?

Apodaca: I believe that it’s zoning. It’s our neighborhood. We are a little village within the city. We did have grocery stores in Martineztown. They were family-run. We do have a couple of spots like the Chili Connection and Manuel’s grocery store, but those don’t really have the full range that a big grocery store would have.

So I believe that with this project, I think that it’s going to help us to identify a good way to bring in a need-effect grocery store to our neighborhood whether it be using our fresh produce grown in our community garden, if it’s employing our neighbors, or residents, but I believe that it should be conceptualized by our residents.

Boss: Do communities in the food desert category ever petition food companies to place better stores in the neighborhood?

Apodaca: Within our sector development plan, our community came together and it’s in the process of being approved to find a space where we can create a marketplace where local residents can bring in their business.

And the idea is to have a little coop, a fresh fruit stand. So I believe that our neighborhood, we are a food desert, but we don’t want some big old entity coming in, like Amy had said, but bringing culturally relevant food, things that we’re used to growing, eating and gathering around.

And using our voice; our neighborhood association is asking our residents what they want and that’s what we’ve identified. So we want to be able to take that and roll with it, but roll with it in a constructive way in the sense that they are going to construct the idea of what they would like their grocery store to look like, their participation in it, and not to just bring in some big old mass market, but something that will promote local commerce where you’ll always see your neighbor shopping in the same spot that you are.

Scott: To bring in a large grocery store or medium sized grocery store into a community means that there is a store there, but do people have the economic means to access this food? Can they pay for it? Can they afford it?

We look at our elders and many individuals across age groups. What do we pay for? Do we pay for food or am I going to pay for the medicine that I need? Or what about the gas bill that’s gone up? Or what about my children’s clothing? People make choices every day, so having a store doesn’t mean that they would have the opportunity to purchase food.

There are fast food stores in Santa Barbara-Martineztown. People have access to that kind of food and it’s cheap. Is it nutritious? No. Is it fast and is it easy because they’re working several jobs?

Fiestas is going to address the food desert in this community, in Santa Barbara-Martineztown by bring people together, bringing women together to be able to share information, ideas, stories and hopes, to have conversations where they can discuss not only the problems that are happening in their lives and in their community’s life, but to talk about solutions. Solutions are addressed by having a safe and peaceful place or table to sit down and talk about what’s happening in our community.

We believe in this community. I don’t live in this community. Veronica does. The women that I work with, the women that I partner are in this community and the community association. They’re strong voices. They’re people who have lived there for years. There are immigrants. There are people who are just moving into the community. We think we’ll find some solutions. We don’t have all the solutions yet, but we think we’ll find some of the solutions.

Boss: Why aren’t men an essential part of this project? What is it about gathering the women?

Scott: Well, men are part of the project and they’re being interviewed. They’ll be hearing about the information. They’re part of these families. They’re part of the extended families.

Women are often the nutritional gatekeepers in the family. They are the ones who are the nexus. They are the central person in the family that does the shopping, does the cooking, gives up a meal.

I’ve spoken with women in the community who have said to me; “My children come home after school and I feed them and they say, ‘mom, you’re so picky. Why aren’t you having dinner with us? Why are you eating so little?’” Well, she can’t afford to feed everyone at that table. She’s having to stretch her meal and so she’s giving up part of her meal so her children can eat.

We know from our partnership in this community around other things; around education, around service learning, around some of the gardens that Veronica has talked about, about the advocacy, that women do like to network. Women are relational. Of course men are too, but women in this community, as in many, are the center of building relationship and relationships around food. So we’re starting with the women. We’re starting with; what do they think about, know about, care about food. What’s happening in their food environment? Are they giving up meals, sharing recipes? Who are the elders that they know? What are the issues?

And we’ll start with them and develop the social relationships with them and then they will share information with the men in their lives and in their community.

Things that we learned from the project, the community board, which is women, will go back to the community association, will go to community events and get input from the men and the women in the community.

Boss: What is this process? Have you noticed, even in the beginnings of this now, how this has changed the neighborhood? Do you see those changes happening yet?

Apodaca: Well for example, after leaving, I would say our third meeting, one of the community board women told me; “Wow, I need to go home and cook dinner more. I’ve just been so busy and just picking up fast food, eating it in the car, I need to go and make a salad and we need to sit down at the table.”

So just even that process; thinking about the home and creating peace within the home. We all like to say that my house is a peaceful environment. That’s where I go to rest. But sometimes we lose sight of those daily interactions of eating and discussing and sharing and helping each other prepare a meal.

Boss: So you’re working now on creating community gardens. Now this is separate from the Fiestas program. I want you to tell us what your goals are for the gardens and what roll does it play now in the community.

Apodaca: With our gardens, I’m trying to take it a little bit further and my goal is, and I’ve already tackled a little bit of it, is to identify at least ten gardeners within our neighborhood to service. We have five that are identified and who have been serviced last year. And a lot of them are my neighbors that I grew up with who I knew and they’re elderly who knew that they had investment in their land, but now they can’t really physically do it themselves.

So by getting our young, spirited kids, kinder through twelve, out there to serve, it helps to create relationships, to hear stories and to connect around one thing that we all do which is eat and take the process of nourishing and watching something grow, whether that be the child in the relationship with the neighbor or the gardener that we’re serving or watching the plants grow, and then taking what we got from it and distributing it within the community.

Boss: It sounds like it has a real possibility, and might be doing so already, of breaking down barriers. If that’s the case, can you give us an example; share a story with us?

Apodaca: Definitely. One of my favorite examples, and I just love it; our streets are very narrow. Edith is a very small street that people like to race down even though our speed limit is about 15 miles an hour, and taking our kids to different gardening sites, it means that they might have to walk a quarter of a mile to our next gardening location or it might just be right down the street, but seeing these youth hauling a wheelbarrow with rakes in their hands I think sends a whole different message to people who usually just drive by our community and have their perceptions of Martineztown, to also the neighbors who aren’t used to see kids walking down the neighborhood in that aspect with those tools ready to serve.

So I think that it’s changed and it’s definitely sending a very positive, interesting message to those who see us walking down the streets to go service our community gardens.

Boss: Veronica Apodaca, also what about the relationship between let’s say the teenagers and the elderly in the community? It was my understanding that there were some years where elderly people were kind of reticent about coming out onto the streets. Has that changed?

Apodaca: I think that it’s a work in progress and that’s my goal is to always change that image of youth. I think that it has changed in the fact that since a lot of gardeners that I’ve identified are elderly who have been lifelong residents, who have roots in the community and still have passion for gardening, are willing to open up their space and their yards and their secure living environment to our youth to have discussions.

I think that it shows the youth that age isn’t a number. It’s just what you feel and how you’re living and how you’re expressing connecting with each other and I think that it promotes a lot of conversation that might spark up some old memories, even childhood young memories, of the elderly that they can share and give, what I like to call consejo, little bits of advice in growing up and taking care of the land and taking care of yourself and taking care of your family.

So I believe that doing this project and bringing our youth into these spaces is definitely breaking down barriers and allowing people to feel a little bit more comfortable in talking with each other and opening up.