Sean Sullivan: The Hope of West Oakland

In June 2008, I had the opportunity to blog about food security. The election happened. Despite its outcome, food insecurity in West Oakland persists. Until now and no, its not what you think.

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.

15 thoughts on “Sean Sullivan: The Hope of West Oakland

  1. Max Allstadt

    I’m gonna bike over after work and check it out.
    It’s great to hear that private initiative has created a grocery option in West Oakland.

    Next stop: Groceries in McClymonds or Hoover/Foster!

    And I still want to know what happened to our $300000 bucks.

  2. TheBoss

    I think it’s a little unfair to completely refuse to mention the 99 cents only store. Those guys have produce and canned goods available every day, all at very low prices. I realize you probably don’t like them because they aren’t locally owned and organic, but censoring them from your post is a bit disingenuous.

  3. Max Allstadt

    TheBoss:

    99cent is also restricted to 50 square feet of produce by an asinine planning commission decision, supported by backers of Mandela Foods. That’s not a lot of produce.

  4. David

    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”.

    That’s noble, perhaps, but if the business is at risk of failing, is it wise? I would guess that markups on liquor products are a lot higher than they are on “oh, so fresh avocados.” And liquor doesn’t have a shelf life of only a few days either. I can understand the reluctance to sell booze, especially in a neighborhood blighted by liquor stores, but I hope the Durans’ principled choices don’t hurt their chances of staying in business.

  5. Andy

    Every time I hear about the MFC-O and the $300k thrown away, my blood boils! Most people in Oakland have no idea about the kind of waste the City uses our tax $ for.

    Does La Esperanza sell Jarritos soda? My kids love the stuff, and we usually get it at Berkeley Bowl, but have been talking of looking for a Latino market that might sell in bigger (and cheaper) quantities. I live in the hills, but would drive down just to support this place – as the anti MFC-O.

  6. ora knowell

    for seven years i have been given away free back packs to families who lost a love one to gun violence. every year i invite the WOPACk I don’t ask for money just community support. children who have had a love one murdered or living in jail is not a major consern to our city government, espically if you are not taking tax payers dollars scammed from the measure y funds that were never designed to provent violence in the first place. i was donated over 300 back packs this year from ccorp and other people in the communities while city team wanted to take credit for. i here that some people were paid not to march with me for peace. We have a city Government that do not want to see communities working togather. They have bared the community fram even talking to the major they do not want the people voices heard and yet they will say the major don’t want to hear nothing comming from the community so he do not respond because he never get the message.

  7. HappyBiker

    Ora, stay on topic pls.

    Great to hear more shopping options in West Oak. I’ll stop by on my ride home from Emeryville.

    It’ll be a nice complement to my morning stop at Brown Sugar Kitchen :-)

  8. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Sean,

    Thanks so much for the update on food stores in West Oakland. I’ll have to bike over and check it out.

    In the meantime, I still can’t believe that MFC is open. Why have a grand opening if you’re not open???? WTF? Hmmm, reminds me of a quote I recently read that has been bouncing around over and over in my mind in relation to development:

    “I’ve always found,” Shabel said at one point, with her slight British accent, “that if you have a cocktail party before the project is completed, it usually spells trouble. Almost none of them end up going through.” I was just saying this about the Ellington project, but it seems to fit MFC as well…

  9. Sean Sullivan

    Max,

    Please take all the people you turned out for last night’s meeting and tell them there is a new, local place to get their goods.

    TheBoss,

    There was no intention to leave out the 99 cent store. However, while a popular stop, I would not agree that it meets all of the community’s needs. Some of this might be the result of the restrictions imposed by the Councilmember but I’m not to say that. I am to say that the concepts of comparative advantage would be best displayed by the 99 cents store, MFC and La Esperanza being opened all within in blocks of each other but we can’t count on MFC. The windows are now covered so dedicated bloggers such as you can’t take pictures of their “progress” anymore.

