West Oakland

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented | Vernacular

Despite it’s location in the foodie haven of Nothern California’s Bay Area, West Oakland is no diner’s destination. Beyond fast food and liquor stores, it has long been difficult to purchase any food in the neighborhood at all. Public health researchers have found that, across the United States, low-income communities and communities of color often lack access to fresh food, and that this is associated with elevated rates of diet-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Indeed, in a joint study called Designed for Disease, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, and Policy Link found that California adults living in places where the ratio of fast food restaurants and convenience stores to grocery stores is high have a 23% higher prevalence of diabetes than those living in areas with greater access to fresh food. Additionally, a 2008 report by the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative found that the average West Oakland resident lives 10 years less than those living in nearby whiter and wealthier areas, and that food access is a significant factor in this disparity.

Health inequalities are not the only challenges this neighborhood faces. During the mid-19th century, the neighborhood provided working-class housing to a group of racially mixed industrial workers. However, when the New Deal’s Federal Housing Administration offered low-income loans for new housing, which were largely restricted to whites, many moved to the East Oakland Hills, leaving a predominantly black neighborhood. West Oakland then became the cultural center of Black Oakland, well-known for its blues clubs and soul food establishments, but development capital has fled in a process of what geographer Nathan McClintock calls demarcated devaluation.1 Later, the City of Oakland seized homes and businesses, including those on main thoroughfares, through the process of eminent domain in order to build highways, the BART train system, and the main Oakland post office. Hundreds of homes were raised, and residents were displaced. Businesses, including grocery stores, began to close. The neighborhood became known for drugs and violence.

Today, West Oakland has become an important space in the struggle for food justice. The two earliest food justice organizations—People’s Grocery and City Slicker Farms—began in the early 2000s. At the same time, longstanding environmental justice activists such as Mandela MarketPlace's Dana Harvey and promoters of black entrepreneurship like David Roach also began to work on issues of food access. Broadly, the thinking is that home food cultivation can help ameliorate food and health inequalities, providing access to fresh produce and healthy lifestyles. In addition, these groups work to support farmers of color, who have long faced discrimination at the hands of the USDA, and manage and promote food businesses in the hopes that they will supply good, green jobs for West Oakland residents. Many West Oakland food justice activists draw their inspiration from the Black Panthers Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren Program, which began in a West Oakland Church. This community-based approach to food provisioning meets a broader turn toward local and sustainable food systems in the contemporary food justice movement.

Alison Alkon

Published June 1, 2015

1. Nathan McClintock, “From Industrial Garden to Food Desert: Demarcated Devaluation in the Flatlands of Oakland, California,” in Alison Alkon and Julian Agyeman eds. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).