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Lentils and Justice for All

It all begins with food: How to restore the health and wealth of inner-city communities.
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Boy harvesting photo by Camille Sheppard Dohrn

A Seattle boy takes in the harvest at Clean Greens' farm in Washington.

Memphis, Tennessee, 1892: An African American-owned neighborhood grocery store was invaded by a mob of white men vowing to "eliminate" competition posed by black businessmen who were becoming "too independent." The three entrepreneurs— Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart—fought back and even shot an attacker, but were eventually overwhelmed. They were arrested, charged with conspiracy and provoking a riot, and subsequently jailed. Meanwhile, their business was looted and burned down.

Inflamed by sensational headlines that branded the three owners as "Negro desperadoes" harboring criminals in their store, a second white mob stormed the jail, captured the prisoners, and lynched them outside of the city. 

In an era of escalating racial tension, the three murdered men were guilty of prospering financially, competing with white businesses, and establishing a gathering space in which the black community could create wealth and independence. It was called the People's Grocery Company.

More than a hundred years later, on the other side of the country, Brahm Ahmadi and other activists were piecing together the connections between environmental justice, racial inequality, economic dependence, unemployment, and disease in their community of West Oakland, Calif. They traced long-term health problems to structural roadblocks encountered by impoverished inner-city neighborhoods nationwide: the inability to grow local businesses, the funneling of community wealth to other areas, and the resulting lack of jobs and access to healthy, affordable food.

"We are on track for 50 percent of Americans to have diabetes by 2020. When you zoom in to communities of color, that’s ground zero for this stuff."

Ahmadi found that West Oakland residents were spending as much as 20 percent of their food budgets on transportation alone, trying to get to a grocery store. The other option was to shop at local liquor or convenience stores. Ahmadi helped found People's Grocery in 2002, in honor of Memphis' original company, to change this and restore to the "food desert" the ideal of a healthy, responsible, community-owned grocery.

Eight-hundred miles north in Seattle, Reverend Robert Jeffrey, a longtime community activist and Civil Rights veteran, needed to hear just one sentence about how People's Grocery was solving the problem of food distribution in the inner city in order to conceive his own project, Clean Greens. Inspired by Ahmadi's work, Clean Greens now has its own farm and operates a CSA and affordable vegetable stands throughout the Central District, home to some of Seattle's poorest residents.

Today, the number of people in poverty is the highest it's been in 15 years. The 2010 census revealed that 44 million Americans now struggle below the poverty line. That's one in seven people, of whom the worst-affected groups are children and African Americans. Some of the most destructive symptoms of poverty are food-related health problems.

Food justice is about ensuring access to healthy, quality food for all people, no matter their economic position. Ahmadi and Reverend Jeffrey sat down with YES! to explain how a total reorientation of the food system can support community health and wealth—planting local businesses, creating jobs, and growing a public understanding about why our current paradigm fails us all, especially those in the most need.

A Wake-Up Call for Public Health

Christa Hillstrom: Brahm, you were already living in West Oakland when you were inspired to
Brahm Ahmadi photo

Brahm Ahmadi, co-founder of People's Grocery in West Oakland.

Photo courtesy of People's Grocery.

start People’s Grocery. As an environmental justice activist, you had been looking around the neighborhood at what was happening for a long time. What did you see?

Brahm Ahmadi: We were seeing tremendous health issues that stem from exposure to toxins, which are disproportionately located in these areas. We started to connect the dots to malnutrition.

West Oakland has the highest rate of child asthma in the Bay Area. This is obviously connected to the fact that these children have much lower levels of nutrition. In one sense food justice is only one pillar in the strategy of how to build healthy, resilient communities. I don’t think food is the panacea to all our social problems, but I think it’s a window.

Reverend Robert Jeffrey: I believe that food is the way to bring people into environmental understanding. You’re not only going to learn about food, but you’re going to learn who puts growth hormones in food and why, and what the chemical companies do to other things. It brings up the conversation, and you begin most conversations around the table: around the dinner table, around food. That’s the way to begin to bring excluded people into the conversation as well as to help them begin to grow their own basis of self-sufficiency.

Hillstrom: Food justice contains a spectrum of so many issues within it. What’s so powerful about food? Why does it provide such fertile common ground on which all of these movements can meet?

Ahmadi: It’s incredibly personal. What’s more personal than what you put into your mouth?

Reverend Jeffrey photo by Camille Sheppard Dohrn

Reverend Robert Jeffrey, executive director of Seattle's Clean Greens.

Photo by Camille Sheppard Dohrn.

