"PRRAC Researcher Report: Food Justice Activism in West Oakland, California"January/February 2008 issue of Poverty & Race
It’s virtually impossible to buy fruits and vegetables in most inner-city areas, particularly in the neighborhoods populated by low-income people and people of color. This simple statement, confirmed by a wealth of social science and public health research, has given rise to a social movement aimed at providing food security—access to healthy, culturally appropriate food at all times through non-emergency sources—to communities that otherwise lack it. Activists in this movement use the phrase food justice to indicate that food security should be a human right.
West Oakland could be the poster child for food insecurity. Food insecurity exists disproportionately among low-income people of color. Eighty percent of West Oakland’s nearly 20,000 residents self-identify as African-American or Latino/a, and 61% of households earn incomes below $30,000 per year. Only 14% of residents have completed a bachelors degree, compared to 35% for surrounding Alameda County overall. Thirty-four percent of residents age 25 and over did not finish high school.
While the popular press often casts overweight, obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes as the consequences of lax discipline and poor personal choices, food-justice activists understand the links between poverty and food availability. Like predominantly African-American neighborhoods in other American cities, healthy food is hard to come by in West Oakland, while unhealthy choices abound. West Oakland contains only one grocery store to feed its 20,000 residents. This grocery store, according to one food justice activist, is overpriced and unsanitary. On the other hand, West Oakland has over 40 liquor stores, more than 1.5 times the city’s average. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control produces an ideal ratio of liquor stores to population; West Oakland is 28 liquor stores above that ratio, more than twice that of any other Oakland neighborhood. Liquor stores sell candy, fast food and other options likely to lead to poor health. Because of the scant access to fresh food, activists have labeled West Oakland and other neighborhoods like it food deserts.
Amidst this bleak landscape, food justice activists have developed a variety of programs aimed at empowering West Oakland residents to improve their health as well as their economic situations. These projects have included school and community gardens, a farmers market, a cooperatively-owned grocery store, a bulk buying club and a backyard garden project. Many of these projects encourage West Oakland residents to become more self-sufficient by producing a portion of their own foods, or to become producers and distributors, as well as consumers, of this newly bountiful produce.
Racial empowerment is a key theme in many of these projects and a strategy through which they particularly target African Americans. While some programs espouse racially neutral rhetoric through slogans such as “healthy food for all,” others develop language that incorporates traditionally African-American food practices. For example, one local non-profit calls its youth program “collards ‘n commerce,” featuring a vegetable common to African-American cuisine. Another organization is named Mo’ Better Foods, which alludes not only to Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” but to African-American speech patterns more generally.
But despite the best efforts of food justice activists, many of these projects do not seem to be reaching their intended audiences. The farmers market and community gardens are largely populated by middle-class whites who have recently moved to the neighborhood. Wary that food justice projects could become another engine of gentrification, the Environmental Justice Institute partnered with Alison Hope Alkon, a Univ. of California-Davis researcher studying the farmers market mentioned above, aided by a PRRAC research grant, to try to better understand how food justice activists could connect with food-insecure residents.
While activists knew anecdotally that their projects weren’t reaching their intended audience, the first step in our research was to better understand who was making use of food justice programs and why. Our research strategy consisted of three components:
Our survey was distributed using a sample of convenience—meaning we approached as many customers as possible and asked them to fill out our brief questionnaire.
Interviews allowed for a deeper understanding of those who had made commitments to food justice projects. They ranged from 20-minute discussions during market hours to several hour-long conversations at peoples’ farms, homes and local cafes. We then transcribed all the interviews and searched our data for patterns. Those we interviewed were paid for their time.
Focus groups enhanced our understandings of the food shopping and eating practices of food-insecure neighborhood residents in the hopes that food justice projects could tap into their already existing routines. We hired a West Oakland resident to pass out flyers, and the response was overwhelming. Five focus groups were held, lasting approximately one-and-a-half hours each. We videotaped these discussions so we could later take notes on what was said and who said it.
Taken together, these reports can tell us much about why West Oakland food justice programs are not garnering participation from food-insecure residents. Many of our conclusions many be applicable to those working to bring healthy food to low-income people in other locations.
