The TFT Interview: Nikki Henderson of West Oakland’s People’s Grocery

The TFT Interview: Nikki Henderson of West Oakland's People's GroceryJust twenty miles south of Berkeley’s venerable Chez Panisse restaurant lies the community of West Oakland, where a full 60% of residents live below the poverty line. This eight square-mile area doesn’t have a single full-service grocery store—but what it does have are 50-plus liquor stores and a dozen or so fast food restaurants. Is it any wonder that rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are higher here than anywhere else in Oakland? Enter People’s Grocery, an eight-year old nonprofit that’s dedicated to changing these statistics. The organization’s dynamic new executive director, Nikki Henderson, has specific ideas on how to increase West Oaklanders’ access to local, fresh foods and advocate for living-wage jobs.

Henderson, 26, began her career working at Van Jones’ Green For All. But after Michelle Obama planted the White House kitchen garden last year, Henderson realized that food justice—ensuring that low-income folks have as much access to healthy fresh foods as everyone else—needed to be front and center in her life. People’s Grocery was the first organization in the country to have a mobile market (run on biofuel, no less); it also runs a subsidized CSA program for low-income families and trains teens in the community to lead health education workshops at a local hospital. I spoke to Henderson about her ambitious goals for the organization, the challenge of building a social movement in an impoverished neighborhood, and the importance of throwing parties.

Tell me a little bit about the central goals of People’s Grocery.

When it was founded in 2003, People’s Grocery hoped to build a local food system that would eventually feed into our own grocery store. That’s why we had the mobile market, the subsidized grub box [a weekly box of fresh produce from People's Grocery's gardens], and the training camps for youth. When Brahm (Ahmadi, one of the founders of People’s Grocery) created a separate for-profit entity to create the grocery store, we went through a process of redefining ourselves.

So now that Ahmadi is concentrating on opening the grocery store, what’s your focus these days?

Our goals are to create health through healthy food, support systems change in the food economy, and build a food justice movement.

Our programs are shifting to reflect these goals. We’re going to rely heavily on our partners and collaborators who do direct service work (such as providing the organic fruits and veggies for the grub box) and focus on leadership development and pushing for change in the larger system. We will continue to provide residents that live at the California Hotel, a low-income housing hotel, with fresh produce from our on-site gardens.

Last January, you got $10K from the Kellogg Foundation—what have you done with it?

It’s been spent in wonderful ways! Mostly, we’ve used it for our health and community development programs, such as our Health and Nutrition Demonstrations (run by West Oakland residents) and the Growing Justice Institute. The Growing Justice institute has gone through many iterations over the years. Now we can recruit residents to participate in a two-year series of workshops and programmatic skill-building to develop their own projects for West Oakland. All of our programming will funnel through them.

Nonprofits that focus on a particular issue often try to get their constituents to think of that issue first. But what’s real to people is whatever is relevant now—be it food, housing, education, or domestic violence. So if there’s a group that wants to organize around housing, they can and we’ll incorporate food every step of the way. We’ll show them how food can be a driver of social change in any arena.

Is there really no grocery store in West Oakland right now?

There are produce markets and 99-cent stores, and there actually is a small worker-owned cooperative called Mandela Food Cooperative. But People’s Community Market will be a grocery store that caters to both the social and health needs of West Oakland. It’s going to be 10,000 square feet.

Will People’s Grocery have a relationship with the Market?

The Growing Justice Institute will run the programming. The first phase of the Institute will start in March and by the time People’s Community Market opens in early 2012, we will have an active cohort of West Oakland residents ready to talk about health with market shoppers.

How are you going to recruit your Growing Justice leaders?

There’s an organization in Concord, California called Monument Futures and they did a lot of interviewing to find the folks in the neighborhood who people naturally went to for support—the community resources. These are the people who have a natural tendency to sustain neighborhood block clubs, baby-sitting clubs, and other volunteer actions. Community service tends to die in low-income neighborhoods but we’re trying to create an environment in which community service can thrive. We’ll provide these leaders with a small stipend.

What else is Peoples’ Grocery working on?

We have a partnership with Highland Hospital to offer them grub boxes and nutritional demos. We’ll go into the clinics and offer patients discounted grub boxes ($12 vs. $24 that middle-class folks pay) and talk to them about health and lifestyle changes.

Highland Hospital just got a grant to purchase grub boxes for these patients—so we’re excited about what the future holds.

How do you get on peoples’ radar?

We’ll be hosting community suppers these next few months. They’re called Peoples’ Kitchens—you cook all day and people come early to learn how to cook, discuss community issues, and get to know one another.

We also have started community celebrations. Last July we did a barbecue and 450 people showed up! We didn’t blast it out via e-mail—we just did door-to door-outreach and went to beauty salons and childcare centers. It was a great way to meet the community and we’re looking forward to doing it again.

How do you define food justice?

Healthy, culturally appropriate food is a right—not a privilege.

Hannah Wallace writes about food justice, integrative medicine, and travel. She is a frequent contributor to Whole Living (formerly Body + Soul), Portland Monthly, and T: Travel, and her articles and more


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