Groceries as Communities for Change

Photo: Kathy Geissler Best / SF

[via SF Gate]

One year after Occupy Oakland, we find that what seemed to have so much potential produced little to resolve our communities’ social and economic problems. Yet the Occupy Wall Street movement did illuminate a very important and growing sentiment: People want to have a meaningful role in creating greater social equality and economic resiliency in their communities.

What’s needed now is to connect that public sentiment with initiatives to create a long-term and sustainable plan that allows concerned citizens to take action beyond protest, and with the resources they have.

We are businessmen, but we are not Wall Street. We’re grocers. Our expertise is in providing good food to people, but we do much more than just stock and sell food. The essence of our work is to build community and provide an anchor for thriving neighborhoods.

 How? We incorporate into our daily work tested models and solutions for some of the most significant problems that our communities face. And we do it in partnership with our communities, enabling customers to play an active role.

Why is a grocery the locus for change? Because the need for food, when ignored, becomes a conflagration of other concerns, starting with health problems and ending in economic instability and violence. The very fabric of communities falls apart when the dinner table doesn’t anchor our families.

When Sam Mogannam took over Bi-Rite Market in the San Francisco’s Mission District in 1997, the neighborhood was a haven for drug dealers and pimps. His response: He took bars off the windows. Next, he replaced the processed and junk foods on his shelves with fresh and high-quality foods. People told him he was crazy. Today, Bi-Rite is touted as a national model for how neighborhood grocery stores can help transform communities.

What Bi-Rite offered was a way for the community to rebuild itself. And people responded. When Mogannam took over, that block of 18th street had less than 40 jobs; it now has more than 400.

Ahmadi is working on a start-up grocery business, called People’s Community Market, in the lower-income neighborhood of West Oakland that faces many of the same challenges seen in the Mission District 20 years ago. Although it has yet to open its doors to the public, People’s Community Market is using a local solution for citizen action – a grassroots community investment campaign. The campaign enables people of all economic backgrounds – including the 99 percent – to actively participate in their local economies by becoming shareholders in this business. This is not a donation. This is real investment, creating community ownership, in a business whose primary purpose is to make a positive impact on the well-being of the community, and bring its shareholders a modest return.

The project is an outgrowth of 10 years of community work by the People’s Grocery.

Our efforts offer a way for community members a way to engage, beyond protesting, in building concrete, local and sustainable solutions to social and economic problems. Annually, West Oakland residents spend $58 million on grocery purchases. Nearly 70 percent of that is spent outside the community, and thus is a lost opportunity to build strength from within.

 The time for protest has passed. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Let’s build the world we want – together. Business can be part of the solution.

Brahm Ahmadi is the founder and CEO of the new West Oakland business, People’s Community Market. Sam Mogannam plans to open his second market in San Francisco next year.