What's Organic Produce Doing in a Liquor Store?

In West Oakland's produce-barren neighborhood, residents find new access to nutrition in the unlikeliest of places.
The high crime and low income neighborhood of West Oakland is known as a "food desert." (Photo: California Department of Environmental Protection)
Sep 15, 2012· 1 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

West Oakland residents’ access to nutritious food can best be summarized as minimal; the low-income neighborhood, which is home to about 25,000 residents, is also home to 48 independently-owned liquor stores― and only one grocery store―according to Oakland North.

With most residents relying on their corner liquor stores for their main food purchases, their ability to easily sustain a nutritious diet is limited. However, a burgeoning food program is hoping to change that by offering these stores the chance to sell pesticide-free produce to area residents.

The Healthy Neighborhood Stores Alliance (HNSA) is a program that delivers fresh organic produce to West Oakland’s corner mom-and-pop liquor shops, according to Oakland North. By signing up for HNSA, businesses pay a weekly fee that ranges from $30-$100, depending on the size of their order. In return, the store receives fresh organic fruits and vegetables, in addition to free weekly delivery and free marketing, which is done through educational tabling events held in front of the business.

For those who participate, it’s a striking break from the norm. West Oakland’s liquor shops historically have sold a limited variety of food, most of which is comprised of processed and sugary snacks, in addition to liquor and cigarettes. The only other food options in the area are a handful of fast food restaurants, leading the local area news station KQED to characterize the neighborhood as a “food desert.”

The idea for HNSA came courtesy of West Oakland’s only grocery store, the nonprofit Mandela Marketplace.

Mariela Cedeño, Mandela Marketplace’s senior manager of social enterprise and communications, told Oakland North, “We wanted to make it accessible for people in the community to buy food where they already go. We want a person to go into a liquor store and have the first thing they see be produce, and not chips or cigarettes or alcohol.”

One small business in particular, Bottles Liquor, reported that last year they sold 2,500 pounds of organic produce through its HNSA partnership, and this year, expects to surpass that amount. Its owner, Fahd Mohamed explained, “Helping a couple of people is better than helping nobody. A lot of people don’t ask for things, but if they see it, they’ll buy it.”

The difficulty for programs like HNSA is that store owners are hindered by what are comparatively high wholesale prices for organic produce, making it problematic for more stores to participate. Still, Monica Monterosso, a West Oakland resident and Mandela employee, tells Oakland North that for right now, “it’s all about getting the word out and having the community understand that they can trust the produce in here, and they can trust these stores for other options besides liquor.”

Do you think programs like HNSA are the way to bring healthy food to low-income neighborhoods, or are there better options that we should be implementing? Let us know your take in the Comments.