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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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Photo Essay:
From the Farm to the (Inner) City

See firsthand how Clean Greens is bringing the harvest to the tables of Seattle's Central District residents. Photos by Camille Sheppard Dohrn.

We’re also dealing with a lot of contamination in these areas: groundfill and Superfund sites. The cost of remediation is tremendous. These are significant costs, so when the larger operators are doing the math, it’s just not that profitable an opportunity.

We believe it can be done differently. We believe their business models are not adapted to thrive in these communities. We need smaller, more nimble models that are meant for dense urban areas. We have to redesign grocery stores altogether to act as community centers and public health hubs, not just retailers.

Reverend Jeffrey: And the stores we envision will be connected to community-based farms. These stores will help regenerate the whole idea of community-owned land.

Hillstrom: So it’s a comprehensive, transformative vision that has to overcome a lot of obstacles. Does the pressure you’re up against today feel the same as the forces your communities have faced in the past?

Reverend Jeffrey: 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, to even have an after-school program without corporate or government assistance.

When you go to the South and see these huge universities like Howard and Morehouse—these were built by African Americans through the wealth accumulated by businesses. They put that money together and built universities and churches that still exist as monuments to economic capacity.

We can’t do that anymore. We can’t build anything anymore without government help. And that is the thing that I think will drive the African-American community toward self-sufficiency, and will lead it into the movement to save the planet and the larger understanding of what this mega-mentality has done to the earth.

Outspent: A New Season for Community Ownership

Hillstrom: The wider food movement certainly shares this critique of the megasystem. When thinking about local alternatives, many might say, grow your own food or go to the farmers market. Why aren’t these viable options in your communities?

"You begin to change and localize the supply chain so that now you’ve got manufacturers who are also residents. Maybe they’re batching jerk sauce out of their kitchen. There’s a ripple effect of job creation."

Reverend Jeffrey: Inner-city people are not going to the farmers markets. It’s not because they’re not interested. Some of it is because of prices, but mostly it’s because they are not community-owned. 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.

So what we do at Clean Greens is have food stands that are run by neighborhood people. They’re in front of churches, and people know that they’re run by members of the community. In this way, we’re bringing food directly to the people in a way that gives them ownership, so they purchase the food. I think that’s the missing link. Inner-city people are tired of others creating things for them and expecting them to participate with no direct benefit.

Ahmadi: People are getting it more and more that we have to plug the leaks through which our own wealth is leaving the neighborhood. They want an economic opportunity to rebuild the fabric of their neighborhoods. They want local grocery stores that are deeply committed to serving their people and providing local living-wage jobs. They’re tired of going to the corporate grocery stores in other neighborhoods that don’t build them a tax base or create jobs for their children.

Hillstrom: Like most everything nowadays, it eventually comes back to the question of jobs. How does your basic distribution model eventually play out in the employment landscape?

"Now there’s a whole cohort of women out there doing demonstrations, convening residents in their living rooms, churches, and in front of corner stores, teaching them about the political context of food."

Ahmadi: Go back to the amount of spending power that is being siphoned out of these communities from the outspending. If you were able to capture that and put it back in, even at just the retail level you’ve created hundreds of local jobs. From there, you begin to change and localize the supply chain so that now you’ve got manufacturers who are also residents. Maybe they’re batching jerk sauce out of their kitchen, and now it’s a small business. There’s a ripple effect of job creation. Then you dive into the farming element. The raw ingredients and processing create another tier.

Reverend Jeffrey: And then you move into construction.

Ahmadi: And suddenly, you’ve created a demand for health and nutrition professionals. There are multiple pathways.

Reverend Jeffrey: That’s what we believe: It begins with food.

Empowerment to the People


Teenagers often go from fast-food fans to fired up about health in a matter of weeks, says Ahmadi.

Photo courtesy of People's Grocery.

Hillstrom: Realizing a vision like that would certainly change the opportunities for inner-city kids who struggle to find work. Both of your programs focus heavily on tapping into the neglected power of young people and the hope that blossoms out of that. What’s so special about youth?