Exploring the Disconnect
Survey data provided an important understanding of the demographics of food justice supporters, as well as their motivations for attending. They revealed that although farmers market customers were more highly educated, wealthier and more racially diverse than typical West Oakland residents, both black and white customers espoused support for black farmers as a primary rationale for shopping at the farmers market. Interviews provided a more in-depth examination of what the market’s most dedicated supporters—its managers, vendors and regular customers—seek to accomplish through market participation. These interviews highlighted a variety of community development, health, economic and racial empowerment goals. Lastly, focus groups yielded a perspective on the lived realities of food-insecure people. While food justice advocates tend to assume that geographic barriers prevent food desert residents from accessing proper nutrition, our focus groups demonstrated that the most food-insecure residents regularly purchase items from supermarkets because they value price over convenience. Taken together, these reports can tell us much about why West Oakland food justice programs are not garnering participation from food-insecure residents.
Members of both demographic groups that frequent the market—young, white, low-income but highly educated recent residents and middle-class blacks from outside the neighborhood—maintain associations with leftist counterculture—something likely true of food justice movement participants. Many West Oakland customers are involved in some kind of political or voluntary activity, most commonly oriented towards social justice. Indeed, the very forms through which the food justice movement works—farmers markets, community gardens and the like—have their roots in the back-to-the-land movement and its urban counterpart. In a place like adjacent Berkeley, local food systems overcome their hippie connotations through the association between fresh organic food and elite gourmet tastes. While this is problematic in a number of ways, it does bring local organic food further into “the mainstream.”
While much of West Oakland food justice activism re-works the imagery associated with local organic food by merging it with racial empowerment, it remains characterized by a counter–cultural ethic. While food-insecure local residents have heard of many of the West Oakland food justice projects, they continue to believe that local organic food is not something for them. Activists need to provide a framework through which food-insecure people can read themselves into participation in local food systems.
Food justice activists rarely acknowledge the difficulty, and indeed the contradiction, in trying to employ strategies based in the “free” market —the exchange of goods for money— in order to reach low-income people. Perhaps the most important result from the focus groups was the discovery that the majority of participants do not obtain the majority of their food from expensive corner stores. Rather, they leave the neighborhood to shop at a chain grocery store. Again, they do this because price, rather than convenience, is the primary factor informing shopping choices. While food made available by food justice programs is much less expensive than similar food from health food stores or other nearby farmers markets, it is still more expensive than processed food from grocery stores. This conclusion is anecdotally supported by the results of coupon programs employed by various food justice organizations. On several occasions, organizations have offered coupons as incentives to try to draw in local residents, sometimes even distributing them to children in school to share with their families. Customers tend to use the coupons, but rarely return to spend additional money.
This conclusion also points to the difficulty in doing economic empowerment through food justice programs. Because few food-insecure residents make use of the programs, little revenue is generated from them. This lack of revenue makes it difficult to sustain producers, both farmers and home-based businesspeople, who supply many of the goods on which food justice programs depend. The mismatch between economic strategies and low-income communities may also explain why the majority of food justice employees match the demographics of farmers market attendees. In order to participate, community service rather than money must be one’s primary motivation. This choice is more available to those with greater means.
Our report has been made available to the staff of many West Oakland food justice organizations who have revised their strategies in order to better meet the needs of West Oakland’s food-insecure residents. Mandela Marketplace, a worker-owned grocery store supported by the Environmental Justice Institute slated to open next year, has decided to feature a greater variety of goods, as well as free food giveaways, to entice new customers. Oakland Food Connection has focused its efforts on school lunches, in part because cooking at that scale allows for the meals to be cheaper than nearby fast food. After learning from our focus groups that food-insecure residents make extensive use of local meal giveaways, People’s Grocery began donating their locally grown organic produce to several nearby and highly utilized food distribution programs working to improve the health quality of the food that residents already eat. In addition, their new Community Supported Agriculture program will distribute boxes of locally grown produce that will be given to local residents for six months at no charge. Through these means, food justice activists hope to whet the appetites of local residents, encouraging them to participate in budding local food systems. As these local food systems grow, they will also provide economic opportunities.
For a copy of the full report, contact Alison Alkon at email@example.com.
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