Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Brahm Ahmadi, People's Grocery, Podcast Transcript

Today I am posting the transcript from my interview with Brahm Ahmadi, the Executive Director of People's Grocery.

You can hear the orginal podcast on Gcast, Odeo or iTunes.

If you are inspired by the interview and live in the Bay Area, People's Grocery is launching its 2-acre farm in Sunol this weekend and they are looking for volunteers. If you're interested contact Jason Uribe at 510-504-3664 or jason@peoplesgrocery.org.
Britt Bravo: Hi, welcome to the Big Vision Podcast, where we talk with individuals and organizations who are creating positive change. My name is Britt Bravo, and in today's show I will be talking with the co-founder and executive director of People's Grocery, Brahm Ahmadi. People's Grocery is a community-based, West Oakland non-profit, whose mission is to develop a self-reliant, socially just, and sustainable food system in West Oakland through community-based, youth-focused, and innovative social enterprises, urban agricultural projects, educational programs, and public policy initiatives that foster healthy, equitable, and ecological community development.
Brahm Ahmadi: People's Grocery is a community-based organization in West Oakland, California, which is a low-income inner city community of about 30, 000 residents, and People's Grocery was started by myself and two other residents in response to health, economic, and environmental challenges that we were seeing in the community, and that we wanted to do something about, or contribute solutions for. So, we created the organization, sort of, to really use food as a tool for social change that we could really leverage to address multiple issues. The primary need, obviously, in our community, West Oakland, is a lack of access to healthy and affordable foods. Out of 30,000 residents, we have one grocery store, and that's in contrast to over 40 liquor stores.
So the bulk of residents are relying on liquor stores for daily food purchases, and so this relates to what we consider to be an epidemic of diet-related, chronic diseases in the community: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and obesity are rampant and growing, and having pretty devastating effects in a lot of different ways. Heart disease is the number one killer in the community, and diabetes is number two, and if you combine all of the diet-related chronic diseases that are in the community, it makes up over half of the mortality rate. And that is shocking, and really points to the urgency of the issue. At the same time, these diseases also, we believe, relate to the overall health and vitality and productivity of the community. If you're not well, then you're not really going to be at your optimal ability to perform and contribute in an economic function. And you're going to be more costs to the community, as well. These are a lot more of the sort of peripheral aspects of this problem.
So we wanted to primarily address that issue: how can we pursue creative, innovative ideas for getting food out there that's affordable, that's local, that's fresh, and health-supportive, and then provide under that a foundation of education. Because it's one thing to create a point of access where people can get this food affordably and that is convenient. It's another to have the education to support that desire, to support that change, and so we're looking at long-term, sort of systemic and generational change, not necessarily just short-term fixes, and that takes pretty profound work and education to do.
And then, of course, we have a strong commitment to economic development, as well. Really seeing that the community needs a lot in the way of economic development. It's had a very high unemployment rate, a very low business ownership rate, and a very low home ownership rate, and so we believe that the opportunity to develop a food system, you know, the way that food is produced, how it is brought to us as consumers, and all of the economic transactions that are taking place along that chain of events, is an opportunity for a community like West Oakland to participate, have greater self-sufficiency in their food system, more sustainability environmentally, and also, to benefit economically. If we can begin to build that at a local base, we can begin to create jobs that are associated with that new structure that we create. So, that's sort of the grand vision of the organization, is to build a local food system that's founded on economic development, that's founded on a perspective of health, community health and personal health, and education.
Britt Bravo: Can you talk a little bit more about the specific programs?
Brahm Ahmadi: Sure. So, currently, People's Grocery is organized sort of into three broad program areas. One is our urban agriculture program, and within our urban agriculture program, we are operating five community gardens, actually two community gardens, and a school garden, and a garden at the YMCA. And they all have different functions and different purposes, and some of those are the same and some are different. The core aspect of our work there is to try to build a local capacity to increase local food production. Being able to supplement our nutritional intake at a local basis, and to be able to contribute towards localizing the food system to reduce our impact on global ways that food is being produced and transported and fuels being wasted and what not. And also, again, to create jobs in the process.
