The West Oakland Farmers Market debuted on June 5, 2022, and is open every Sunday. (Alan Chazaro)
The West Oakland neighborhood where Elliot Johnson grew up during the 1980s was filled with community abundance — but hampered, at times, by a lack of fresh, organic foods.
“On 14th and Center there was a store, but a real grocer wasn’t really around until Acorn Super. Then they closed,” he remembers. “The people were happy, but it was real bad poverty back then. You had to go to Alameda or Rockridge for fresh food. It was tough. So when [West Oakland Farmers Market] started, we knew we had to be part of it.”
Johnson and his wife, Shawlaya, operate Goldi’s, a small-batch spice business that pops up every Sunday at the quirky West Oakland Farmers Market. The new outdoor market — located in the Prescott neighborhood on Peralta Street, between 18th and 20th Streets — offers a mosaic of goods provided by a diverse spectrum of local vendors and artisans. The hope is to reflect the neighborhood’s robust past and evolving future in order to serve the community’s present needs.
On any given Sunday, you can browse the market’s selection of tasty beverages and natural foods while strolling a quiet, two-block road sentineled by nearby Victorian homes. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll notice that the market is helping to open a fresh lane in the community: one that creates a path for aspiring entrepreneurs in the area’s overlooked pocket of healthy foods commerce.
Launched in the summer of 2022 with the support of Oakland Councilmember Carroll Fife and the Prescott Neighborhood Council, the market is currently the neighborhood’s only farmers market. Less than a year later, the market has turned into the only intersection in West Oakland where such a collection of organic farmers, florists, breadmakers, honey purveyors, ranchers, meat suppliers and wide-ranging community members like the Johnsons can share their homemade offerings to a steady base of market-goers..
Featuring anywhere from 25 to 50 vendors each week — and predominantly representing Black, brown and Asian diasporas — the market spotlights a potpourri of creative offerings with an emphasis on providers who aren’t usually the biggest demographic at other farmers markets.
“Working with future generations of diverse organic farmers, it’s harder for them to get into more established markets,” says Harvindar Singh, the founder of Foragers Market, the organization that operates West Oakland Farmers Market along with a handful of similar markets around the Bay Area. “But things are changing. [The idea of] traditional, old, white hippie farmers is beginning to open up to more diverse farmers and vendors.”
Coming on the heels of last year’s sudden closure of People’s Community Market, one of West Oakland’s only grocery stores, the farmers market arrives at a time when the neighborhood once again finds itself with limited access to such resources.
Often described as a “food desert,” West Oakland — like many communities shaped by decades of segregation and systemically racist practices — has struggled to maintain a sustainable, concentrated supply of high-quality groceries, particularly in recent years as the Bay Area has only become increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible for working class families. Besides small, community-led sources like Bottoms Up Community Garden and City Slicker Farms, which supply fresh produce directly to the immediate area, the neighborhood doesn’t have many options. Mandela Foods Cooperative is a heralded beacon, providing the only walkable source of varietal produce for those who call the area home.
Within this complex landscape of food injustice, the West Oakland Farmers Market — which partners with Mandela to allow its vendors to distribute at the co-op in order to foster a mutually beneficial relationship — is hoping to shift the narrative.
At the same time, it’s necessary to look at any emerging venture in West Oakland with a certain degree of skepticism — to perhaps wonder if this is another attempt to gain footing in an increasingly gentrifiying sliver of land. After all, the farmers market is funded by a commercial real estate developer, srmERNST Development Partners, which is also in the process of building a new food hall nearby — an impressive space that will host local foodmakers as well. Joe Ernst, srmERNST’s founder, and the folks behind West Oakland Farmers Market all seem to have good intentions. They say they want to deliver a promising, collaborative space for the neighborhood’s residents. But the larger issue of community revitalization is layered and intersectional, and no single effort can resolve more than nearly a half-century of institutional neglect.
“What we know from mounting research over the past four to six years is that geographic access inequalities are actually a pretty poor explanation of dietary inequalities,” said Priya Fielding-Singh, author of How the Other Half Eats, in a past interview with KQED. In other words, food deserts are only a small part of the problem, and the addition of a single farmers market can only do so much to improve the way that people in West Oakland eat.
That said, the West Oakland Farmers Market does represent a tide of change and opportunity, with potential to become a generative outlet for both vendors and market-goers. In a recent San Francisco Chronicle interview, Ernst, the developer, said he wants to “have an impact on the area, not just build and lease.” What better way to make an impact than through good food?
