Tragic but true: In parts of today’s urban America, you can buy all the booze you want, but good luck finding a banana, apple or potato. In West Oakland, there are 48 liquor stores and exactly one real grocery store, the worker-owned Mandela Foods Cooperative, for 25,000 residents. On the other side of the country, the streets near the school where I teach in Jersey City also offer ubiquitous liquor stores and at the most a mini-market with a few meager, wilted pieces of fruits tucked amid the packaged goods. Many of my students grew up in similar neighborhoods and it’s no wonder they’re eating chips and drinking soda for breakfast: That’s about all they can find besides cigarettes, candy and other plastic-wrapped processed foods.
As Oakland North reports, the Healthy Neighborhood Store Alliance (HNSA) was started by Mandela Marketplace (the same non-profit that formed West Oakland’s only grocery store, Mandela Foods) in order to make fresh produce available at more of the corner stores whose barred windows and doors can be found throughout West Oakland. Now at some stores, amid the liquor, canned goods, frozen and packaged foods, customers can find pesticide-free, organic bananas, lemons, apples, oranges, peaches, tomatoes, potatoes and onions.
20-year-old Alshea Mitchell started working at Mandela Marketplace four years ago, while still attending McClymonds High School. As she tells Oakland North, she was looking for a job but was also interested in nutrition:
A lot of my family members are just like, ‘I don’t like vegetables. I only eat corn and string beans.’ For me, I’m like, there’s more out there. And knowing what they are and how to cook them and what they’re used for and the nutrition value that comes from it—that’s why I started working here.
Mitchell notes that a number of her family members (all residents of West Oakland) have health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes and “don’t know about nutrition.” Now she is part of a group called West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered (WYSE) that delivers food for HNSA; she describes herself as “really excited” about delivering fresh produce (via bicycle) for the first time to Sav-Mor Liquors store.
Kaiyd Aljamal, Sav-Mor’s owner, noted that he had actually considered offering produce before joining HNSA as some customers had asked for food like apples and bananas. To join the program, Aljamal and the other owners who are participating in the program had to sign an agreement to offer fresh produce. For a $30 to $100-a-week fee (based on how much produce has been ordered), HNSA delivers fruits and vegetables and also markets them through “nutrition education tabling events” in front of the stores.
Another WYSE member, 23-year-old James Carroll, emphasized that living in West Oakland places constraints on what people can eat. He and Monica Monterroso, youth team coordinator at Mandela Marketplace, both note that the point of HNSA is to give West Oakland residents other options in nearby liquor stores. Emphasizing that what liquor stores sell is certainly “harmful to people in the community,” Carroll tells Oakland North that “if [people] had other things available it might just be a little more helpful.”
The program seems to be successful so far, says Oakland North. One store participating in HNSA, Bottles Liquor, sold 2,500 pounds of produce through its partnership in 2010. This year, store owners expect to sell even more, as the word has gotten out about the program.
It is easier to get a loan to open a liquor store than a supermarket, Patricia St. Onge from the Hope Collaborative says in an Oakland North story about the few food choices for people in the flatlands of the city. The median household income there is $32,000 and there’s only an average of one supermarket per 93,126 residents. The advantage of selling fresh produce in liquor stores is that they’re far more common in poor urban neighborhoods, where residents must rely on the bus or their own feet to get places.
Could selling fruits and vegetables be a way to help a fruit-and-vegetable rose to grow in a food desert?
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