We also do a backyard garden assistance program, where we help residents start gardens. For every 400 square feet of land that you put towards gardening, a low-income family can save about $100, or produce rather, about $100 in value of produce. And for a lot of low-income families who are eating very little to even no produce at all on a weekly basis, that's a huge supplement of fresh produce from their backyard. So, we're doing that in partnership with City Slicker Farms, and we now have a new opportunity through our urban agricultural program, to partner with an organization called Sustainable Agriculture Education Center, to open a small farm down in Sunol, which is kind of South Bay, Fremont, Union City area. The idea there is a partnership where we will cultivate up to five acres of land, and have a real, sort of larger farm, an extension of our urban activity on a peri-urban basis, on the periphery of the urban area. And of course, bring the community out, employing young people to work on it, and really begin to build a relationship in a more systemic kind of way.
Another program area we have is community education, and we've put a lot of time and resources into that, and so we have, for example, a peer education program, where our youth staff go out and do peer presentations to other young people in the community about healthy food, about nutrition, about food security or food justice, and really try to have a conversation, and to deliver the message that you know, many of us adults are familiar with and whatnot, that may not be as relevant or as desired by young people. Our youth are working creatively to create other ways of communicating those messages in terms of workshops and presentations that are fun, engaging, and cool, and that's a very important aspect. Their job is, in the organization, to reposition the message of being healthy as something that's cool, and they're having a lot of progress with that.
We do an adult cooking class, as well. It's free for adults. It's a six-week course, and there's a pretty extensive waiting list for that; it's very popular. We do a garden nutrition program at our two school sites and at the YMCA site, which is basically for children, at these sites, teaching them about gardening and about nutrition. So usually half the kids are in the cooking class while the other half are in the garden, doing an activity, and they rotate every other week. And so, they're able to make connections between food being grown, harvested, all the experiences of that and understanding that from an ecological perspective, from a gardening perspective, and then making that link back to making it, and eating it, and there's a relationship that begins to happen there for the children.
We do a lot of work with teens in the summertime. We have a program called, "Collards and Commerce." It's a youth entrepreneurship and agriculture training for young people, trying to build their capacity as leaders in the community, with a specific focus on being entrepreneurs, using business as a solution both to their economic need, locally, but for their social needs as well. And then, of course, trying to, again, connect young people into taking leadership in being active leaders and advocates for sustainable food systems and food security. And many of the young people who go through that program will continue on with the organizations in various capacities in terms of jobs; all of the peer educators have come out of that, for example.
And then we do a summer camp program, called, "Food and Justice Camp." It's not just for West Oakland; it's for young people throughout the Bay Area. We partner with a handful of other food justice organizations, and have a camp for five days. We actually do a short camp in the winter as well. Basically, we cover all aspects of food in regards to how it's grown, who benefits from that, what the global food system looks like, what a local food system looks like, how do you build a local food system, what is food security, or food justice, what are the underpinning root causes of that, in terms of systemic inequalities, in terms of policy, in terms of lack of infrastructure, et cetera. So it's sort of a one-week, powerhouse, intensive, eye-opening experience to all of these issues. For the young people who go through our Collards and Commerce program, they actually go through that first, so it's sort of their on the ground boot camp training, and then they come into the summer program with a strong foundation, and they move on through the organization. So that's sort of our broad education work.