Singh, who has over 10 years of experience as the “local forager” for Whole Foods and has built relationships with farmers around Northern California, seems to be the right man for the task, with his empathetic outlook and understanding of what’s at stake for small businesses and community members.
“Markets like these are incubators,” Singh says. “They’re designed to give people a way to start up, scale, grow and then go to broader markets.”
Under Singh’s energetic leadership, the new farmers market is taking a community-first approach to ensure that the space will remain accessible — and useful — to local buyers and sellers.
For instance, 80% of the vendors at the market are BIPOC and representative of the neighborhood, Singh tells me. It’s an intentional effort to provide a space for fledgling micro-businesses around the area. For many of the vendors, it’s one of the only markets they have a chance to sell at, allowing them to supplement their pop-up business while trying to expand sustainably.
One such vendor is Sánalo, a smoothie and snack company founded by Cristian and Grisela Sánalo, two Mexican American siblings with roots in Oakland and Hayward. The young venture is a part-time hustle for the Sánalos, who work full-time jobs and side gigs on weekdays, then set up on weekends to serve treats like toast and granola.
“Living in a major city, it can be difficult to find [a feeling of community],” says Cristian Sánalo. “But the culture [at West Oakland Farmers Market] is definitely inclined to feel like a community. They’re good people who want everyone to do their thing and be successful.”
Sánalo’s “Green Magic” smoothie is a rich blend of chia, dates, apple, kale, pineapple, celery and spinach. And the “Apapacho” (a hot beverage made from oats, kabocha squash, ginger and cinnamon) — whose Spanish name, derived from indigenous Nahuatl, roughly translates to “tender affection” — allows customers to tap into less commonly available flavors that reflect the Sánalos’ heritage.
If beverages aren’t your thing, there’s amazing sourdough from Rize Up Bakery, a Black-owned bakery from San Francisco that, according to founder Azikiwee Anderson, was “born as a way to channel energy into something healing during the social unrest caused by the murder of George Floyd.”
Looking for less carbs? Bassline Coffee — whose owner, Brad Katz, is involved in the local music industry as an audio-video engineer and first dipped into coffee-making during the pandemic — is pouring “a roast for every rhythm” and supplements his coffee company with his passion for mixtapes.
Don’t do caffeine? A few booths away you’ll come across Clandestina Cocina, a Berkeley-based Cuban eatery serving island-style soul food and classic favorites like ropa vieja (shredded steak in tomato sauce with bell peppers and onions) and the eternally-delicious Cubano sandwich. Havana-born chef Lilian Duran is happy to feed others, including Chari Parla, a Cuban American who used to work at the market.
“My first day at the market was such an amazing, dreamlike treat to look up from my booth and see Clandestina across the way,” says Parla, originally from Miami. “I’ve been living [in Oakland] for six years, and I can count on one hand how many Cuban people I’ve met. We don’t find each other often. For me to see, smell, taste and hear all of those Cuban elements is really just warming.”
That’s the sort of feeling that Singh hopes to facilitate, often surveying customers and nearby residents about what else they would like to see. The Sunday market has featured live music and, at one point, curated open mic poetry.
In many ways, the West Oakland Farmers Market doesn’t feel like most other farmers markets. Singh’s track record of investing in nascent, grassroots business is a strong focus, and his compassionate compass helps him navigate the market’s larger civic goals.
“Fernando [from Catalan Farm] is an organic farmer from Alba,” says Singh. “He teaches immigrant farmers how to grow organically. He’s the perfect example of how this market is about uplifting space to converse and support locally. It’s gonna take time to build, but we’re in it for the long haul. I’m having a blast, I love this community and these customers communing and supporting each other.”
With the aforementioned food hall already under construction in partnership with the developer, Ernst — who initially funded the West Oakland Farmers Market during its start-up phase before it became self-sufficient — Singh says Foragers Market hopes to continue to provide enriching economic opportunities for vendors and accessible, affordable and natural foods that meet customers wherever they’re at. It will require care, awareness and precise management — much like a field of crops, I imagine — but if done right, could yield a cornucopia of possibilities. And for many, it’s what they’ve been waiting for.
“It’s like being back home,” Johnson, the spice vendor who grew up in West Oakland, says.
West Oakland Farmers Market is open every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (on Peralta Street between 18th and 20th Streets). WIC/EBT accepted.
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