Alshea Mitchell pedaled toward the Sav-Mor Liquors store in West Oakland, hauling a box filled with organic produce on the back of her bicycle. Mitchell, 20, was delivering the fruit and vegetables to the corner store so that, for the first time, alongside its shelves full of liquor and cigarettes and convenience foods, Sav-Mor would also be offering its customers fresh produce.
“I’m really excited about this delivery,” Mitchell said.
She cycled up Peralta Street. Outside the barred windows of the Sav-Mor, Mitchell locked up her bike. She carried the produce box into the store. She checked the invoice over the counter with the owner, Kaiyd Aljamal. Then, smiling with satisfaction, Mitchell carefully stocked the waiting empty shelf space with pesticide-free bananas, lemons, apples, oranges, peaches, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions.
With that, Aljamal’s Sav-Mor became the latest participant in the Healthy Neighborhood Stores Alliance (HNSA), a West Oakland effort to incorporate produce into corner stores that typically stock only liquor, canned goods, frozen and packaged foods, and a few household appliances.
To join HNSA, storeowners sign an agreement, designed by local groups, to offer nutritious produce for residents. The storeowners decide the quantity of fruits and vegetables they want in their store, and the program includes both a delivery system and marketing that takes place through nutrition education tabling events held in front of their businesses. In return, storeowners pay a $30 to $100-a-week fee, a charge that varies depending on how much produce they order.
Aljamal said he had considered bringing produce into his store even before HNSA advocates approached him, but that he had to clear out the display space first. “I do have some customers that are asking for some food like apples and bananas, especially in the morning,” Aljamal said.
The HNSA was lauched three years ago, by the West Oakland-based nonprofit Mandela Marketplace, as part of the Marketplace’s efforts to provide residents with more nutritious food options and to support the area’s small businesses. “We wanted to make it accessible for people in the community to buy food where they already go,” said Mariela Cedeño, Mandela Marketplace’s senior manager of social enterprise and communications. “We want a person to go into a liquor store and have the first thing they see be produce, and not chips or cigarettes or alcohol.”
In West Oakland, an area where 48 liquor stores and one grocery store serve about 25,000 people, corner stores provide the primary food outlet for many residents. Mandela Foods Cooperative, which opened in 2009 on 7th Street, is the neighborhood’s only real grocery store. Near the cooperative, a gas station has “Food” labeled on its marquee, and a 99 Cents Only Store offers wholesale groceries among its selection of household items. But liquor stores remain ubiquitous, with, in some cases, multiple corner stores occupying a single block.
“As a business, they’re easy to sustain because most of the stuff in there, all the processed food, has a very long shelf life,” said Monica Monterroso, a West Oakland resident and the youth team coordinator at Mandela Marketplace. “But for the community, it’s not sustaining our health.”
Sav-Mor is the fourth store in West Oakland to join the HNSA partnership. That’s fewer than 10 percent of the liquor stores in the community. The slow sign-up rate is the result of the low monetary profit gained from selling perishable products instead of alcohol. But every new participant is cause for excitement.
HNSA’s produce is delivered by members a group of local young people who call themselves West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered (WYSE). Mitchell, who made Sav-Mor’s inaugural delivery, joined WYSE in 2009. When she was attending West Oakland’s McClymonds High School, a classmate worked at Mandela Marketplace and told her it was hiring. “I was 16 and I needed a job,” Mitchell said. But she was also interested in nutrition, she said.
“A lot of my family members are just like, ‘I don’t like vegetables. I only eat corn and string beans,’” Mitchell said. “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 now lives in Hayward, but said many people in her family live in West Oakland and suffer from nutrition-related ailments. “It runs in my family, high blood pressure and heart disease and diabetes, because a lot of them don’t know about nutrition,” she said. “If I go to the store and buy a cantaloupe from a grocery store–it may be healthier, but most of the stuff that’s at a grocery store has pesticides in it, and they don’t know that.”
Mitchell said that when WYSE offers local residents free samples of the produce carried by HNSA partner stores, “a lot of people are shocked that organic food has a different taste than what they’re normally used to.”
James Carroll, a former West Oakland resident and a current WYSE member, began working with Mandela Marketplace in 2006, when he was a student at Oakland Unity High School. He recalls living in West Oakland as a teen and struggling to find nutritious food.
“When you live in West Oakland, you are forced to eat a certain way,” Carroll, 23, said. “Being around here, I would go to sleep and wake up—‘Man, I’m hungry. Where can I go as a youth to eat right now? There is nothing around here. All the restaurants are closed. I guess I’ll go get a bag of chips right quick. Grab a bottle of soda, whatever’s available.’”
Carroll said people’s eating habits could change, over time, if more nutritious options were offered in liquor stores. “What they are selling is harmful to people in the community,” Carroll said. “Yes, it is their choice to buy it, but if they had other things available it might just be a little more helpful.”
Most of the corner stores in West Oakland don’t sell produce at all, and those that do typically don’t offer pesticide-free options. HNSA partner stores are the exception.
At Bottles Liquor, a sign on its glass door reads, “We support community health pesticide free food family farms local business.” Facing the entrance, a garlanded case holds baskets containing limes, peaches, apples, bananas, onions, potatoes, garlic, and bell peppers. Bottles is an HNSA member.
Fahd Mohamed, whose family owns both Bottles Liquor and Millennium Market, said the two family businesses joined HNSA in 2009 to satisfy a few customers who asked for tomatoes and other produce. “Helping a couple of people is better than helping nobody,” Fahd said. “A lot of people don’t ask for things, but if they see it, they’ll buy it.”
In 2010, Bottles Liquor sold 2,500 pounds of produce through its HNSA partnership. The storeowners estimate it will surpass that amount this year, since more people know that they have produce available. HNSA distributes about 10,000 pounds of produce a year.
Fahd recommends that Mandela lower the price of its produce to match the rates of wholesale distributors, such as Jetro, where most liquor stores purchase food for their shelves. This would attract more businesses to its program, he said. “Mandela sells us potatoes for 30 cents apiece,” he said. But through Jetro or other distributors, he said, “I can buy a bag of potatoes for $1 and there’s ten of them.”
Mandela receives its produce from Earth’s Produce Distribution, a network it created to connect small farms to Oakland’s food outlets.
Prices for the produce will decrease once more corner stores order fruits and vegetable through HNSA, Monterroso said. In the meantime, she said, “it’s all about getting the word out and having the community understand that they can trust the produce in here, and they can trust these stores for other options besides liquor.”