People’s Grocery (West Oakland, CA) from Sustainable Revolution

Posted by – April 07, 2015
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Excerpt Society & Politics

by Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox

SustainableRevIn celebration of Earth Day, all month long we’ll be spotlighting authors whose work embodies and promotes the spirit of sustainability, conservation, and creating a more beautiful planet for us all. Check out Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox’s Sustainable Revolution, which beautifully profiles sustainable communities throughout the world. From The Greenhouse Project in Johannesburg to an L.A. eco-village, Sustainable Revolution is filled with inspirational examples from around the globe and shows us what we as communities can do now to ensure a brighter future. Below is an excerpt that profiles one of our local organizations, People’s Grocery in Oakland, CA.


People’s Grocery

Since 2003, People’s Grocery has sought to address West Oakland’s health and food security issues through a highly localized, on-the-ground transformation of the food system. Along with its main mission—to establish a supply of fresh foods from within the community—the organization strives to create jobs within the local food industry, support local food businesses, and train people in jobs for the “green” economy.

The People’s Grocery’s California Hotel Garden is located at a historic hotel in West Oakland that currently provides low-income, single-occupancy housing for about forty residents. In 2009 People’s Grocery took over the small garden that had been abandoned by residents since 2003 and turned it into full-fledged community garden.

Inner-city West Oakland: twenty-five thousand residents, fifty liquor stores, and zero grocery stores selling fresh produce. Yet in the early 1940s, this area was a thriving cultural hub and industrial center, driven by wartime prosperity. It was the West Coast headquarters for Marcus Garvey’s African American rights movement and filled with happening music venues playing jazz and the blues. Built in 1934, the California Hotel served the African American community during the last decades of the Jim Crow era, when musicians were not allowed to stay at the hotels where they were playing. It hosted such famous acts as Sam Cooke and Little Richard. Today the California Hotel is still famous in the neighborhood, a monument to the cultural hotspot that West Oakland once was.

After the Depression and World War II, the tides of urbanization and the war-based economy began shifting; today West Oakland is the poorest neighborhood in the Bay Area. Nearly 30 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, many suffering from increasing rates of malnutrition and chronic disease. West Oakland—deemed “food insecure” for decades—has been served for almost twenty years by a variety of food-justice organizations with missions to expand the availability of healthy food. The groups use creative and place-based strategies for providing resources to people with the highest need and the least access.

The California Hotel Garden harnesses the history of the building and the neighborhood as a vehicle for growing community. The food grown in the garden is available to any of the hotel or neighborhood residents. Every Friday the residents come down for distribution of eggs from the chickens. One of the residents is on staff and sells plants from the garden once a week at the local farmer’s market. Max Cadji, the garden’s coordinator, explains that community restoration is its true objective, leveraging food as a development strategy. Because many of the hotel’s residents are elders who lived during the hotel’s heyday, resurrecting this history is a way of engaging the community and connecting people to its vibrant past.

Art is an important part of the garden’s presence in the community. The mural that stands as a colorful backdrop to the green vegetable beds was conceived by a group of residents and is a tribute to the various facets and marginalized demographics of West Oakland’s past. The sides of the wooden vegetable beds are painted with quotes by famous minority activists such as Cesar Chavez and Marcus Garvey, reminding visitors of the neighborhood’s history of engagement in social justice. People’s Grocery offers a number of educational programs, including one in urban agriculture, food justice, and nutrition education that has become a training ground for West Oakland residents to become nutrition demonstrators at hospitals, schools, public events, and other community gatherings.

Expanding from gardening into education and outreach, People’s Grocery launched the Collards & Commerce Youth Program in the summer of 2003, including urban-gardening courses, community outreach, business classes, and cooking and nutrition workshops. In August of 2003, the founders and their first crew of youth launched what has become the flagship enterprise of the organization, the Mobile Market.

People’s Grocery now has a 2-acre farm, various outreach programs, and cooking classes. Another initiative has been the establishment of a network of urban food forests around the city of Oakland. The farm, the food forests, and the California Hotel Garden provide a source of fresh food for the organization’s Grub Box program, a highly successful program delivering weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables to participating families. But these gardens are more than just places for growing food; they are community centers serving as classrooms for People’s Grocery’s urban-agriculture educational programs.

Oakland has become an epicenter for urban homesteading—home- scale practices for increasing the self-reliance of city dwellers, including growing food, saving seeds, small animal husbandry, and the mastery of heirloom kitchen skills like canning, fermenting, and drying the harvest. Urban homesteading—permaculture-style— includes careful water, waste, and energy use, as well as expanded efforts toward community education and resilience. An exemplary project in this movement is K. Ruby Blume’s Institute of Urban Homesteading, a home-based folk school offering sixty to seventy-five classes per year in small-scale urban self-sufficiency, including raising goats, growing medicine, making cheese, and organic gardening in small urban spaces. It’s important to note that projects like the Institute of Urban Homesteading, which mostly serves Oakland’s white population, are preceded by more than twenty years of African American activism for food security, healthy communities, and job creation in the neighborhood. The creation of a healthy food system is a task that calls for numerous iterations of educational and inspirational projects to serve each demographic in the neighborhood.


Excerpted from Sustainable Revolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms, and Communities Worldwide by Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox. (c) 2014, North Atlantic Books. Reporting contributed by Kelly Egan and Rachel Kaplan.

Tags: Juliana Birnbaum Louis Fox
About the Author

Marina is the Marketing & Digital Programs Coordinator at North Atlantic Books. After living in New Orleans and Amsterdam, and exploring a couple of continents, she returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to work at NAB. She's passionate about astrology, nonfiction books, and sustainable living, as well as all things metaphysical.