The Rise of Food Justice in West Oakland

Historical Essay

By Julia Irwin

People’s Grocery’s mobile market.jpeg

People's Grocery's mobile market

Photo: Community Commons

This essay seeks to answer the question: why did the first years of the 21st century witness a remarkable efflorescence of food justice organizations in West Oakland.

In 2001, City Slicker Farms was born when founder Willow Rosenthal and a number of friends in the West Oakland community began transforming formerly vacant lots into urban gardens, growing their own food and sharing the surplus with others.[1] People’s Grocery started in 2003 with the advent of their “mobile market,” a healthy grocery store on wheels.[2] In 2004, Mandela MarketPlace formed and embarked upon the search for a permanent West Oakland site for their worker-owned grocery store.[3] Over the following years, dozens of other efforts to address food injustice emerged in the area. What explains this sudden proliferation of West Oakland-based organizations fighting for healthy food as a right?


Image: City of Oakland

The geographical and historical context of West Oakland suggests an answer in two parts: on the one hand, West Oakland is a historically poor, black, marginalized community, bounded on all sides by freeways that physically and symbolically separate it from bordering neighborhoods. The twin histories of redlining and white flight over the course of the 20th century left visible patterns of divestment throughout West Oakland, one of which is the lack of grocery stores and overpopulation of fast food joints and liquor stores. In other words, it is much easier to get a can of Coke and a bag of Cheetos than a head of broccoli. It is no coincidence, then, that diet-related illnesses are particularly pervasive in the neighborhood – for instance, diabetes rates in West Oakland are three times higher than in other parts of the county.[4] This lack of access to healthy foods has led to a popularization of West Oakland as a “food desert,” where a “food desert” is defined by lack – a place characterized as having no food. And this reveals one (correct!) answer to the “Why food?” question: in the early 2000s, socially conscious political projects rallied around food in response to a need.

SMALL image -3 Julia Irwin.jpeg

Photo: Dogtown Redemption

But a desert is not just a place with no water – deserts are thriving ecosystems, inhabited by beings who have adapted to survive under restrictive circumstances in innovative and resourceful ways. This understanding of a desert leads us to another simultaneously correct answer: in addition to addressing a community lack, food justice in West Oakland has engaged with and deployed community resources.[5] There are pragmatic resources: urban farming has recently become a middle-class fad, but before that it was a survival technique used by the poor or during times of crisis; during World War II many people planted “victory gardens” to alleviate pressure on mainstream food channels.[6] There are cultural resources: many West Oakland residents came from Southern sharecropper roots.[7] Finally, there are political resources: in 1969, the Black Panther Party started its Free Breakfast for Children Program at St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland, powerfully asserting nutritious food as a right, and grounding this precedent in Oakland politics.[8] Thus, another correct answer to “Why food?” is that there was already a deep sense of value in, and knowledge of, food production within the West Oakland community – and tapping into these collective resources and legacies as tools for justice is a way of engendering community empowerment and engagement.

This two-pronged analysis is also helpful in assessing how the organizations born of these origins have unfolded in relation to one another. With regard to addressing the lack of access to healthy food, all of the food justice organizations in West Oakland are committed to reorienting the way food is produced and distributed, with the benefit of the community in mind. The differences lie in where the organizations intervene: at the level of production, distribution, or both – but obviously, food justice-oriented producers and distributors are mutually beneficial.

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With regard to the project of anti-oppression work, there seems to be some respectful political disagreement on what “community empowerment” looks like in practice. Specifically, organizations differ on how empowerment is spatially realized as a response to exclusion from the normal market channels that populate healthy food systems. Some organizations take a “Let us into your spaces!” approach, demanding inclusion into these mainstream food systems. For example, Mandela MarketPlace and People’s Community Market are predominantly concerned with making sure West Oakland residents are able to participate in mainstream markets, to buy fruits and vegetables at the store as conveniently as their neighbors in North Oakland and Emeryville. In 2009, Mandela MarketPlace finally opened the grocery store that had been five years in the making: Mandela Foods Co-Operative, which has been an enormous success.