Our final program area is enterprise development. The flagship project there, and really for the entire organization, is called, "The Mobile Market," a grocery store on wheels that we built out of an old postal truck. We literally put shelving on it and turned it into a small grocery store. It has organic produce, it has packaged foods, bulk foods, frozen and refrigerated foods, all at discounted prices. It's a member-based program, so residents get about a twenty percent discount versus non-members, who pay roughly market rate, (which is actually not even bad for that). And it's all primarily youth run, as well, so it's another kind of laboratory for our young people to learn business skills. It really came from understanding that food security or food justice was not just an issue of not having enough places in the community to get healthy foods, but transportation as well, because a lot of residents don't have the privilege of a vehicle. Unfortunately, bus lines in our community tend to be very difficult, in terms of the number of transfers that have to be made, the costs for that. Oakland has changed its laws in the last few years where you have to pay per transfer. So that's not very feasible for a lot of low-income people to go usually a great distance to get to a quality store where they can afford good food, and then haul all that grocery back home. Especially for working-class people, you could be looking at a two, even three-hour round trip out of a day where you may have worked all day already.
So people wonder why a lot of residents are relying on liquor stores or even on fast-food restaurants. The realities is they are really challenged to squeeze it into their schedule, that is cost effective and a wise use of their time and energy. So we made it mobile, for that purpose, and the idea is to bring it to them, and so the Mobile Market travels around the community on a regular schedule and a route. It sets up at central locations and sells food to the community. And also educates. It was also meant to be a tool for education, for dialogue and attracting interest and curiosity in the community about, number one, "What is this crazy purple and orange truck?" you know, with the sound system and lettering all over it, and then number two, "Why are you doing this?" We have a lot of successful conversations with residents, and our experience is that the overwhelming majority want healthy food. You know, if you give them the choice, they'll make the choice, and that goes against a lot of stereotypes against low-income people that says they don't want healthy food, they won't pay for it, they can't afford it, they're not motivated for it. Those things tend to not be true. You have to build the right supports and motivations, and if you do that, they will be consistent in their lives to change.
We also run a number of bulk buying programs and discount selling programs. We are building a whole base of partnerships with food companies, both farmers, and manufactures and producers, particularly in the organic industry. We have been putting out a message of conscience to the organic industry that, "Look, you guys are producing healthy food, and sustainably doing it, however, it's only getting to a certain class of people." And we come from a perspective of equity, we come from a perspective that all people deserve the best quality of foods, we believe that organic is the best quality food, but we also see an elitism in the structure, in terms of the price premiums, and the access points that have been created for it.
We're making some progress. I think the real opportunity for success with these companies is when you can make an economic case behind it. So not just an appeal to conscience, necessarily, but really show the numbers are actually there. Low-income people in the United States spend over 85 billion dollars per year on groceries; they represent 45 percent of food retail in this country. And that is a virtually untapped market for these companies, who have niched themselves as premium-oriented. And you know, they will, sooner or later, saturate their current markets, and will have to look elsewhere to continue their growth. Some of them are starting to see that now.
So when we mix the message of social conscience and that this food needs to be available to all from a perspective of human rights, but secondly, it's a good business strategy for you, as a business, to do this. We're finding success. We're building a small portfolio of companies who are doing partnerships with us, giving us deals, working with us on promotions, and what not. We're doing a lot of, kind of, discount selling right now to really expose the community to the products; to get them familiar with the tastes, and flavors, and kinds of brands that these companies are developing.
And then of course, our grand enterprise component is our grocery store, and this really harkens back to the sort of foundation of the organization, and the origination of the name, People's Grocery, came from the desire to start a grocery store. Now, myself and the other two residents who started the organization, at that time, we had activist backgrounds, we didn't really know anything about business, we had no idea what it would take. But we wanted to do it. We saw that there was a need, and we saw that if you build this powerful business model that was this source, or hub, of economic organizing, and food systems organizing and education, it would be powerful. But, as we did more in-depth research, we found that it was really way beyond what we could do, and a lot more money than we would be able to access. So we said, "Let's back up and let's build towards that goal," and we've never given up the goal, and therefore didn't change our name, because we really want to emulate where we're heading.
