By: Soha Levert
Aisles of plastic coated snacks, malt liquor, and frozen hot pockets radiate from the dimly illuminated corner stores on nearly every block in Oakland’s low income communities. Cheap snacks and liquor that consume space in hollow wallets and temporarily keep children’s eyes open for their first classes. Snacks manufactured and sold as commodities, unless someone clearly reads the dozens of ingredients on the back side. However, in the same city, a few miles away, white families and their children have access to 4 times as many supermarkets compared to predominantly black neighborhoods. Supermarkets that are economically accessible to wealthier families, offer varieties of food options that are culturally appropriate, and keep their families healthy. Families that can shop at their local Whole Foods and Village Market, ensure that their kids will eat a delicious and nourishing homemade lunch that they can bring to school. However, what about the student who lives a few miles away from a Safeway and has to bus to school? Where does his lunch come from? A lunch that will probably accompany a bag of Takis and a can of Brisk that alone will fill his stomach with 27 grams of sugar with the potential of ulcers and gastritis. Food deserts—low-income, urban neighborhoods that lack places that sell fresh, high-quality, affordable foods; detrimentally impact East and West Oakland communities health, wellbeing, and economically challenge residents to access healthier food options.
Oakland is a city shy of 400,000 residents. It’s geographic area is known as three separate parts: East, West and North Oakland. It holds a rich history of revolutionary activism and was home to the Black Panthers. Specifically West and East Oakland, a once vibrant area has slowly deteriorated at the seams and now possesses bad reputations for gang violence, prostitution, and drugs. However, local organizations are working hard to strengthen their community and illustrate how powerful their city really is. One of East and West Oakland’s biggest hurdles would be their food crisis. Residents are struggling to properly feed their families due to the lack of grocery stores and supermarkets. It is worth mentioning that these Oakland community residents are primarily people of color. In East Oakland, Latinos make up 44% of residents and African Americans make up 40%. A few miles away, West Oakland residents are 49% African American. In comparison, Oakland’s overall population is 27% Latino and 25% African American. This depicts that food deserts specially impact people of color in West and East Oakland.
In Oakland’s flat lands, where demographics are primarily low income, the options for healthy shopping and eating is barely a choice. For example, the Hope Collaboration, an organization working to promote the health and wellbeing of people living in east and West Oakland, came out with a 2009 report with their findings of food deserts. Hope Collab reported that in the Oakland hills, there is an average of one grocery store per 13,778 residents.
Residents whose median household incomes are over $58,000 per year. On the opposite side of town, median income levels are $38,000 per year and for every 93,126 residents only one grocery store is easily accessible. This suggests that healthy food is not just available because some can simply afford better food than others. Hope Collaborations report depicts that low income communities clearly have many more restrictions to purchasing fresh and nutritious produce because there are simply not enough options where they live. Fresh foods that keep ourselves and the people in our lives healthy should be a right; nutritious foods should not be a privilege granted to people passing a certain income level.
In addition, to further exemplify the severity of the food crisis in poor Oakland neighborhoods, Food Collaboration, contrasted the amount of liquor stores to supermarkets. In deep east Oakland, in the 94621 zip code area, there is only one Pak ’n Save supermarket out of 32 liquor stores. Not only are there an overwhelming majority of liquor stores to grocery stores, but the one 94621 supermarket is a warehouse club. These forms of supermarkets only sell consumer packaged goods that will last on the shelf. Packaged foods have been researched to cause numerous health problems, including cancer, obesity, and heart disease. In comparison, Leona Heights, a wealthier Oakland neighborhood with median incomes going over 100,000 per year have two supermarkets and only 10 liquor stores.
The lack of grocery stores is so immense in Oakland that when new branches open, they make headline news. In 2012, Kroger, a large grocery retailer, opened two stores in East Oakland, this was the first national grocery outlet in the area in over 20 years. Oakland’s District Six Councilwoman Desley Brooks, conveyed that she too has also felt the impacts of not having a local grocery store. She stated that, “There is currently no national grocery chain in my district and none have opened here for over two decades.” It can be inferred that residents living in food deserts, like Brooks, either: eat what is available which are convenience stores, travel miles away, spend more than they can afford, or go hungry.
