Food desert in West Oakland

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West Oakland, California, can be considered a food desert because its residents have low access and affordability to healthy foods, are influenced by racial, ethnic, and socio-economic disparities, and bear the consequences of the industrial flight from the flatlands of Oakland to the rest of Bay Area.[1] Some academic researchers contend that Oakland's history of under-realized industrialization led to the emergence of a food desert.[2] The negative impact of food deserts in West Oakland is traced by low accessibility and affordability to healthy foods, which leads to the high rates of poor diets and obesity levels.[2][3] Several public advocacy groups and community-based organizations has emerged as a part of the food desert movement in West Oakland.[4]

Definition and overview[edit]

There is no standard definition or agreed upon set of qualifications for an area to be designated as a "food desert". The USDA 2008 Farm Bill defined a food desert as "an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities (Title VI, Sec. 7527)".[5] Alternatively, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) contends that "food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet".[6] Alternatively, some researchers define food deserts as ‘‘urban areas with 10 or fewer stores and no stores with more than 20 employees’’,[7] while other academics define food deserts as ‘‘poor urban areas, where residents cannot buy affordable, healthy food’’.[8]

History of West Oakland as a food desert[edit]

After the turn of the twentieth century, California’s port cities urbanized rapidly as a result of growing populations paired with increasing industrialization. Oakland’s proximity to San Francisco made it a desirable location for both industry and residency. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and the construction of its terminus in Oakland, industry began expanding from San Francisco to the East Bay.[9] Worker housing became increasingly concentrated in Oakland because of its proximity to the railway terminus, shipping ports, and the city center.[9]

In World War I, there was a massive influx of military capital into Oakland and the promise of employment in expanding industries drew in thousands of new workers to the area, many of them immigrants and African Americans. Industrial, residential, and agricultural development continued in the area through the 1920s.

City planning at the time was characterized by what McClintock, an assistant professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State College, calls the “industrial garden” paradigm: the dispersal of industry away from the downtown area yet close and accessible to nearby residential neighborhoods, where the majority of residents had substantial yards and gardens.[9] These semi-suburban neighborhoods expanded during the New Deal, when a series of highly subsidized low-interest loans where distributed by the Federal Housing Administration.[9] Because developers consolidated land purchases, subdivision and construction, vast tracts of small, single-family homes became prevalent in the East Bay. This suburbanization was highly racialized however, as African Americans and other racial minorities were typically denied access to such loans.[9]

When a new flood of workers migrated to Oakland during World War II, limited housing and mounting racial tensions prompted the Oakland Housing Authority to designate blacks-only housing projects in West Oakland, and corresponding whites-only projects in East Oakland.[9] Racist housing covenants continued to concentrate the growing African American population to the West Oakland neighborhood throughout the 1950s and 1960s.[9]

Historical bank redlining and discriminatory lending practices during the mid-century helped to further delineate wealthy populations from low-income communities and segregate white populations from populations of color and minority communities.[9] Redlining also stopped the flow of capital into low-income communities of color, which paired with the deindustrialization of Oakland in the late 20th century, increased rates of local unemployment and poverty, and resulted in the decay of public infrastructure and facilities. This divestment lowered real estate values and property taxes in the flatlands of Oakland[9] which, combined with the growing demand for food retail in wealthier suburban neighborhoods, discouraged supermarkets and other full-service food retailers from developing in the West Oakland neighborhood.[10] Zoning restrictions, and land parcel sizes also restricted their development. While many commercial parcels in the area where too small to accommodate a grocery store, they were adequately sized for corner stores, convenience stores, and liquor stores.[9] "The number of grocery stores in West Oakland declined from 137 in 1960 to 22 in 1980... a drop from nearly 25 percent of all of the city’s stores to just above 10 percent. By the 1990s, many of these same supermarkets that had pushed out the small grocers in the flatlands had also closed their doors in response to falling profits." [9] This historical paradigm of “supermarket redlining” is widely considered an extremely influential factor in the occurrence of food deserts.[10]


The clearly negative impact of food deserts in West Oakland is traced by the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods central to supporting a healthy diet. Substantial researched evidence exists to support the fact that low accessibility and affordability of healthy foods in West Oakland has created poor dietary patterns and high levels of obesity, which in turn establishes high risks for chronic diseases.[3][11] Some studies also suggest that racial minority populations and high poverty rates are consistently significant predictors for geographical areas to be labeled as food deserts.[12]


Accessibility to healthy food directly affects the health of residents in any area. In West Oakland, there is sufficient evidence to support the fact that a lack of accessibility to healthy and nutritious food is coupled with a trend in higher rates of diabetes and critical health problems.[13] Therefore, low-accessibility to healthy food bears significant health and disease consequences on the residents of the West Oakland food desert.