But the idea is to start a cooperative grocery store and community wellness village. The idea there is to really take the idea of "grocery store" and turn it on its head, in terms of going beyond the fairly conventional and transactional relationship that a grocery store has become in our society. You know there was a time before when the grocer was a really important role in the community, and was very connected to health. A lot of them had almost a sort of prescriptive role, where you would come to the grocer, and you had an ailment of some kind, or whatever it was, and they had so much knowledge about all the products they had, and the seasonalities of those things, they could provide all this information. And that obviously has been lost. You go a typical grocery store in any community, regardless of class, and there's virtually no real quality interaction between you and that business. You are a shopper, and you're going to check out, pay money, and leave. The most customer service you'll get is being pointed to the aisle where you're looking for something, and even then, often times, the clerks don't even know anything about the product; they can't tell you anything more than what you would read off the label itself.
So we believe that the role of grocery has really been diminished, in a way that is taking away the contribution it could really make toward a more vital society. In this time of environmental challenges related to agricultural production on a global scale, we really think that the grocery needs to be reintroduced as a role for health and well being and for sustainable and local food systems. The grocery is really about a local character, being rooted in a place, being very familiar with localities, the climates, the specificities of seasons and whatnot. So that's our dream of a grocery store, and it also connects to this idea of what we're calling the Community Wellness Village, which is, again, to take the grocery store and put it at the center of personal and community health, that it's not just a transactional and peripheral aspect of a food buying need, but is central and supportive to health.
So the Community Wellness Village is really about partnering with other community partners who are doing things related to health and wellness in the community, and co-locating in a space, where, by being able to pick up traffic of the shoppers who are coming to the store, we and the partners can then create a whole extension of services to those shoppers as residents who are coming. Because that's one need we see a lot of, people working on health and wellness in the community, meeting is a way to really capture the synergy of a partnership that can create that traffic for them, as well as for any other business. And of course we want the grocery store to provide a lot of these wellness components as well. We want to have a cooking school, on site; we want to have a nutrition consultancy, on site. We are going to not call our staff, clerks and cashiers and stockers; they are going to be called wellness promoters, or "WelPros," and that again is going back to that job in the grocery, in the old days, and taking it beyond, which is to really to have an informed base of staff and worker owners, who are very proficient in knowing the products and being able to help the residents with basic things they're looking for. If someone comes in and has diabetes; for example, and the doctor has said, "You need to eat certain things," or maybe they haven't even visited a doctor yet, they just have diabetes, and are struggling with that, we would have staff who can help, and say, "These are appropriate products, these are some things we might suggest in terms of changing your lifestyle or eating habits."
With our peer education work, we've seen the success of that, empowering staff to really take on a role at being proficient and having a basic knowledge. So the long-term dream is that the grocery store is a real core component of health in the community, and at the same time, being a place for local food systems, supporting the dialogue around sustainability in food systems, localization of food systems, and economic development of food systems, as well.
Britt Bravo: What brought you, personally, to this work? What attracted you to it, and what is the path that brought you here?
Brahm Ahmadi: Well, I started People's Grocery primarily out of being in a transitional place in my own life, where I had been doing many years of activism, mostly on environmental justice issues, and also a lot of youth development work. And while the work was important, there were two aspects that were really missing for me. One was the ability to see success in the short term, and that can be very disheartening and very challenging for activists who are working on really big issues, that change may not happen in a short-term sense. So, one, I was craving to see more immediate results of the work, in a positive way that was able to keep my hope and inspiration going, and the motivation going. The second was that I was craving a lifestyle that was a little more grounded, that was a little bit more focused on basic needs, and that had a relationship to earth, to soil, to a lifestyle that was more in tune with the seasons and the cycles of nature, and growing food is probably the best way that any human being can do that.
So those were a couple of the personal goals for me, was I wanted to see short-term success, and when you grow food, that's a short-term success. You can see the harvest of your work, literally. And when you see a resident buy that item, or participate in a program, and be changed in some way from that, or to see a young person engaged in the organization, and not only gain meaningful employment to be able to become a leader and actually have skills, to contribute. Those are all really powerful successes that we can see regularly in this organization and really, I think, keep us going, in terms of our vision.
