Shifting the Food Desert Narrative in East Oakland

​Amani Ali leads the Healthy Grocery Initiative (HGI) of the Oakland-based nonprofit, Mandela Partners (MP). Through HGI, Amani partners with Oakland store owners to support business growth, build customer loyalty, and increase healthy food options, such as fresh, frozen, lightly processed, and packaged fruits and vegetables, in their communities. She provides support services to reach mission-aligned store improvement goals.

We have heard repeatedly that East Oakland is a food desert, almost as if this is an immutable fact. However, it is more accurately a food apartheid. Overtly racist government policies like redlining led to disinvestment in East Oakland. The void of chain grocery stores and supermarkets and the poor economic outlook was filled by drugs, cigarettes, fast food and other quick, low-nutrition options.

What we do not hear about very often, however, are the independent grocers that do sell fresh foods in their communities, some of whom have been doing so for 20 years or more. While chain grocery stores and supermarkets in East Oakland are nearly nonexistent, there are several small grocery stores, many of which are located along International Blvd (map).

Another misconception worth dispelling is the idea of a grocery store. What most Americans consider to be grocery stores are actually supermarkets. The terms are usually used interchangeably. The Pak-N-Sav that used to be on Hegenberger Rd was a supermarket. The former WalMart, also on Hegenberger, was a superstore. Safeway, Lucky and Gazzali’s in the Eastmont Mall are all examples of supermarkets. Chains that are developed in East Oakland gain a lot of attention for the revenue they are expected to bring to the City.

E. 14th Produce store front
E. 14th Produce, one of many small markets on International Blvd.
Gazzali’s Better Trade Market store front
In a sing-songy voice, I heard a woman exclaim, “My favorite store!” as she entered Gazzali’s Better Trade Market.
Food King store front
Food King occupies the Granada Theatre building, which originally opened in 1924. It was converted in the 1960s.

This supermarket or superstore ideal is an impossibly high standard to reach if there is no financial support to do so and another example of disinvestment at work. A better option is to invest in grocery stores that are already present in most East Oakland neighborhoods. These stores have an advantage over chains by knowing their customers and carrying culturally-relevant foods, which means that they can cater to their customers better than a supermarket ever could. Most store owners are happy to fulfill requests, especially for regular customers.

Individuals can invest in small grocery stores by buying from them. As little as 10% percent of one’s food budget diverted from a chain to a small market can make a huge difference for a small business. David, the owner of a store in a residential area, encourages his neighbors to try his market before taking a trip to the supermarket. Anyone can try this approach if they are unfamiliar with the offerings of their local shops.

Three years ago, Ali Fouad’s family started responding to the requests for fresh foods from the community and have steadily increased their inventory. They now sell a few varieties of fruits and vegetables, cheeses and 100% juice fruit cups. The produce, which is delivered twice a week, always sells out.

produce at California Market
produce at California Market
Produce at California Market

Barriers Faced by Small Grocers

Fouad co-owns California Market, an aspiring produce market on 35th Ave and E. 16th. The current retail space is cramped, so pre-COVID the co-owners applied for construction permits to tear down their storage area and rebuild into a produce and meat market with a separate entrance. They understand that COVID has slowed City services, but regardless, Fouad wishes that planning and zoning were easier to navigate. He would also like to see more support services, like tax education for small businesses.

On International Blvd, the street itself is a barrier to adequately serving the public. The new Tempo bus lane has created massive red zones and caused near daily accidents, according to Tony Gazzali, owner of Gazzali’s Better Trade Market. Multiple store owners expressed a tremendous need for parking lots to attract more customers. Devoid of public trash cans, both customers and owners contend with dirty streets. The City of Oakland is responsible for providing equitable public works citywide, but it is evident that they are not.

Small grocers regularly share with our program team that they feel neglected by the City, especially by the Sugar Sweetened Beverage (SSB) tax ordinance. Grocers resoundingly say that they do not know where the money is going; only 9 of the 103 stores interviewed in this evaluation published in Preventive Medicine Reports, had heard anything about how the money would be used. The tax in Oakland earned $9 million in the 2019–2020 fiscal year, but only about 1% of SSB tax revenue was allocated to healthy retail.

