What you’re probably thinking is that V Smoothe’s long ballyhooed Mandela Food Cooperative> has finally opened. Longtime readers of this blog will remember this, this, and this.
Well, Mandela Foods, a food cooperative funded by large payout from the Councilmember as well as the citizen driven West Oakland Project Area Committee (WOPAC) had its “ground-breaking ceremony.” I was not in town that particular day. No, I wasn’t off in Jamaica looking for cocoa beans while Oakland businesses were robbed and the city needed leadership. I was in Los Angeles, working on the largest and most successful fundraiser for an LGBT organization in the history of California.
From what I understand from neighbors who attended, the ground-breaking ceremony included breaking down walls in the continuing construction of a store that is still, one month later and years after it was promised, still not actually operating. Don’t get me wrong, I have wanted this store to open but I, personally, don’t need this store to open. Many neighbors absolutely do need a grocery store to open. The average income of homes in West Oakland and the Prescott neighborhood is below the poverty line. With such a limiting income, maintaining a working vehicle can be a challenge as well and the two work against each other.
For me, living above subsistence and, not transit dependent, I do not face food insecurity, I face inconvenience when I need an ingredient or its late at night and I just want an apple. It’s a drive to Emeryville Pack and Save. What many West Oaklanders face is real food insecurity.
The problem is exacerbated by the high proportion of transit-dependent residents and severely limited bus service in the area.
Thankfully, West Oakland has a new grocery store. In fact, it opened three months ago in the shadow of the political campaigns in West Oakland. La Esperanza opened on 8th Street, without fanfare or the enabling assistance of supposedly concerned government and has been slowly picking up customers. Unlike Mandela Foods, which has been held to almost no outcome standards despite the $300,000 tax payer financing and hand holding by almost every level of government, La Esperanza did it the old fashioned way. They did it themselves.
Erica and Gabriel Duran live in Prescott neighborhood, aka “The Lower Bottoms.” They started the planning for the store over a year ago. When I asked Senora Duran if she got any help from the city, “NO!” was a quick and loud reply. (This is the exact reaction I get from every single small business owner I talk to in the city of Oakland, but granted I am asking businesses below 580 and west of Lake Merritt.) The Durans spent six months of paperwork just trying to open. It took them another six months to be approved to allow EBT purchases, something that a majority of local residents depend on for food purchases. They have now been open for three months, and while business has been picking up, they are not sure of long term success. Why?
From a common sense perspective, as well as a food justice perspective, the Durans’ La Esperanza should be thriving. However, what we learn here is that access issues also come up against real time economic underpinnings. La Esperanza faces many of the same challenges most small businesses face in lasting their first year. First, the government regulation and then, the marketing.
The Durans lived the need for food everyday. They have been West Oakland residents for 12 years. Yet they are not involved in any of the existing neighborhood groups or organizations; the WOPAC, the Lower Bottoms Neighborhood Association, the Village Bottoms Association, the 10th & Wood Friday Night Meet Up groups. Instead they are part of an egregiously overlooked and growing segment of the West Oakland community – Latino immigrants.
There’s another post and many discussions to be had about the “browning of West Oakland” and its (and I believe intentionally) unspoken and neglected membership that sustains our progressive enclave. Nonetheless, the Durans created a grocery store on 8th street. As one might easily assume, the store sells a prominent amount of food oriented towards the Latin American diet. Plaintains! Someone finally sells plaintains in West Oakland, I can’t speak to the joy that personally brings me. There are also pasilla peppers, nopales (cactus) and avocados- oh, so fresh avocados. And then there are staples of any grocery store like toilet paper, detergent, you know the stuff that brings a household together. Not only are these foods culturally appropriate which is a prominent concern amongst food justice advocates, they are prominently displayed, even put in bins alongside the front façade. A real community grocery store!
And owned by West Oaklanders!
So where is the city leadership encouraging us to shop here, distributing information about it amongst the newsletters and so forth that we receive. Well maybe like all other pressing life and death issues, they are coming up with a plan for it. But I don’t think so and in the interim, this business has a very real chance of not making it while no one notices and complains that not enough has been done.
And a final note, La Esperanza sells no liquor or tobacco because as Erica Duran puts it best “there’s enough of that in every corner store in this neighborhood”.
Finally, someone, free from government assistance, undeterred by government regulations, takes that risk and roles the dice and opens up a store in West Oakland.
La Esperanza is locally owned and family owned and meeting the dietary needs of all West Oaklanders. Certainly we can all do our part to support it by shopping there and spreading the word about La Esperanza. West Oakland’s only locally owned grocery store is located at 16718th Street, near the West Oakland BART station.