A full-service grocery store may finally come to the people of West Oakland. It looks like the People's Community Market, a long-anticipated mid-size retailer in West Oakland, may be a step closer to raising the capital it needs to break ground with the announcement today by First Lady Michelle Obama about a new food financing initiative designed to increase access to healthy, affordable food in underserved communities in this state.
That's the local take away from a White House press conference Wednesday, where FLOTUS announced that The California FreshWorks Fund, a $200 million public-private partnership loan fund and a project of The California Endowment, will help bring healthy grocers to food deserts or areas that lack a grocery store. The endowment, a private statewide health foundation established to expand access to affordable, quality health care for communities in need, has been joined by prominent investors on the project, including NCB FSB, Kaiser Permanente, and JP Morgan Chase.
The goal of the fund is to provide loans at or below market rates to encourage new stores in Californian food deserts and it is expected to create or retain some 6000 jobs in the state. The First Lady also announced commitments from large chain retailers, including Walgreens and Walmart, to open or expand 1,500 stores in food deserts around the country. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, 23.5 million Americans-- including 6.5 million children--live in low-income neigborhoods that lack stores likely to sell affordable and nutritious foods.
"The FreshWorks funding is so applicable to what we do and it's a real acknowledgement of the work we've done for nine years in the community to be invited to this event," said People's Grocery executive director Nikki Henderson, who was summoned to the White House for the announcement. Since 2002, People's Grocery has provided food education, training, and access to residents of West Oakland, including cooking classes, nutrition programs, urban agriculture instruction, a mobile grocery truck and a CSA delivery dubbed the "Grub Box."
The loans will be available to food retailers of all sizes and types. That includes independent stores such as People's Community Market, which is in talks with investors to raise $3 million, said Brahm Ahmadi, People's Grocery founder and the CEO of the People's Community Market, which was spun off from the group's educational arm last year. Current plans call for a 12,000-square-foot full-service, environmentally-friendly retail space serving low-income residents in an abandoned 1950s-era shopping center at the corner of West Grand and Market Street. West Oakland, which has some 30,000 residents has no full-service grocery. By comparison, the affluent Oakland enclave of Rockridge has one such store for every 4,333 people.
Henderson and Ahmadi are confident of securing significant assistance from the new initiative.
"FreshWorks is a good fit for our nonprofit, community-based model," added Henderson. "It's not enough to just locate a grocery store in an under-served community -- you have to engage people in a deep way about how to have a healthy community and that's what we do. This kind of funding can go a long way to solving both food access and food insecurity issues, which are not the same thing."
The organizations are well known to The California Endowment.
"We're very familiar with their operations and programs and the great work they do in their community," said Tina Castro, director of mission related investment for the endowment. "While they still need to go through the application process like everyone else this is just the kind of creative, innovative business approach we want to support."
Castro added that the Bay Area is a hot bed of ideas and activities to address food access issues and that other local organizations are also applying to FreshWorks.
Eliminating food deserts from the U.S. landscape in seven years is a major goal of the First Lady's Let's Move! campaign, which began after the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity identified improving access to healthy, affordable foods as one of the keys to ending childhood obesity within a generation.
Mrs. Obama's announcement closely follows widespread coverage of a large study on food deserts and food access published last week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. In the study of three cities, including Oakland, researchers collected data on the grocery shopping habits of more than 5,000 people for 15 years and concluded that greater supermarket availability wasn't generally related to the quality of dietary intake or the consumption of fruits and vegetables.
But as Henderson, food access and food security advocates, and even the senior author of the study have explained, plopping a supermarket or two in a neighborhood that has long gone without isn't going to change residents' eating habits overnight. Education, encouragement, outreach, and training are all vital to help people raised on a fast food or junk food diet make the switch to more healthful eating, she said.
Of course, it's tough to compete with fast-food joints, corner stores, and gas stations that peddle cheap fried food, sodas, and highly-processed sweets and snacks. But Ahmadi points out there's a misperception around demand for healthy food in historically overlooked urban areas.
"People who aren't familiar with West Oakland or its residents assume that people here aren't interested in eating good quality food," he said. "They think these residents just want to eat junk. But what we see and hear is that people do want healthy, affordable food choices like people have in middle-class or suburban communities. Just because there's a lack of fresh food doesn't mean there isn't demand."
While small, health-oriented stores are beginning to find homes in West Oakland, including Mandela Foods Cooperative, an owner-worker grocery, and the recently opened Produce Pro, there remains a thirst for more than one mid-size retailer to set up shop in the area before it can shake off its food desert designation.
Today's announcement may mean that West Oakland will feel a little less parched in the near future.
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