People’s Grocery: Food Empowerment in the Inner City

15 Jul, 2012

We’ve heard about the problem of inner-city food deserts, but a novel solution has been put in play by People’s Grocery of West Oakland, California. Rather than trying to implement yet another idea, the nonprofit organization is reaching out to like-minded local leaders and groups and leveraging their activities into a much larger, cohesive effort.

The mission of People’s Grocery is to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through the local food system. Over the last nine years, the group’s programs have included urban agriculture, nutrition education, and on-the-street methods such as food trucks and stands. But recently, under executive director Nikki Henderson, People’s Grocery has emphasized the direct empowerment of the citizenry and local leaders to bring about more significant changes.

“We have a leadership development program called the Growing Justice Institute,” Henderson told Organic Connections. “It came about because we were trying to figure out how to be more efficient; our programs had become very labor intensive and we needed to figure out a way to get more people to have access to our food and information.

“We actually ended up going back to some of the foundational tenets of community organizing, where if you talk to ten people and nine disagree with you, you focus on that one person. We realized that there were plenty of people in West Oakland who were already knowledgeable about healthy food. We just needed to find out who they were and support them to do their own projects and enterprises in a network. In that way more people could have access to information and services through a method that wasn’t one nonprofit trying to talk to 30,000 people.

“We now have six to ten new fellows [local activists or organizers] per year coming on board from West Oakland, who come up with their own ideas for food, health projects and enterprises, or who already have food projects and enterprises that they just want to have be more accessible. After a workshop series and a sequence of coaching sessions with us, we launch this project or enterprise in partnership with the fellow. Through the networks that they create, more people in West Oakland have access to a suite of services and enterprises, as opposed to just the one or two that we could do once a year.”

The 2011 fellows are engaging in projects such as cooking classes, a revenue-producing community garden, a raw food stand and meal service, a health and nutrition demonstrators’ program, and a food transportation resource service, which provides people living in low-income housing a transportation service to get back and forth to food pantries. More such programs are in store from the 2012 fellows who have recently come on board.

Henderson has observed a major advantage to empowering neighborhood citizens. “It can be a very fine line between being actually informational and patronizing,” she explained. “This is especially true when working with a community that’s been dealing with poverty. They have all kinds of nonprofits and social services trying to tell them every little thing to do with their lives, and that they’re not doing well. It can be very frustrating and fatiguing.

“Our Growing Justice Institute fellows are people who have been living in West Oakland, who know everybody. People don’t find them patronizing, even though they might just find them annoying. They know them. ‘This is that crazy person who’s been doing raw food forever; and Billy, can you please just shut up about the raw food?’ But they do it in a fun kind of way, and they will actually listen to him because it’s Billy and not me, whom they don’t know.”

In addition, People’s Grocery hosts regular events that attract hundreds of people from throughout the area. “In our West Oakland garden we have these big events once a quarter, and between a hundred and three hundred people come to get a free meal. There’s a bouncy house and all kinds of different activities for the kids, there’s a DJ with music, and they just get to hang out and party. Throughout the day we infuse little messages here and there about what they are eating, like ‘So this meal is actually a raw salad. Bet you didn’t know that was raw, huh?’ and ‘Nope, that’s actually not meat; it’s tofu. Have you ever eaten tofu before?’ All of these little things in fact start them thinking about it in a way that they didn’t even realize was education.

“We then get back in touch with all those people. We continue inviting them to the garden for weekly garden events, which are much smaller and more targeted. People come to the garden, harvest, cook together, and then eat and talk about whatever is on their minds. It’s not just a session where we do a bunch of nutrition education, but a session where we get to actually hear what’s going on in people’s lives. If we can connect food to some of those things, we do. But more than anything they see us as a source of support and a resource for them; and if we are able to slip in some food education, they are much more in a state to listen.”

Personal Motivation

It was shortly after finishing college that Henderson decided rehabilitation of our crippled food system was something she wanted to be part of. “Originally I was super-involved with climate change and making sure that the country could be energy efficient,” Henderson recalled. “When I was learning about sustainability as a holistic concept, food was always the thing that got my heart going, and I engaged in food-related projects on the side as an extracurricular activity. But then when Michelle Obama planted the White House garden, I knew that I really wanted to work on it full time; it seemed like there was going to be enough invested in it nationally to make it a possible career choice for me. I promptly quit my energy-efficiency job and moved over into the food world. When I applied to People’s Grocery I was lucky enough to get the position.

But there were even more personal reasons for Henderson’s choice of career. “I have a family in which my elders—my grandmother, great aunts and uncles—were just riddled with diabetes and diet-related disease. Not many of them are alive anymore. It was depressing to try to put together why so many of my family members were struggling so much healthwise, and in reality it was because of food.

“My mom was the first one who broke ranks and actually started eating healthy, because she didn’t want that to happen to her. She knew that her other family members were suffering from things that were completely preventable, so she just got herself together and she raised us to eat very healthy from day one. I grew up extremely conscious of the fact that what I put into my body is directly connected to my health and how I feel. Watching the rest of my extended family go through what they did made me feel like there needed to be a wider effort beyond just me and my immediate family to ensure that people like my aunts and uncles had an easier time of understanding the connection and being able to do something about it.”

To learn more about People’s Grocery and their many activities, visit

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  • Bruce Miller

    The poor the coloureds, becoming communal in nature while Capitalism drives the Uber Rich even higher. A very dangerous polarization in the “classless nation”?