My life is definitely still hectic, as an Executive Director of this organization; there's a lot of administrative work. But, it is the best ED job that I can think of, in terms of the mix of what I do on a daily basis; I don't have a day that's the same. There's one day I'll be in the office, writing grants, and doing whatever HR-related stuff, or budgeting, or some kind of management role. The next day I could be out in the garden and be digging in the dirt, and planting stuff. Then the next day, I'm doing something with the business, and I love doing business, and so I'm developing a business model, or I'm on the Mobile Market, so there's this whole aspect of being in the warehouse, in doing shipping and receiving and stocking and all that. Then another day we have a group of kids out here, or a group of teenagers is visiting, and we'll do a workshop and a presentation and get them to do education work, and so there's a diversity and a variety that really overcomes any kind of monotony in the experience, and that is very fulfilling for me. It's challenging, because it can spread us out, and we are, like most non-profits, understaffed, but it's very fulfilling in that way.
Britt Bravo: I know you have some resources on your website, but I'm sure you get lots of phone calls and emails from people saying, "I love this model, I want to do this where I live." What are some resources for people who say they want to do something like this?
Brahm Ahmadi: Well, I think, if an individual's interest is particularly to do something that's related to food or health, one of the basic things to do first is to understand your local food system, and your local watershed; in general, to have a very strong sense of place, and to know everything that's involved in that, because when you can understand your food system, or your watershed, then you can begin to identify where the gaps are, where the problems are, and where the opportunities are, for partnership, or for placing yourself in a useful role. I think that that is often one thing that lacks in a lot of organization's approaches to all kinds of different social problems is not really looking at the big picture in terms of sort of systemic perspective. Really, being able to look at it in terms of relationships, in terms of broader geographic understandings, all the intricacies of those things, I think that for anybody who wants to do a project, to sort of do that basic homework and have a really strong foundation of understanding of the place, and the dynamics, and the needs, that will bring out a lot in terms of where to go, what direction to take.
We spent well over a year, as a small group, really doing that research, before we even founded the organization. We wanted to know everything, we wanted to know who was doing what, what were the effective strategies in terms of best practices that were out there, and what kind of niche could People's Grocery develop for itself? I think that it was really important to have done that, instead of just rushing out with a program right away, which we could have done, and we were partly compelled to, because we're reaction-oriented. But we also knew that this is a different kind of approach, this is a systems approach, and so we need to have that understanding.
And I think partnership is really foundational for community change to be comprehensive and long lasting, and to have buy-in from the community in a way that empowers residence, and ultimately can place them in positions of leadership. It has to start out with partnership from the beginning. That also contributes to a small startup organization being able to leverage the capacity of its partners to be more effective at the program. If you're a bootstrap startup, you're going to have a hard time doing it on your own, whatever it is, especially if it's very ambitions, something like creating a food system. It's no small task, and would be very presumptive to think that anyone could do that by themselves. So partnership is the foundation. And that really is what a food system is: it's a series of relationships, at one time being much more grounded and honorable relationships, and not just commodity and monetary relationships, but certainly, if we want to emulate that kind of society again, it does start with the relationships between organizations and between communities, and bridging from there. And then I think from there, opportunities really arise.
Britt Bravo: Thanks for listening to the Big Vision Podcast. For more information about People's Grocery, go to the People's Grocery website at peoplesgrocery.org, or to Brahm's blog at peoplesgrocery.org/brahm, Brahm is spelled "B-R-A-H-M". If you liked the opening music, it was an excerpt from Kenya Masala's, "Mango Delight." You can learn more about Kenya's music, and his work by going to sourceconsultinggroup.com. And finally, if you want more information about Big Vision Career and Project Consulting, you can check out my website at brittbravo.com. Thanks for listening!








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