Ahmadi: There are a lot of stereotypes (and until there’s an intervention, it’s largely true) that teenagers in this society are very much stimulated by processed food—the additives, stimulants, and marketing. Our experience is that with nutrition and job training, young people go (in a matter of weeks) from fast food to fired up about organic, local food. They want to talk to their friends about it, and take it home to their parents. They care about their futures, their families, their friends, and their neighborhoods. They want to be engaged leaders.

This is a tangible way to make a difference as a young person. It’s not some distant “when you grow up, then save the world.” You can help us build a garden today.

Reverend Jeffrey: It’s a mistake to think they don’t understand what’s going on and how trapped they are by the culture. I think that’s why many of them have opted out of the system. They feel hopeless. We have to show them ways they can create alternatives.

Hillstrom: And what about the rest of the community? Have you seen the conversation start to flourish?

Ahmadi: People are more on fire about this than we had even anticipated. One of our early programs was a cooking class, a very basic cooking class targeted to and taught by women of color. The class was as much about social interaction as it was about the food itself. These women were propelled by their desire to break out of certain patterns and get on a new path.


West Oakland women enjoy a cooking class put on by People's Grocery.

Photo courtesy of People's Grocery.

They got so excited about the community that was forming out of these classes that they kept coming back to take it two or three times. They wanted to deepen their understanding of their roles in how food is playing out in their community.

So we trained these women to become educators themselves. Now there’s a whole cohort of women out there doing demonstrations, convening residents in their living rooms, churches, and in front of corner stores, teaching them about the political context of food.

Things have been clicking over the last several decades, and it's been precipitated by the health problems. These women are really concerned about the well-being of the people they love.

Hillstrom: At the end of the day, we’re talking about real lives and real relationships. A lot of this is economic theory and systems-level thinking. So what keeps you inspired on a human level?

Reverend Jeffrey: It’s about reintroducing people to the basic things of life. When I see someone who’s been alienated from the earth and their own power, and they see that one plant grow, see things come from the ground to the city … That’s what we don’t see every day in the city: We don’t see the capacity to create. This is giving people the capacity to become creators.

Ahmadi: For me, it’s the simple acts of individuals doing something out of their own desire to make life better. These young people go to school, and they’re in the cafeteria and they’ve brought something healthy from home. They’re feeling kind of weird and nerdy, but they still do it. To me that’s a huge act of courage. No one asked them to do that. No one asked them to spread the message, and that’s why this is a movement. A movement is nothing but people trying to make a difference together. It’s not about fancy notions of authority or expertise at all.

Reverend Jeffrey: When I began to think about the whole process, I heard about the People’s Grocery truck in Oakland. That’s when I began to say, “Yeah, that’s the direction.”


"The Mobile Market": People's Grocery converted a postal truck into a grocery store that brings organic produce, bulk foods, and more to West Oakland residents at discounted prices.

Photo courtesy of People's Grocery.

I didn’t come to that until I heard about the truck. Just that one sentence: A vegetable truck going through the streets of Oakland. And that set the chain moving. I knew in that moment that this is it. Until then, I knew “it” was about food but I didn’t really understand what to do about it. And just coincidentally, someone once mentioned, “You know, I read this article about a vegetable truck in Oakland.” And bam.

Hillstrom: It clicked because you already understood the problems—the structural problems, the environmental problems, the racial and economic and political problems, all the way back to the Civil Rights era and beyond.

Reverend Jeffrey: Yes. But I didn’t know how to fix them. And there are other people out there like that, who will hear about things, and it will click.

That’s why this is a movement.

Christa Hillstrom Christa Hillstrom interviewed Reverend Robert Jeffrey and Brahm Ahmadi for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Christa is web managing editor at YES!

Get more information on Clean Greens and People's Grocery.

  • Food For Everyone:
    Imagine a food system that delivers fresh, organic food to everybody. Can't be done in a world of industrial food? We say it can, and it must, especially in these economic hard times. We bring together the best ideas for a new food system, tell the inspiring stories of people revolutionizing food production, and show how you too can join a growing local food movement. The Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine.
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    The problem isn't "competitiveness"—it's inequality.
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