First Lady, Food Deserts & New Fund for Hungry

by Sarah Henry on July 21, 2011 · 33 comments

in bay area bites,civil eats,comfort food,food businesses,food politics,food security

The Peoples Grocery Staff. Photo: Asual Aswad
The People’s Grocery Staff. Photo: Asual Aswad

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.

Food Desert Locator - Alameda county

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 less parched in the future.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites and excerpted on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

James Berk of Mandela Foods Brings Produce to his People
Urban Youth on Growing and Selling Good Food
Michelle Obama and Alice Waters: Let’s Do Breakfast

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Kerry July 21, 2011 at 2:04 pm

glad to see that there’s a good awareness of the need for education on food choices to continue along with this new possibility of access to markets.


Sarah Henry July 21, 2011 at 2:20 pm

it’s pretty clear from the research and anecdotal end that it’s simply not enough to place supermarkets in food deserts and expect folks to make healthy food choices.

education is equally important, as you note, kerry.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart July 22, 2011 at 7:45 am

Oh, boy … it’s been a long week. I kept reading that as “food desserts.” Ha! Food DESERTS, as in places where it’s hard to find / get good food.


Sarah Henry July 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Yes, Rox, plenty of people have challenges with the term food desert, and not just for the reason you describe.


Dianne Jacob July 22, 2011 at 7:49 am

Great reporting, Sarah.

West Oakland is already on the path. It’s East Oakland that’s so far below the radar. No one writes about it, no idea what’s going on there, other than a friend telling me that crime went down when her church started serving free weekly meals.


Sarah Henry July 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Thx, DJ. And thanks for the tip. I want to go talk with your friend in East Oakland.


Sippitysup July 25, 2011 at 8:44 am

This argument makes perfect sense to me, so I was surprised by a recent article in the LA Times suggesting that the link between healthier choices and grocery stores was not As clear as I assumed. GREG


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:24 am

Agreed, Greg, which is why I asked the food advocate folks about the studies the LAT story is based on. Nikki Henderson’s perspective makes sense to me too.


Living Large July 25, 2011 at 11:00 am

This is such great news amid all of the budget cut talks!


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:27 am

Any time funds are freed up to do good work — and feed people — are worth noting in my book.

With that in mind, and on a much smaller scale, there’s also this, just in for folks with awesome food ideas:


NoPotCoooking July 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

I think this is wonderful news. Another food desert that people are not talking about is thruway rest stops. All you can ever find is greasy fast food at these stops. You can get a salad from one of the restaurants if you’re lucky, but fresh fruit is nonexistant.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:27 am

Good point, NPC. The next healthy food frontier perhaps.


Alexandra July 25, 2011 at 11:46 am

I am really pleased to hear about this project, but I think the First Lady needs to also turn her attention to processed foods that contain high fructose corn syrup. Those should be cut from the diet, just as fresh foods should be added.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:30 am

It’s good, Sandy, that FLOTUS has folks like yourself always pushing for more improvements on the food front. Wonder what you’d make of The First Lady’s announcement today in response to McDonald’s fresh food for kids news:


MyKidsEatSquid July 25, 2011 at 11:55 am

It’ll be interesting to see if/how this idea spreads. We used to live outside of Detroit and there are literally NO grocery stores there, so very little access to fresh produce. There are some urban farm efforts, but certainly not anything that would amount to making a significant difference.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:34 am

Hey, MKES and anyone else who’s interested, the Healthy Corner Store Network is a good resource for people interested in opening such a store or turning around an existing convenience store in their area:


Jennifer Margulis July 25, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Wonderful about the store in West Oakland. I know that area well and I’m delighted to see a healthy grocery opening there.

Re food deserts. Part of the problem is also our diet in general. Not just dessert but what we eat for “food” is actually laden with sugar and unhealthy fats. But I am very glad to see that Michelle Obama is working hard like this. I think I’m beginning to like her MORE than her husband…


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:35 am

Good point, Jennifer, and one that folks like Nikki Henderson and her team at People’s Grocery try to address through education, exposure, and training.


Jane Boursaw July 25, 2011 at 5:50 pm

With the government in turmoil lately, nice to see they can still follow through with great ideas. Anything that brings healthy food to communities that wouldn’t otherwise have it seems like a great idea, in my book.


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:37 am

It remains to be seen, Jane, what kind of funding or business incentives the Feds pony up on this effort. But you’re right, it is some good financial news during bleak economic times.


Jeanine Barone July 25, 2011 at 5:54 pm

As a nutritionist, I very much see the connection between what’s being sold on grocery story shelves and the health of the community. I see so many neighborhoods where obesity, diabetes and hypertension are epidemic and the grocery stores typically are stocked with salty, grease-laden, sugary sweetened goods. There also needs to be something done about what’s stocked in vending machines. Why can’t there be healthier choices, such as yogurts and fruits?


Sarah Henry July 26, 2011 at 11:41 am

On a recent visit to corner stores in my neighborhood I was particularly struck by how many seniors were clearly shopping there for their food needs for a few days.

It is possible to make a satisfying, affordable, and nutritious dinner from fresh eggs, cheese, or meats, along with some salad vegetables and whole grains, if only these items were for sale in more of these places.


Sheryl July 26, 2011 at 5:28 pm

So nice to see money actually being made available instead of cut. I hope the idea of and access to fresh healthy food spreads; perhaps then we can begin to reduce our soaring health costs.


Sarah Henry July 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Agreed, Sheryl.


merr July 27, 2011 at 7:00 am

Another interesting story, Sarah. I hope you’re thinking about writing a book …


Sarah Henry July 30, 2011 at 4:59 pm



ruth pennebaker July 28, 2011 at 11:32 am

Agree with everyone else that it’s so great to read about good news for a change. I’m going to hold that thought while the debt ceiling impasse curdles my normal good humor.


Sarah Henry July 30, 2011 at 5:00 pm

With so much that’s wrong with our world (a lot of which I report on here and elsewhere) it is refreshing, Ruth, to pass on some potentially good news at home.


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