A Welcome Oasis in Oakland

Investing in food justice in West Oakland

When you invest in community, community invests in you.

Do you want to be a part of something radical? Community Foods Market, formerly known as People’s Grocery, is finally set to open in West Oakland this December. Long known as a “food desert,” West Oakland boasted 25,000 residents, 50 convenience (liquor) stores, and zero grocery stores. For the many people who haven’t been systematically barred from opportunity, the Bay Area is a foodie mecca, a haven for farm-to-table, healthy (or fancily unhealthy) fare. The fact that there are whole communities who don’t have access to fresh food — due to segregation which led to not only food deserts but food apartheid, an all too familiar story for black and brown communities around the United States— is a travesty. Community Foods Market is looking to change that, and we can support them by becoming a community investor. Community Foods Market is offering just that, with its second Direct Public Offering (DPO). With over 500 hundred investors already, this DPO is creating an opportunity for people to become investors and get invested in community. And West Oakland could use some community-centered investment.

Five numbers. A seemingly arbitrary set of five numbers can mean the difference of 15 years off of your life. Those numbers are your zip code, and for Black and Brown people in Oakland, specifically in West Oakland — your zip code is a determinant of health and life expectancy. Yet, what can one expect when you live in an area with air pollution rates at the highest in the Bay Area, ground polluted from lead and a Superfund site, and a general lack of infrastructure stemming from its history as a redlined neighborhood?

These environmental injustices issues brought activist and organizer Brahm Ahmadi to West Oakland. While organizing, Brahm began to hear what the people were saying: they wanted a grocery store. Residents were suffering from living in such a toxic area, but they were also suffering from more easily-avoided food-related illnesses, such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and heart failure.

A Superfund site in West Oakland, surrounded by activists, at Third Street and Mandela Parkway. This Superfund site has been under discussion for decades. (Times archives)

We responded to the community's feedback. It was a way to actually get more into proactive work around building things as opposed to a campaign to stop something.

After repeatedly hearing feedback from the community about the lack of fresh food options, Brahm and his co-organizers, Edwards and Leandra, decided to do something about it, they decided they would work to give the people what they want.  “We responded to the community’s feedback. It was a way to actually get more into proactive work around building things as opposed to a campaign to stop something.The need was clear, and hardly anyone else was working on creating food access at scale in West Oakland at the time.

In 2002, the founders decided to start with a small nonprofit, People’s Grocery, to understand the food landscape in West Oakland and address some immediate concerns around food access. People’s Grocery offered a suite of food-related programs like a mobile market (first in the country to do so!), grab boxes, cooking classes, urban agriculture initiatives and more. These programs addressed concerns while also creating employment and education opportunities for locals. In doing so, they did more than make food more accessible; they engaged with the residents and built trust. Through this work, the real foundation of the market was built: community.

They didn’t lose sight of their original goal, which was to open a grocery store. A market study, which they commissioned, of the West Oakland neighborhood, found that the amount of money leaving the area to buy groceries elsewhere was a whopping 58 million dollars. Each year, $58 million left the neighborhood to buy groceries. Despite the needed and innovative programs and services that nonprofits offer to West Oakland, and communities like West Oakland,  they cannot serve the needs of that many people. Even with combined efforts of similar nonprofits in the area, Brahm estimated that they were addressing less than 2% of the demand while tens of millions of dollars left the neighborhood.

Something had to change

It was time to go back to the original vision and original ask by the people: a market. Brahm left the nonprofit, with full support from the Board and funders, to spearhead the for-profit grocery store. He completed his MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School, and in 2012 took his business plan on the road to find investors. The idea of a market to serve the needs of a marginalized community won the hearts of many people and won Brahm many a pitch competition or similar accolade, but it didn’t open any wallets. The idea was loved, the business plan was solid, but investors wanted large and fast returns. That traditional type of return couldn’t be promised without losing the integrity of the market, a market intended to serve the needs of the community that lives there.

The idea that investing in a venture that addresses a realized community need, has impacts that reverberate throughout a community while offering a modest return is not seen as a good investment in the traditional investment mental model is almost mind-boggling.  Luckily, investments aren’t just left to the typical “Wall Street” types.

Bringing Investments to the Masses

When most people get invested in a business, it’s only an emotional investment. Rarely do people get the chance to invest their dollars in a neighborhood business, but a Direct Public Offering (DPO) levels the investment playing field, giving people an opportunity to invest in a local business. A DPO is essentially “securities-based crowdfunding,” allowing companies to sell securities to un-accredited investors (like me!) given that they can meet the $1,000 minimum (check out this article by Anne Field to learn more about DPOs). Within one year, Community Foods Market raised 1.2 million dollars. Investment is a two-way street: Community Foods Market invested in the community, and the community, in turn, invested in them.

They raised the capital, but the battle was not won – they had to find the right location: a location that was central in West Oakland, accessible by public transportation, and large enough to support a community grocery store.

Early rendering of Community Foods Market, which will feature a hot deli and a space for locals to gather together.

The Struggle to Break Ground

After literal years of searching, and dashed hopes on potential sites that led nowhere, morale was low. This project, in its 14th year at the time, felt like it was going nowhere. When hope was nearly lost, a location and a new community partner, the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, was found. Community Foods Market is set to open by this December at  3105 San Pablo Ave.

Throughout this process, Community Foods Market has been pressured to adopt the store plan to suit the changing demographics of Oakland (whiter and wealthier), but Community Foods is holding fast to its foundation: the community. The ongoing appreciation and support from the West Oakland community, and the mission of the market, is what kept Brahm motivated over the nearly two decades of working on this project.

Breaking ground. Mexica/Azteca wisdom keep Cuahtecmoc (Geno) Mendoza tloque nauaque calls in a blessing. Photo by Martin Backhauss

It has been sixteen years in the making, but Community Foods Market is almost here. And there’s still a chance to get involved, even if you aren’t an official Slow Money investor.  Slow Money principles are for everyone. This DPO, along with financial assistance to West Oakland residents who want to participate but don’t have the means (receiving up to $1,000 worth of stock for $100, funded by an anonymous foundation to allow low-income people to become shareholders) we can all do our part to “bring money down to earth.”

The market is on its way at 3105 San Pablo Ave.

About Community Foods Market

A market for the people. 

Community Foods Market is focused on building an inclusive Oakland: a grocery store that caters to its neighbors wants instead of market trends, a space for people to gather, and a business model that creates opportunities for all of its neighbors.

Visit the market this December at                                                    3105 San Pablo Ave. Oakland, CA 

Brahm Ahmadi, Founder of Community Foods Market.