When it opened its doors a decade ago, People’s Grocery was one of the only local food programs in West Oakland, a low-income neighborhood full of liquor stores and devoid of fresh produce. Today, it serves a diverse community through weekly fruit and veggie box sales, weekly neighborhood parties in the rooftop garden, and a fellowship program that leads participants to their dream jobs in food-related health and wellness organizations.
The nonprofit’s executive director, 28-year-old Nikki Henderson, is a food justice pioneer, fighting for the right of all communities to have access to fresh, healthy food. Spirituality & Health spoke with Henderson about building her organization in a food desert, creating an urban garden, and reimagining the “good old boy network” for low-income people of color.
How has the area around People’s Grocery evolved since it first opened?
In the last 10 years, West Oakland has gone through an interesting transformation. There was a convergence of public works money coming into the community, so Bay Area Rapid Transit stations were redeveloped. Some low-income housing was built, beautiful new developments that are only accessible if you have restricted income. It’s all brought different types of people and more food programs: City Slicker Farms, O.B.U.G.S. [Oakland Based Urban Garden Centers], Mo’ Better Food Market, and the Mandela Food Cooperative. [All of this has] turned West Oakland into a pretty good model for what a miniature local food system looks like in a low-income community-generated space.
I hear you have an impressive rooftop garden. What does it look like?
It isn’t a traditional tidy urban garden. The whole plan was to create a very bio-intensive space so that people would have examples about how to do every aspect of urban gardening. So there’s this huge greenhouse. There’s a chicken coop with chickens. There are bees. There are aquaponics. There are raised beds. There’s vermiculture composting. There’s seed saving. There are all these different things in a quarter-of-an-acre space.
But it’s also an extension of your other community outreach work. Tell me about your new fellowship program. When people in the community are already working on or have an interesting idea related to food enterprise, they can come to us through a two-year fellowship program where we support them with training and education. Then we co-launch a project—their idea—together. People’s Grocery can leverage our social capital for the fellows. We basically try to replicate the good-old-boy network, only for low-income people of color.
What’s your most surprising success story?
We had a Good Jobs, Healthy Communities forum with [the labor union] United Food and Commercial Workers, and through that, one of our fellows got a full-time job at Revolution Foods [which produces healthy, fresh meals for school lunch programs], one of her dream jobs. She was homeless before that. She entered our program to figure out how she could make a living, and she ended up making a living, so now she doesn’t have extra time to do a cooking class. She stopped the program, but that was the best thing that could have happened.