The Pulse of Oakland, an article based on “Stories on the intersection of health, wealth and race in Oakland neighborhoods”, interviewed Melinda Monterroso, an East Oakland resident. Monterroso specifically lives in Castlemont, a community of 4,700 people. Within Alameda county, Castlemont has some of the highest rates of homicide, poverty, and chronic health problems. Not to mention that Castlemont is full of fast food, corner, and liquor stores. Monterroso was diagnosed with type two diabetes at age 15. Type two diabetes is not very commonly seen in children, but will most commonly affect, girls with diabetic family history and people of color. It is interesting to note that because it is most likely to affect people of color, evidently, race and food quality correlates to one another. Monterroso claims to have eaten, “junk food every day. Chips, hot pockets. We ate TV meals, processed foods that would be quick.” With both of Monterosso’s parents being diabetic and her eating habits, it seems clear that she would be prone to this disease, however, with simple access to junk food, this outcome seems inevitable. Furthermore, she claims that if she had the choice, she would prefer eating healthy, “but I have three corner stores around my house, all walking distance, and the nearest supermarket is three or four miles away.”
In addition, Monterosso does not have a car, making her bus trip to the supermarket 30 minutes long, as opposed to walking down the block to her local corner store. Convenience is key, especially for many living in low income communities juggling multiple jobs. A one hour travel round trip just to go grocery shopping is a huge hassle. According to the US Department of Agriculture, this is the struggle for about 2.3 million Americans who not only live more than a mile away from a supermarket but also do not own a car. Suddenly, a mile distance from fresh produce seems like a much bigger hurdle for many families living in East and West Oakland without cars.
Genetically modified and processed foods line the aisles of the East and West Oakland convenience stores. In order to create these “foods”, biotechnologists engineer plants and animals that transcend evolution. For example, potatoes with bacteria or pigs with human growth hormone are created to make food cheaper and grow more quickly. However, what are the sorts of consequences people face by ingesting these types of foods?
According to the article “The Rapid Growth of GMOS” by Jessica Kraft, these consequences are huge, not only to ourselves but to the environment. Studies completed on GMO-fed lab rats have demonstrated that the potential for serious reproductive health rights are enormous. Some of which include, “ infertility, fewer offspring, and increased newborn mortality”. Additionally, the digestion of bacterial toxins from GMOS have been linked to kidney and digestive system damage in especially pregnant women and infants. It is essential to realize that because GMO foods are much cheaper than healthy fresh foods, low income families will be consuming much more of it. And in East and West Oakland, these families are primarily people of color. This is a basic human rights issue. Citizens must have the right to pick and chose what they eat no matter their income levels. Otherwise, our children will continue to get sick and big food corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dow will continue making billions of dollars. Consuming and producing products made by exploiting farmers (including those overseas), damaging soil with superweeds infestations (extremely herbicide resistant weeds) and creating health effects in our communities, impacts all of us.
The average American eats 100 pounds of sugar per year. Surely, eating a Snickers bar once a month will not kill the average person. However, as soon as one begins to tango with consistent sugar consuming, dangerous eating habits begin to accumulate. In the novel, Safe Food, Michael Jacobson states that “if you consume too much fat and cholesterol, sodium, and alcohol; eat too few fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; or if you smoke too many cigarettes- all of which will pose greater risks to your health.” To clarify, by choosing foods that are not processed (or minimally unprocessed), people can avoid extra unhealthy fats, sodium, sugar, along with threatening food additives. All of which, will positively contribute to benefiting health. As seen in East and West Oakland neighborhoods, where good health has been on a steep decline and corner stores simultaneously increase.
Food is much bigger than just filling our appetites. Healthy and nutritious foods keep human bodies functioning properly, happy, and boost our abilities. The industrial food business was built off of excess yields in an attempt to make money and keep items on the shelf longer. Their intentions were never to sustainably feed and nourish citizens. Big food corporations have taken advantage of low income families by selling them low priced and low quality products. It is not coincidental that only corner and convenience stores have found their way to poorer communities. It is because Monsanto and friends have built their business off of poor people. In turn, health deteriorates and results in the western medical system increasing their health care costs. For those who cannot afford health care that was only needed because of the healthy food that was not accessed to them, they begin to lose work. They cannot pay for their: health bills, healthy food, high bay area rent, a vehicle, their children to play on private sports team, or for a $6 cup of coffee from a high end boogie cafe that gentrified their neighborhood. This is all a cycle, and the underlying factor that ties them all together, is money. Healthy, nutritious food, that is sustainably grown, and is culturally appropriate to an individual is a basic human right that is not being met for East and West Oakland residents. It is beyond time for our government officials to highlight this issue and confront big food corporations. Food justice movements must be funded along with any other local farm/gardens that are working to feed their community. Feeding all people justly is not radical, what is radical is prioritizing junk food businesses and only white people. America and East and West Oakland are not made up of billionaire white people. Wake up America. Feed brown people nutritious healthy organically grown fruits and vegetables from deep dark soil. Treat them with respect. We are all residents of the earth and fresh foods must be available to all.