    JoannaontheGO,

    Bike on over! This store needs your support and tell your neighbors toos.
    Drive down 3rd and after it becomes Mandela Parkway make your next left on 8th and its about 5 short blocks down. The Jack London District community can get their and with less fuel and carbon emissions that Safeway, Trader Joe’s and with less lines as well.

  10. David Oertel

    I get my fruit and vegetables from People’s Grocery. They operate a small stand on Brockhurst on Tuesdays where you can buy a grocery bag of fresh organic fruit and vegetables for only $12. And they take EBT cards! The food is locally grown and a lot of the work is done by local teens. It seems to be a very cool model for feeding people. I don’t belong to People’s Grocery, but somebody should mention them in the context of this discussion. Their website is:
    http://www.peoplesgrocery.org/article.php/grubbox

  11. west oakland neighbor

    What’s the point of attacking Nancy for being on vacation while the council was on recess? Why should her off-duty activities be subject to your scrutiny and ridicule? I’d congratulate you on your successful fundraiser, but that’s your job (for now). Sounds like a cheap attempt at self-promotion in the names of LGBT people around the state.

    Why not celebrate a landmark in West Oakland without the cutting remarks?

  12. dto510

    While the Council was on recess, not all of the Councilmembers were on vacation, west oakland neighbor. What frustrates so many of Nancy Nadel’s constituents is that she hasn’t figured out what she can do to help her district beyond City Council votes, while other councilmembers and their staffs work even harder during the Council recess to deliver for their districts. It’s disappointing that you call Sean Sullivan’s work against Proposition 8 “self-promotion,” but I guess he does have a great deal of self-interest in equal rights for gays and lesbians.

  13. West Oakland Sentinel

    It seems at the last WOPAC general meeting, MFC was present long enough to say, they will be coming back asking for more money.

    When asked by WOPAC member how much, they replied “between $20,000 and $100,000″.

    No opening date was provided.

  14. river

    my 6yr old & i just moved to the area a coupla months ago (finally have our own spot after several years of psycho-housemates & homelessness) & have been excited & amazed to find out about city slicker farms (even more so as a lot of our neighbors didnt know much about it even though there’s a site less than a 10minute walk from us). not only do they offer sliding scale produce at their urban garden sites (where kids of all ages can see what food looks like before it’s packaged & help it grow) but the will actually come set up a garden for you to grow your own if you live in west oakland (they’ll build boxes, give you seeds & come out each season to help you figure out what to do) they’re having a big party this tomorrow (10/25) ~ hope all will come check it out!

    http://www.cityslickerfarms.org/

  15. Trinidad

    I think thats great what Esperanza did and as a latina I am very proud of them for there accomplishment. I think its unfair however that Sean Sullivan directly tries to put one community business against another. In all fairness MFC had to start from the ground up. gathering people in the community who are interested in becoming worker owners, training them for business managment of all levels, attaining sufficient space.
    I dont want to belittle Esperanza because anybody from West Oakland who can open a business in West Oakland deserves credit. But the difference between Esperanza and MFC is that Esperanza market benifits one family for business development where as MFC benifits more than one family in the community for business development. not to mention the fact that because the funding is tax payers money the city has strict conditions attached such as making sure that people working on the buildout are all West oakland businesses. Think of all the money and time it takes for this to happen

    trainging (for worker owners), architects (for build out of grocery store), general manager, worker owners, lease for space, build out, materials, labor, permits, shall I go on?

    Stop being an instigator and a hater Sean. Be more supportive. By you putting down MFC you are also putting down all the West Oakland community residents and business that put their heart and energy in it and truely do believe in it. People dont fall for this. I understand what efforts go behind starting up a coop from the ground up and I understand the difference of operation between a personal family business start up and a coop. especially when funding is being provided by the city. STOP INSTIGATING. I bet Sean hasnt even called MFC to hear theyre side of the story. If anybody is curiouse why dont they jst call MFC to find out whats going on and why it’s taking so long. People are so quick to attack but hesitant when it comes to finding the truth.