An old Postal Service panel truck sits down the street from a store that specializes in selling cheap fortified beverages, and around the corner from a dusty creaky building where you can buy auto parts. It’s been a while since this relic has been in the employ of the United States government. The truck has been repainted a garish orange and purple and revamped to run on clean-burning, environmentally friendly biodiesel vegetable oil. Passersby are drawn to the strange, vivid vehicle, which sticks out in drab West Oakland like a tie-dyed shirt at a funeral. The truck looks like it belongs in Berkeley, Santa Cruz, or perhaps Mendocino. True to form, reggae music quietly wafts from its speakers. Neighborhood residents must surely be thinking: What the hell is this thing and what is it doing in front of my house?
It is a mobile grocery that carries a cargo of fruits and vegetables to West Oakland neighborhoods. The “People’s Grocery” is the brainchild of Malaika Edwards, Brahm Ahmadi, and Leander Sanders, West Oakland residents who despaired that, aside from liquor stores selling stale piroshkis and overpriced microwave bean burritos, there was no place in their neighborhood to buy fresh and economical food.
West Oakland has desperately needed a major supermarket since Safeway packed up and left more than a decade ago. Area residents are spending far too much money on food items, as demonstrated by a study that found that roughly half of the locals’ food-buying occurs in corner liquor stores or mom-and-pop groceries. The brochure for the People’s Grocery (which was printed, incidentally, on “100 percent post-consumer waste content paper using vegetable-based inks”) is packed with depressing statistics such as “Prices at liquor stores are 30-100 percent higher than at supermarkets.”
The People’s Grocery stocks foodstuffs that the health-conscious shopper might expect to find at the Berkeley Bowl rather than in the heart of Oakland’s flatlands. One section of the small truck is dedicated to bulk foods. Stacks of plastic bins contain rolled oats, exotic tamari-spiced nuts, and a good selection of beans and pasta. Brightly colored shelves hold a season’s selection of produce. There are a few stalks of late corn, a large bunch of translucent yellow-green grapes, garnet beets, lacy greens, speckled apples, red potatoes, and a lone Halloween pumpkin leaning next to a spaghetti squash. And, of course, the healthy snacks — you know, Luna bars, Newman’s Own cookies, and Barbara’s Natural Potato Chips.
Since the People’s Grocery staff has yet to figure out a permanent route, today the truck is parked right next to McClymonds High School on the corner of 26th and Myrtle. School hasn’t officially let out, but some students hang around the entrance, waiting for their friends to emerge from the heavy doors. A few kids walk past the truck, give it a quizzical look, and walk on. Inside, workers attired in trademark orange People’s Grocery T-shirts busy themselves stocking shelves and helping the few customers who have overcome their shyness enough to walk up the metal ramp and into the clean, tiny cabin.
Meanwhile, a woman is randomly driving her Subaru round and round the intersection, singing at the top of her lungs. A bunch of neighborhood guys hang out at the corner, laughing and shaking their heads at the singing lady, hey, what’s her trip anyway?
Finally, a trio of little girls, led by a big sister of about eight years old who wears a shirt emblazoned with the word “Princess,” treads up the ramp and asks the workers if they have any free juice. “No, we don’t have any free juice, but we do have ‘dollar-off’ coupons,” says one of the workers, in that quiet and kindly tone of voice usually reserved for talking to little kids. The girls buy individual boxes of juice and leave.
An elderly man soon walks by wearing layers of old clothes, a blanket draped around his neck like a mink stole. He’s carrying a full two-liter bottle of soda and stops dead in his tracks when he sees the truck.
“I like that wagon!” he says excitedly.
“We’re selling vegetables and fruit,” one of the workers explains.
“Hey, how much are those nuts?” the man asks, hungrily eyeing a generous bag of unshelled peanuts.
“Well, they’re usually two dollars, but we can give you this dollar-off coupon and then they’ll only be a dollar,” one of the employees says. The man’s face brightens and he hands over a single bill. “Oh, crazy,” he says, beaming. “God bless you.”
The next stop after McClymonds is the corner of 32nd and Linden. The truck parks across the street from a garbage-strewn yard patrolled by two bored-looking dogs. Upon arrival, one of the employees pulls out a sandwich board with the name People’s Grocery on it and places it on the sidewalk.
A man of about sixty comes out of the house when he sees the mobile grocery. He walks into the truck and the workers help with selecting produce. Potatoes are weighed, and each apple is carefully considered. Finally, he walks out with a large paper bag brimming with groceries. It’s like a miniature Raley’s, only there’s no booming microphone voice demanding a price check or a cleanup on aisle five.
Although there aren’t hordes of hennaed hipsters hankering for carrots and kale, the truck is certainly attracting attention. A stout middle-aged woman and two little girls dressed almost identically in crisp white dresses make their way into the truck. The little girls ponder the snack selection. “It’s nutritious, that’s why,” the mom snaps, answering an unheard question. After a few minutes, the shoppers descend the ramp, the girls clutching bags of natural cheese puffs and Hansen’s soda.
A man who looks like he hasn’t slept in at least a decade walks up to the truck and wants to know what’s going on.
“We’re selling fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers,” an employee says.
The man doesn’t look impressed. “Is it free?” he asks. When the worker says no, the man shakes his head in disgust and walks away.
People’s Grocery cofounder Malaika Edwards shows up. She looks younger than 28 and cautiously flashes a smile. Edwards says the idea of a mobile grocery store was partially stolen from, of all places, Coca-Cola. “Well, actually, they stole the idea of a mobile party from the hip-hop community,” she says. “People have these souped-up mobiles and they drive around the neighborhood. Then Coke started doing it where they’d go around to these neighborhoods with their product. We just stole the idea back and did it in a positive way.”
Edwards says the People’s Grocery receives no federal grants, but does receive donations from individuals and foundations. Although they get most of their produce from local farmers’ markets, some of the food is grown at five local gardens. “Eventually, we’d like to have a youth-run grocery store where we can promote local self-reliance and self-sufficiency,” she says.
Cofounder Brahm Ahmadi is in the passenger seat. Like Edwards, Ahmadi is also young, and looks to be the picture of health — a good advertisement for a traveling grocery store if ever there was one. Ahmadi says the grocery’s goal is to eventually open up a not-for-profit, member-controlled community market, somewhat like San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery, a much-beloved local collective.
Ahmadi envisions a multi-stakeholder grocery store that would be a community model for how to be both economically successful and socially conscious. Tenants would include Mo Betta Foods, an urban farm project partially comprised of students from local high schools. The grocery would also provide employment and training for Oakland youth and educational outreach.
“There was a housing project on Seventh and Mandela that was recently torn down,” Ahmadi says. “Although most of the space is going to be residential, some of the ground floor is going to be dedicated to retail space. The developers’ original intention was to put in a large big-box facility like Longs. So far, we have managed to hold them off,” he explains.
A motorized din almost drowns out the sound of Ahmadi’s voice as a dreadlocked boy whizzes by on a scooter.