Keeping Local Culture at the Heart of Local Development in Oakland

People’s Grocery partnered with local residents, community groups, and health organizations to bring a neighborhood food market and gathering space to an Oakland food desert.

Themes: Prioritize Equity

By Nikki Silvestri

I grew up in Los Angeles, California, in an African American household filled with music, good food, and stories of struggle. I’m the child of entertainers: my great-grandfather was in a minstrel show in the South during the 1800s (a black man in black face), and my grandfather was a member of the Delta Rhythm Boys blues quartet.  (You know the version of “Dry Bones” in the movie Rain Man?  That’s him).

I’m the child of foodies who were deeply committed to ensuring that I had healthy food in my body. I grew up with steady meals of steamed vegetables, brown rice, and a baked or grilled meat option, and because Los Angeles is an ethnically diverse kind of place, we also regularly ate tacos, burritos, Thai BBQ, sushi, Chinese food, and many other types of cuisine.

Nikki Silvestri focuses on food and climate justice in Oakland, CA, and beyond.

Nikki Silvestri focuses on food and climate justice in Oakland, CA, and beyond.

I’m the child of social activist parents who directed a Foster Family Agency for most of my life, and I grew up with several foster brothers. I saw ways in which economic insecurity could devastate families, children, and entire communities, and I could feel how poverty was the root of many of these families’ issues.

Thanks to my family and my heritage, I’m a singer, lover of good food and deeply committed to social change. I feel fragmented if these and other pieces of myself aren’t represented in my day-to-day work, and I’ve struggled to find a home for my divergent passions. In graduate school, as I tried to determine my career path, questions began to swirl that I had trouble answering. How could I keep the task of ending poverty at the center of my work, despite my sector? How could I balance a love for the environment and a love for local economic development? How could I build and transform communities in ways that galvanized local culture, especially food and music?

Luckily, through incredible mentorship and wonderful job opportunities, I discovered the social justice sector of the food movement. At People’s Grocery, we use the local food system to improve the health and local wealth of West Oakland residents. From our first day of operation, we’ve used music, arts and local celebration to accomplish our mission. We have experimented, taken risks, and incubated new ways of infusing culture into our local economy work, and it has deeply impacted both our team and the local community.

Our name has “grocery” in the title because this was one of our main dreams: to develop and operate a full-service grocery store in West Oakland (a community of 25,000 people without a full-service grocery store). In 2010, we fulfilled the first part of this dream, and spun off People’s Community Market (PCM), a for-profit entity that would open a 12,000 square foot grocery store in West Oakland. By its fifth year in operation we expect the store to generate around $10,000,000 in revenue, but it will do much more than just contribute to the local economy. PCM will partner with community and health organizations to offer a variety of education programs, food demonstrations and workshops, as well as health services. The store will also provide a community gathering space through its Front Porch courtyard, which will feature a stage, a kids play area, a deli service window and a venue for music events and other social activities.

When we spun off PCM, we began a strategic process of discovering ways we could support existing leadership in West Oakland, and ensure that residents provided direction for ways the healthy food system should develop. The Growing Justice Institute emerged from our inquiry, a program in which residents with ideas and micro-businesses can launch initiatives in partnership with People’s Grocery. We partner with residents on cooking classes, senior center lunch programs, catering businesses, health coaching services, and more.

While these initiatives generated or re-routed more than $40,000 toward building local resident wealth in its first year of operation, the spirit of these projects is what creates sustainability. Growing Justice Institute Fellows utilize music, community dinners, arts, and other forms of creative expression to connect concepts of healthy food to local economic development and transformed communities.

I’m honored to participate in an organization that encourages such engagement with “right brain” sensibilities as we build a local food economy. That’s actually why I engaged with the food movement – I was hoping it was a place where I could be a fully expressed singer, foodie and activist. I’m happy to say the food movement is that place, and that I’ve found a home here.