“Ready, Set, Grow” jobs forum spotlights employment in health and food industries

Nikki Henderson, the executive director of People's Grocery, addresses the crowd at

Nikki Henderson, the executive director of People's Grocery, addresses the crowd at "Ready, Set, Grow."

Discussions of food, community well being, and employment intersected in West Oakland on Wednesday at the city’s first “Ready, Set, Grow” event, a forum on jobs in sustainable food systems and health. Put on by the Alliance for Oakland’s Food Systems, which is headed up by People’s Grocery, the event brought together a who’s-who of Oakland’s non-profits that are hiring, and people looking for work to help them prepare for and find jobs.

The event was held at Lincoln Child Care Center on 14th Street in a vast, warehouse-like room. Vendors packed the space and visitors moved between them, picking up pamphlets from places like Oakland Food Policy Council, which studies Oakland’s food system and makes recommendations to the government on how to improve it. Planting Justice, a non-profit that does everything from plant gardens to teach cooking skills, was also on hand, as was the Oakland Private Industry Council, whose mission is to put Oaklanders to work. The forum was mostly targeted at young people in an effort to pique their interest in food justice issues early in life.

After listening to a series of speeches on food justice and economic development, youth participants broke up into smaller groups to attend workshops on topics like job readiness and sustainable food systems.

Nikki Henderson, the executive director of People’s Grocery, spoke at the event and described the alliance as an effort “to get really good, fresh food into the city of Oakland.” Henderson’s organization—which has opened a community market in West Oakland, introduced a CSA program to the area, and promoted urban farming and nutrition education—has been fighting to make sustainable food a community priority and income source for its employees for the past decade. Events like “Ready, Set, Grow,” she said, are a huge part of getting everyone in the community involved, and making sustainable food a lasting part of West Oakland’s economy.

The relationship between jobs and sustainable food is seen as a worthy cause by local politicians these days—Congresswoman Barbara Lee sent a representative to the event to make a statement, and Oakland’s District 3 city councilmember Nancy Nadel was also on hand. Nadel plugged several economic development projects that she’s backing in the district, including one that will train young people in industries like metalworking, where the pay is good and the current workforce is aging. She also drew attention to the accomplishments of several green food companies that call West Oakland home, like Numi Tea, Hodo Soy Beanery, and Revolution Food.

Other highlights of the presentation portion of the event were a spoken word piece from a member of the Hip-Hop Congress, a non-profit that specializes in youth music and culture, a presentation by a group of Oakland high school students who participate in CEO Youth, a program that builds entrepreneurial skills, and an inspirational speech by Ellouise Patton. Patton, the Special Projects Coordinator at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, had a pointed message for the young people in the room: “Put your video game console down. Get out of your house, get out of your armchair, get away from Facebook,” she commanded. “Your attitude has everything to do with your aptitude—set your sights on employment, food justice and education.”

Salvador Mateo, who graduated from Fremont High School in 2011, has already internalized her message. Sitting behind the Planting Justice table at the event, he talked about how he’s working with the organization to take dead space in his community and turn it into green, working gardens. The burgeoning non-profit employs young people like Mateo, who are just out of school, and also has a program offering work to newly released San Quentin inmates who have gone through the prison’s Insight Garden program, a course in hands-on gardening.

Mateo views sustainable food as a crucial part of a larger commitment to socio-economic equality and he’s proud to be a part of it. “I love doing this, and I love helping families become healthier and reduce their risk of diabetes,” he said. “It’s something that is beautiful, that creates jobs—jobs where you don’t have to sit behind a desk for 12 hours a day.”

Nikki Henderson said she’s encouraged by the community’s progress securing better access to healthy food options she’s looking forward to what is still to come. “Seeing all this strength and brain power in one room is really significant to me,” she said. “When People’s Grocery started ten years ago, we had a dream that there could be a network of businesses that provided fresh, healthy food affordably for anyone who wanted it, and we knew that food enterprise is a small part of a healthy community, and it needs partners, workers, and entrepreneurs, like you all. It needs everyone along the spectrum in order to work, so we’re looking forward to doing many more events like this to keep the momentum going.”

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