There are contesting definitions of accessibility when applied to food deserts in West Oakland. Specifically, limited access is determined by factors like transportation, distance, a trend of fewer grocery suppliers and more liquor and convenience stores.[5] Yet inadequate access is defined as accessibility in a certain area relative to other areas.[5] The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) draws a distinction between limited access and inadequate access, and maintains the view that “existing data and research are insufficient to conclusively determine whether areas with limited access have inadequate access”.[14]

Accessibility can be measured by distance and density of supermarkets or by the ownership of cars. According to the USDA, ownership of a car is the best factor to measure accessibility of both rural and urban populations.[5] Limited access in the West Oakland food desert by distance and density measures follows a trend of fewer supermarkets and large grocer stores coupled with higher numbers of liquor stores and convenience stores. Fuller 2004, in a report on food insecurity in West Oakland, states that “the number of grocery stores in West Oakland declined from 137 in 1960 to 22 in 1980, due largely to supermarket penetration." [15]

By the 1990s, however, large supermarkets that had replaced grocery stores moved out of Oakland’s city lines to reinvest in more profitable areas.[11] This in turn creates limited access to quality food in West Oakland that allowed a “junk food jungle”, which mainly consists of liquor stores and convenience stores, to emerge and replace the demand for nourishment left by supermarkets.[16] Even though liquor stores and convenience stores obviously are not equipped to supply healthy foods, the low-economic community disincentivized supermarkets and grocery stores from opening its doors in West Oakland.[2] Liquor stores and convenience stores are easily accessible but sell lower quality and quantity of healthy food at a higher price alongside cheaper processed foods.[2] Sharkey and Horel, however, point out that distance and density measures only indicate “potential access” and not “realized access”.[17] In other words, these figures only measure what could happen theoretically and should not be mistaken as records of how people react in reality, therefore distance and density measures are incomplete.


Similarly, the affordability of food in West Oakland is a contributing factor to the West Oakland food desert and its negative consequences on the health and living standards of its residents. A working definition to determine affordability of food deserts by the USDA states that the "Affordability of food refers to the price of a particular food and the relative price of alternative or substitute foods."[5]

Measurable factors of affordability include time costs in preparing, serving and cleaning up food, a consumer's budget constraints, which are determined by the price of food necessity's in addition to the price of other needs.[5] Low accessibility to supermarkets or grocery stores that provide healthy foods coupled with a disproportionately higher number of convenience stores,fast-food restaurants and liquor stores in West Oakland makes supporting a healthy diet in West Oakland less affordable.[11][18] The affordability of food is different based on different areas and is heavily influenced by the accessibility to healthy foods as well as the price of those goods.

Health and nutrition[edit]

Over the past fifty years, rates of obesity have increased dramatically in the United States, mainly affecting individuals who live in low income communities.[13] Studies have proved that as a result of poor dietary patterns and obesity, residents in low income communities are at high risk for chronic diseases which have been found to be linked to neighborhood deprivation, neighborhood minority composition. As stated by Nicole Larson in "Neighborhood Environments Disparities in Access to Healthy Foods in The U.S.", research suggests a link between accessibility to food and health from data that supports the fact that neighborhood residents who have better access to supermarkets and limited access to small groceries or liquor stores tend to have healthier diets and lower levels of obesity.[19]

Meanwhile, underrepresented neighborhoods that have less access to grocery stores prove to have a higher chance of diseases such as high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Such diseases can be prevented if residents are to reach the right resources, such as affordable supermarkets and a healthy diet. Authors Beckles, Zhu, and Moonesinghe suggest that interventions and diet instruction designed specifically for adults with low levels of income and educational attainment might increase the effectiveness of efforts to reduce disparities in chronic diseases.[20]

Furthermore, statistics in a study by Freedman reveal that Black and Mexican Americans have a higher prevalence of obesity than do white Americans. Also, Black and Mexican Americans reported their annual income for themselves and their family members which exceeded the poverty threshold placing them below the poverty line.[13] Therefore, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic disparities are irrevocably linked to the negative health consequences of food deserts like higher rates of diabetes.