People’s Community Market, originally an offshoot of People’s Grocery, is still struggling to find a home for its store – but even prior to its physical realization, People’s Community Market has demonstrated a commitment to its participatory goals, attracting local shareholders with a minimum investment of $1,000.[9]

City Slickers Farm West Oakland-Julia Irwin.jpeg

Garden beds at City Slicker Farms’ West Oakland Farm Park

Photo: City Slicker Farms

Organizations like City Slicker Farms and People’s Grocery have been more concerned with creating spaces that serve as an alternative to mainstream food systems – urban gardens and farms that are open to all. The rhetoric seems to be, “We’ll make our own spaces and let everyone in!” Most recently, in the summer of 2016, City Slicker Farms celebrated the grand opening of its West Oakland Farm Park, a 1.5 acre farm and public park hybrid featuring myriad community-building spaces: a playground, a large lawn, tables and benches throughout, a covered space for cooking/nutrition demos, community garden beds, rows and rows of vegetable beds with frequent drop-in volunteer hours, and more.

Some newer efforts toward community food sovereignty have taken a far more radical route: AfrikaTown, a community garden built on a vacant lot by radical non-profit Qilombo, made local headlines in 2015 by refusing to relinquish the garden space to the owner, who wanted to develop it into condominiums, citing alliances with Ohlone people who have a historical claim to the land. AfrikaTown is open to all, but explicitly exists as a space for people of color; black and brown people in particular.[10] Thus its message seems to be, “We’ll reclaim our stolen spaces and kick the capitalists out of them!

Though these approaches to community empowerment are in some sense at odds, they also represent a refreshing diversity of interpretation. For the most part the organizations have embraced this, sustaining and building upon the critical cross-organizational conversations that catalyze the food justice movement in West Oakland. However, troubled waters may lie ahead, as the conditions out of which the movement was born have shifted from beneath it: in recent years, West Oakland has begun to rapidly gentrify – the long-time community members that the food justice movement sought to serve are being priced out by surging real-estate values and costs of living. Even worse, some have pointed out that beautiful urban green spaces and shiny new grocery stores raise property values: ironically, the biggest victories of the local food justice movement may be contributing to the displacement of the population it intended to serve.[11]

A staff member at City Slicker Farms who requested anonymity brought up this point, unprompted. They said that the issue is something that the organization is having serious conversations about, and that ultimately, City Slicker Farms is committed to serving the population whose needs it has sought to serve from the organization’s inception, whatever that may mean.[12] It seems that other organizations are ready to stand their ground as well: in 2012, staff at Phat Beets Produce, another local food justice organization, were livid to find that images of their farm had been used to market West Oakland to prospective home-buyers in a real-estate agent’s video. They quickly fired back with an acerbic parody video and launched a campaign demanding that the real-estate agent’s video be removed.[13] The future of long-time West Oakland residents and their allies in the food justice movement may be uncertain, but there is certainty that when justice is at stake, there is no shortage of people who will fight to the end for it.

[1] Interview with Anonymous (City Slicker Farms staff) by author, December 14, 2016.
[2] Interview with Jumoke Hinton-Hodge by author, December 12, 2016.
[3] Harvey, Dana. "Urban Food Co-op Tackles Economic Empowerment." Race, Poverty & the Environment 16, no. 2 (2009): 75-77. JSTOR.
[4] Curran, Christopher J., and Marc-Tizoc Gonzalez. "Food Justice as Interracial Justice: Urban Farmers, Community Organizations and the Role of Government in Oakland, California." The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 43, no. 1 (2011): 207-232.
[5] Interview with Anonymous (City Slicker Farms staff) by author, December 14, 2016.
[6] Benfer, Amy. "How does your city garden grow?" Salon. July 4, 2009. Accessed December 16, 2016.
[7] Interview with Jumoke Hinton-Hodge by author, December 12, 2016.
[8] Curran and Gonzalez, 207-232.
[9] Satterfield, Stephan. "Can This Market Be a Model for Getting Good Food Into Neighborhoods Shaped by Racism?" Civil Eats. 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.
[10] Tsai, Luke. "West Oakland Activists Vow to Defend Afrika Town Community Garden." East Bay Express. 2016. Accessed December 16, 2016.
[11] Markham, Lauren. "Gentrification and the Urban Garden." The New Yorker. 2014. Accessed December 16, 2016.
[12] Interview with Anonymous (City Slicker Farms staff) by author, December 14, 2016.
[13] Markham, The New Yorker.