About West Oakland

Located in Oakland, California, the neighborhood of West Oakland is a community in crisis. Yet, it’s poised at the crux of positive change. Decades of systematic disinvestment and discriminatory policies have led to high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime, and pollution, which have taken a severe toll on residents’ health and welfare, and uprooted the local economy. Fortunately, West Oakland is a resilient community with a legacy as fertile ground for social change. That rich soil of social justice is being cultivated by organizations such as People’s Grocery and self-determined residents, working together to dig out of poverty and grow a healthier community by transforming a low-income “food desert” into an urban oasis full of fresh food.

Today, amid public housing projects, an overabundance of fast food restaurants and liquor stores choke West Oakland like an invasive species. The community is the epitome of an urban “food desert.” Although a handful of small grocery stores have recently sprouted, they are not adequate to support about 25,000 residents who live in the neighborhood. In contrast, there are more than 50 liquor stores that sell over-priced, over-processed junk food, “energy” drinks, and many other unhealthy items. As a result, skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases exist, especially among children. Health disparities between West Oakland and affluent communities nearby are well documented:

“Compared with a White child in the Oakland Hills, an African American born in West Oakland is 1.5 times more likely to be born premature or low birth weight, seven times more likely to be born into poverty. By fourth grade, this child is likely to live in a neighborhood with twice the concentration of liquor stores and more fast food outlets. As an adult, he will be five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes, twice as likely to be hospitalized for and to die of heart disease, three times more likely to die of stroke, and twice as likely to die of cancer.”

To understand West Oakland’s challenges and attributes, it’s vital to delve deeper into the community’s complexities and extremes. Space and privacy are rare commodities in West Oakland. It’s part of the San Francisco – Oakland area, the most densely populated U.S. metropolitan area, with 6,266 people per square mile. In 2000, the population was primarily African-American (77%) and Hispanic (15%), with almost 40% of residents living below federal poverty level, and possessing less than a high school education. Less than half own a car, making it difficult to get healthy food outside the area. The neighborhood has 50 liquor stores. In the past decade, demographics have shifted, with a 31% decease in the 5- to 17-year-old population, possibly a signal of youth brain drain, gentrification, and displacement. Joblessness and a rash of foreclosures, due in part to predatory lenders, have left many families homeless. Fortunately, new investment in West Oakland is fueling a burgeoning art district and other growth. On another good note, the area’s violent crime dropped 5.5% from 2009 to 2010, and crime prevention efforts are expanding. For example, local officials now offer late-night basketball games, indoor soccer, and other supervised activities at a local high school to stifle crime among youth. Plus, residents are teaming up to fight liquor store proliferation and successfully lure new business.

Yesterday, in its heyday as the “Harlem of the West,” West Oakland was a thriving hub for transportation, arts, culture, community-driven businesses, and community-driven solutions to social ills. To fight oppression and promote civil rights in the 1920s, local railroad workers founded the nation’s first African-American labor union – The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In the ‘60s, community leaders launched a free breakfast program in West Oakland, laying groundwork for our national public school nutrition program. Residents also rallied together in an attempt to stop several public works projects that negatively impacted the neighborhood. Unfortunately, their efforts did not deter construction of a double-decker freeway, which demolished local businesses, split the neighborhood in half, and isolated the community from the rest of Oakland. As a result of the isolation and other economic factors, the plethora of mom-and-pop grocery stores and local supermarkets that had thrived for decades suddenly vanished. The few remaining “corner stores” began to focus on higher-margin sales of processed foods, alcohol, and cigarettes. Over the years, it became virtually impossible to buy healthy food or fresh produce in the neighborhood. In response, residents organized the West Oakland Food Cooperative from 1979 to 1982, an early example of using food as an economic generator. In 2002, the People’s Grocery put one of the nation’s first mobile food markets into motion, plowing the way for others to follow, and soon germinated one of the nation’s only minority-owned Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

Tomorrow, many believe, could be a brighter day for West Oakland. Rays of inspiration are shining as residents work collectively toward a shared vision of a healthier future, fostered by affordable, nutritious food. A fresh crop of food justice leaders has emerged and change is in the air. For the People’s Grocery, the task at hand is evident: find new resources to help more residents find the right paths out of poverty. By doing so, we can help dreams blossom.

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