The poor dietary intake of a population may be a result of the lack of accessibility, financially or physically to healthy foods. The lack of full-service grocery stores paired with the prevalence of convenience and liquor stores in West Oakland has made highly processed foods, high in sugar and fat content and low in nutritional value more accessible than healthy foods with nutritional value.[21] The over-consumption of sugars and unhealthy fats has been linked to higher risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, asthma, and are more probable to heart attacks.[22]

Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities[edit]

Studies suggest that urban and rural regressions, racial minority populations and high poverty rates are consistently significant predictors of food desert status.[23] Those most affected by the West Oakland food desert are individuals with low socioeconomic status, who also are more likely to be of African American or Hispanic descent. Indeed, according to the West Oakland Demographic Profile, more than three-fourths of its population are African American while another 15% are of Hispanic descent, and about a third of the residents live below the poverty line.[21]

Furthermore, some research has shown that inequalities like significantly lower access to clean water, healthy food and health clubs are disproportionately prevalent in low-income minority communities and communities of color.[24] Indeed, some researchers contend that the people most effected by urban food desserts are individuals who come from low income households, high unemployment rate neighborhoods, have little or no educational background, and have no vehicle transportation.[23] Environmental disparities within low-income communities dominated by a specific race or ethnicity stem from a lack of resources that in turn affect very practical concerns like where groceries are being sold, what type of groceries are being consumed, and how food is grown and produced.[25] Hence, a food justice movement has been created in order to support all those victims affected by these food access and affordability disparities. As further explained by Robert Gottlieg, the food justice movement is linked to other movements addressing injustice:

"The linkages between an environmental justice and food justice approach can extend beyond traditional notions of environmental or food issues to address issues of health, globalization, worker rights and working conditions, disparities regarding access to environmental (or food) goods, land use and respect for the land, and ultimately, how our production, transportation, distribution, and consumption systems are organized."[25]

Overall, affordability and accessibility to healthy foods are linked to race, ethnicity and social-economic disparities.


Numerous solutions have been proposed to increase food security, access, and justice in West Oakland, ranging from policy changes and economic initiatives to community level interventions. There is debate within academic discourse, the food justice community and among policy-makers regarding the most effective, just, and equitable solutions to food desserts.

Many suggest that full-service supermarkets are the most effective way to supply underserved communities with a variety of fresh and relatively affordable food.[26] One approach has been to encourage supermarkets to locate in food insecure neighborhoods in order to increase access to supermarkets in food dessert areas.[27] This may require changes in zoning and economic incentives for investment.[10]

Others claim that introducing chain supermarket would not necessarily serve the needs of the community: food prices may still be high, the food available may not be culturally appropriate, profits would not directly benefit the community, and the stores could outcompete small, local businesses.

Some research suggests that small-scale, full-service food markets, especially those that are ethnically specific and culturally appropriate, could also play a role in increasing community food security.[28] Another approach is to develop or increase alternative forms of food retail, like farmers markets and community-supported agriculture in the hopes that would they support local farmers and simultaneously address the needs of low-income consumers [29]

Urban agriculture is also commonly viewed as a part of the solution: in addition to increasing food security, it has the potential to restore food sovereignty by giving communities control over the food they grow, as well as serving as an educational tool for members of the community.[9] Still, some claim its potential scale is insufficient to meet the needs of the community.

Furthermore, some suggest that the increasing economic security in low-income, low-access communities by creating jobs with in the food system, ensuring a living wage or increasing federal supplemental nutritional assistance may be the most effective and long-lasting solution.

Nathan McClintock, an assistant professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State College, suggests that while micro-scale approaches and community food security projects lay the foundation for active change, “Oakland and elsewhere must extend also to rethinking and rebuilding the entirety of the metropolitan and regional food system… Creative new economic incentives and land use protections will be needed to buffer a fledgling local food system from the continuous cycle of economic booms and busts and competitive pressures of the global food system.” [9]

Planning and policy solutions[edit]

Federal programs[edit]