Reverend Jeffrey: In the African-American community, food has become a liability because that’s what is killing people: High blood pressure and cholesterol, hypertension—these things are just norms in the inner-city communities and people are dying. I grew up in a church where 80 percent of people had diabetes, high blood pressure, or some form of heart disease. And that was back then.  They would talk about it like it’s a common cold.

Ahmadi: That public health crisis is becoming an awakening. It’s a catalyst because more and more families are connecting the dots between their food choices and the health problems in their families. In West Oakland, there’s really not a single family that is not impacted by chronic disease, especially diabetes. A recent CDC study said, based on the conditions in our entire society, we are on track for 50 percent of Americans to have diabetes by 2020. When you zoom in to communities of color, that’s ground zero for this stuff.

"These are different times. People now understand the failure of the megasystem. The basic thing we have to deal with is the absence of a capacity to economically do things for ourselves."

Hillstrom: There seems to be a fundamental problem of perception here when people look in from the outside. Many might assume that “poor people” choose to eat unhealthy food. It might surprise people to think of this as a justice issue.

Ahmadi: It’s the number one question I get everywhere I go: Do low-income people want healthy food? Don’t underestimate the power of a store that sells convenient food and the challenges faced by people working two jobs and not having time to cook.

Reverend Jeffrey: It’s a proximity issue. You choose to eat what is available to you. If that means corner stores that sell fried chicken and corn syrup, then that’s what you eat.

People want the best for their children and their grandchildren, but they’re not given the options. It’s the same question for everybody: not just, do African Americans want to eat healthy food? But, do they have opportunities to?

Voices in the (Food) Desert

Hillstrom: Inner cities are incredibly dense in population—much more so than suburbs. Don’t they have considerable purchasing power?

Ahmadi: The extraordinary thing is that the community wealth in the inner cities is as significant as in other communities. A lot of middle-class neighborhoods have 2-3 times the household income, but their populations are a third to a half. The math is simple.

In West Oakland, we assessed a $60 million market. There’s a very affluent neighborhood nearby with a $60 million market. It’s the same aggregate spending power!  The problem is that the business model that can serve that less dense place cannot serve a higher density place. You actually have parallel markets. They just look different.

Hillstrom: So if there’s a market, why the food desert?


Inner-city mothers are concerned, says Reverend Jeffrey, about the health of their children and communities.

Photo courtesy of People's Grocery.

Ahmadi: It goes back to the patterns of policy and urban planning that began to play out at the end of WWII, that segregated communities—relegated African Americans to designated zones with housing covenants that prevented them from buying certain homes, and blocked them from getting loans. And then you have the rise of the suburbs. New families coming home from the war wanted the new American dream. So there was a massive divestment and depopulation of middle-class families from inner-city areas. Then you had a sudden concentration of impoverishment. The grocery stores followed the money.

Reverend Jeffrey: I come from Tulsa, where in the early 1900s there was a thriving business center which was eventually burnt to the ground by white lynch mobs. We called it Black Wall Street, but that whole market system was destroyed: stores, churches, everything.

Those kinds of business infrastructures existed in every city prior to the middle 60s, and now they don’t. In the early 60s, there were a lot of African American-owned stores in the inner cities. But with the coming of integration, that dissolved. These stores were not able to keep up with the bigger ones. You had lawyers, doctors, pharmacies, everything—and it’s all gone. It’s all gone.

Ahmadi: With the rise of the suburbs came this idea that you could build massive supermarkets. Suburbs offered cheap land for big stores and parking lots. Retailers no longer wanted to be small, and dense urban areas can’t facilitate big stores. So they followed the trend in the industry to get bigger. The only place we can do that is in suburbs.

"The issue of community ownership, the idea that this is ours and that the money spent will circulate to help us, is a real issue."

Hillstrom: But there is such a thing as an urban supermarket. Not all city residents suffer from this lack of access. So why do inner cities?

Ahmadi: Larger food companies are not coming into these areas unless subsidized, and the reason for that is a misperception about the market potential and the nature of demand—what it is people want and what they’re willing to support and participate in. Publicly held corporations are driven by that primary mandate to maximize wealth for shareholders. That is the basis that they have to decide on when they’re looking at where to go next and what to invest in, and low-income neighborhoods have certain factors that cost more. You can’t build as big, so your operating costs per square foot will be higher. You do have problems with employee turnover. We have whole generations who have not had a chance to build their efficacy in the work force. If you hire them at a low-wage, menial job at a grocery store, they’re probably not going to last. You have challenges around theft and higher development costs—if you want to build a bigger store, you have to aggregate different parcels, which gets expensive.

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