Owners like Fouad believe there should be more transparency from the City of Oakland regarding SSB funds. They believe that the tax revenue should be reinvested into communities, not placed in the general fund. Organizations like Mandela Partners use funding like this to increase food access for community members. Reinvesting SSB funds back into community institutions rather than extracting and distributing at will is a more equitable and transparent approach to fund distribution.

A New East Oakland Narrative

Investing in these small grocery stores ensures that community members have a safe and reliable location to buy groceries and improves the economic outlook for the store owner. The Healthy Grocery Initiative team provides retail-focused technical assistance and equipment upgrades that will boost product quality and enhance the customer experience. We also administer a curriculum to increase knowledge of retail topics, such as produce management and merchandising. For customers, we supply our Fresh Creds discount and other grocery subsidies to incentivize purchases and build strong marketing campaigns to brand stores as healthy community institutions.

Most recently, the Healthy Grocery Initiative partnered with Saba Grocers Initiative and Sugar Freedom Project resident leaders to provide services to 5 corner stores east of High Street, funded by the aforementioned 1% of SSB revenue. We were able to provide energy-efficient refrigeration, thousands of dollars in healthy food coupons, and interior and exterior store upgrades.

It is imperative to acknowledge the many other community-based businesses working to expand local food systems and food distribution points in East Oakland. Some are new and others are quite established, but most have increased their emergency relief efforts due to COVID-19. The DEEP cooperative (formerly known as the East Oakland Cooperative), urban farms like Acta Non Verba and the Castlemont High School Garden, mutual aid efforts like The Food Commonweal, TownFridge, and Homies Empowerment FREE(dom) store are all revolutionary options for fresh foods in East Oakland.

Additionally, there are numerous organizations receiving donations from the Alameda County Community Food Bank and distributing it several times a week. Other programs at Mandela Partners have shifted their focus to free produce boxes and community meals amid the pandemic. The variety of ways people have shown up to feed one another has been incredible to witness.

Small grocers, food system reformers, and food distributors have shaped a unique food experience in East Oakland. I embrace the empowering, community-led narrative that is unfolding. Mandela Partners and the dozens of other community-based organizations and businesses are providing impactful solutions to hunger and food access. Our approaches collectively supplement the often insufficient American safety net offerings while strengthening local resources.

City Accountability

Nonprofits fill service gaps, but ultimately, the City needs to be held accountable to facilitate and finance community-focused solutions to systemic injustice. As we move into 2021, the same needs will exist, but most emergency funding will have expired. The City of Oakland finds itself with a large budget deficit at the time of this writing, but food provision and basic human services like sanitation should never be cut, especially during a pandemic. Individuals can use their voices to urge City Council to create a permanent allocation of sugar-sweetened beverage tax funding for healthy retail projects. Call on them to address the tradition of disinvestment which have created the disparities we see in East Oakland.

Produce at Gazzali’s Better Trade Market
Produce at Gazzali’s Better Trade Market
Fruits and vegetables at E. 14th Produce
Fruits and vegetables at E. 14th Produce
Outdoor fruit display at La Raza 2
Outdoor fruit display at La Raza 2
Dried spices and bulk section at La Raza 2
Dried spices and bulk section at La Raza 2
Tortillas at Gazzali’s Better Trade Market
Tortillas at Gazzali’s Better Trade Market
Dried goods: jamaica (hibiscus), durito sheets, cinnamon sticks, rice, hominy and peanuts at E. 14th Produce
Dried goods: jamaica (hibiscus), durito sheets, cinnamon sticks, rice, hominy and peanuts at E. 14th Produce
Canned chiles and more at Gazzali’s Better Trade Market
Canned chiles and more at Gazzali’s Better Trade Market

Amani is a food justice advocate by day, pool player by night and a writer somewhere in between.