In 2007, the American Planning Association (APA) released a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning.[30] The policy guide offers two overarching goals for planners: 1. Help build stronger, sustainable, and more self-reliant community and regional food systems and 2. Suggest ways the industrial food system may interact with communities and regions to enhance benefits such as economic vitality, public health, ecological sustainability, social equity, and cultural diversity.[31] This guide has been influential to planners and policy makers across the United States.[31] This guide has been influential to planners and policy makers across the United States.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal aid program in the U.S that provides food-purchasing assistance for low-income or no-income individuals and families.[32] In Oakland, 23 percent of individuals eligible for food stamps are currently enrolled in the program in 2005.[33] There are a number of reasons for non-participation in the program: some households are unaware that they are eligible for food stamp benefits or have received misinformation regarding the program.[33] Other common deterrents include language barriers and a perceived stigma surrounding the program. As of 2005, there are 400 retailers in Oakland that accepted food stamps. Of these 88 are convenience stores, 179 are small and medium grocers, including liquor and corner stores, 40 are specialty stores such as meat or deli shops, 35 are supermarkets, six are farmers’ markets.[33]

The Federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a federal nutrition assistance program that provides supplemental resources for purchasing nutritional food, education, and referrals to health care professionals to low-income women, infants and children.[34] It is administered locally by the Alameda County Health Department with two WIC offices in Oakland. There are nine WIC clinics in Oakland that provide health and nutrition education and food vouchers. All Oakland farmers markets and 31 stores in Oakland accept WIC vouchers.[35]

National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program are federal entitlement, subsidized nutrition programs in which all public and private nonprofit elementary and secondary schools are eligible to participate. Students attending a participating school are eligible to receive free or reduced prices lunches if their families do not meet a certain income level.[36] Oakland Unified School District is the sole administrator of these programs for all Oakland schools. In Oakland, 106 schools offer the NSLP and 92 offer the SBP.[35]

State programs[edit]

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is a Federal entitlement program administered at the state level by the California Department of Education and locally by the City if Oakland’s Department of Human Services under the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth. Each summer, the program delivers free meals to children in Oakland neighborhoods through 57 sites, often provided in conjunction with educational, developmental, and recreational activities.[35]

The Child and Adult Care Food Program is also Federal entitlement program administered by the California Department of Education. It provides healthy snacks and meals to children and adults who receive day care. Any public or private nonprofit institution providing nonresidential day care such as child care centers, day care homes, infant centers, preschools, Head Start centers, and Even Start centers are eligible.[35]

Municipal programs[edit]

In response to suggestion made in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability Food Systems Assessment Report, the Oakland City Council passed the Food Policy Council resolution December 2006, allotted $50,000 to cover start-up costs for the council. The council first met in 2009, and today, the Oakland Food Policy Council works to establish an equitable and sustainable food system by creating and supporting influential policy initiatives. In 2010, OFPC published our full strategic plan for reaching these goals, Transforming the Oakland Food System: A Plan for Action. OFPC prioritizes action in four policy areas: economic security and development, food access, local and sustainable food procurement, and urban agriculture.[35]

Economic incentives[edit]

Because food retail is an economic activity, Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency is responsible for many of the planning and policy related to food retail, such as redevelopment, business development, and planning and zoning (Unger). Existing economic incentives that may assist food retailers include he Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization programs, which provides assistance and services for business façade and other improvements, “to transform older, neighborhood commercial districts into vital shopping districts by improving their physical and economic conditions.” [37] Redevelopment funds are also available to food retailers who want to upgrade an existing business or renovate a site for a new business. Many of Oakland’s existing food retail businesses are located within Redevelopment Areas, allowing them to qualify for redevelopment fund assistance.[33]

The Food Systems Assessment Report for Oakland suggests the creation of Food Retail Enterprise Zones, whereby food retailers that provide nutritious foods in these neighborhoods are exempt from Oakland business taxes. It also suggests a certification program, such as the Green Business certification program could be developed to award a “Green and Healthy Oakland” certification to retail establishments that stock food or offer menu items conforming to specific criteria (fresh, nutritious, local, etc.) [35]

Land-use regulations[edit]

Land use regulations can also play an important role in improving accessibility of food retail, both indirectly through transportation planning, and directly by encouraging the development of traditional grocery stores, corner markets that stock fresh produce, farmers’ markets, and food trucks/food stands.[35]

On March 15, 2011 the Oakland City Council adopted new residential and commercial zones for the entire city. The new zones allow "Crop and Animal Raising Agricultural Activities" with approval of a Conditional Use Permit in all residential and commercial areas in the city. This change is intended to be an interim measure until the City can conduct a comprehensive update to address all aspects of Urban agriculture in West Oakland[38]

Many have suggested restricting the location of fast food and other food retail linked with obesity and overweight. This restriction has been employed by other cities to promote a healthy food retail environment, and healthy communities.[35]

Community level interventions[edit]

Community members, activists, and organizations in West Oakland have responded to the lack of access to healthy, nutritious food available in their communities in a multitude of ways. Because the occurrence of food deserts is highly correlated with the location of low-income minority communities, many community interventions have worked alongside the environmental justice movement to respond to associated the issues of inequity and injustice. The food justice movement is often framed as a multicultural movement built on an anti-oppression ideology meant to address the reproduction of racial inequalities in the food system.[39] Thus, many community level interventions in West Oakland operate as both food security projects and food justice organizations. The definition of food justice varies between organizations. The Hope Collaborative says “Residents from the Flatlands of Oakland, predominantly low-income communities of color, need and want stores in their neighborhoods that are owned by and employ community residents, who give back to the community and that sell affordable, healthy, quality, local and culturally appropriate food.“ [40]

Some projects increase the availability of healthy affordable food by establishing community-run markets, farmers markets, and urban agriculture projects. Many organizations also focus on economic development, education, outreach and community participation.

  • The Environmental Justice Institute (EJI) works in West Oakland to improve the availability of fresh and nutritious foods in retail stores. One of their most recognized efforts was the formation of the West Oakland Food Collaborative that brought together interested citizens and neighborhood organizations to develop a three-year strategic plan to create a better infrastructure for food security in West Oakland.[33]
  • West Oakland Food Collaborative (WOFC) works to support community based health and nutrition programs that improve access to healthy food. One of the first projects the WOFC undertook was the formation of a farmers market in West Oakland, run by community members, and stocked with products produced in community gardens or by farms partnered with the community. The first Mandela Market, a farmers market composed of local farmers and community vendors, is the result of these efforts.[41]
  • Mandela MarketPlace is a non-profit organization that works in partnership with local residents, family farmers, and community-based businesses to improve health, create wealth, and build assets through cooperative food enterprises in low income communities.[42] The organization operates a number of projects, including the Mandela Foods Cooperative, a worker-owned full service retail grocery store and nutrition education center in West Oakland that fosters economic empowerment and community health. Other projects include Mandela Foods Distribution, the Healthy Neighborhood Store Alliance, and community food stands.[43]
  • People’s Grocer was founded in 2001 by Brahm Ahmadi, Malaika Edwards and Leander Sellers. The organization’s mission is to bring healthy food to low-income neighborhoods in West Oakland, cultivate local self-sufficiency in food and economics, bring farming entrepreneurial skills to youth, and raise awareness about sustainability, health and food justice.[44] Since its founding, People’s Grocery launched several other food-related projects, such as its Mobile Market, a truck that drove around the neighborhood selling fresh foods, an urban farm, a CSA program, as well as nutrition, health and job training programs. Currently, they are working to establish a full-service grocery store called People’s Community Market.[45]
  • The Growing Justice Institute supports Oakland residents with designing and implementing community-driven solutions to food insecurity. Over two years, with technical assistance and training from People’s Grocery, a group of Fellows launch income-generating projects that build the local food system. Projects range from catering companies to cooking classes.[46]
  • City Slicker Farms is an urban agriculture and food security organization founded in 2001. Their mission is to empower West Oakland community members to meet the immediate and basic need for healthy organic food for themselves and their families by creating high-yield urban farms and backyard gardens. CSF organizes low-income communities to achieve equal access to fresh, healthy, organic food through community market farms, backyard garden, and urban farming education programs.[47]
  • Planting Justice is a non-profit organization based in Oakland, CA dedicated to food justice, economic justice, and sustainable local food systems. Their programs combine ecological training and urban food production with a grassroots door-to-door organizing model that aimed to increase educational community outreach, help recruit volunteers, decentralize fundraising sources, and provide local jobs that also train young community organizers.[48]
  • Oakland Based Urban Gardens (OBUGs) was founded in 1998. Their mission is “to provide nutrition and environmental education and to facilitate community building through a network of neighborhood gardens.” OBUGS focuses on academic enrichment for youth, life and jobs skills, and on increasing access to healthy, fresh foods. In addition to maintaining gardens dedicated to in-school classes and after school activities in which children grow and use organic vegetables through gardening, cooking, and nutrition and the environmental education. OBUGS has also established mentoring relationships with Oakland youth.[33]


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