HEAL Member HOPE Collaborative was founded in 2011 when a group of folks from the Alameda County Public Health department and Oakland, CA residents came together to advocate for better food systems in the city. Today, they’re integral to the planning, decision-making and implementation of local food policy initiatives in Oakland, including the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), Healthy Development Guidelines and even neighborhood planning. Organizing in a rapidly gentrifying city comes with it’s own challenges — HOPE’s long term goal is to maintain grassroots, community power in food systems and city planning and to hold policy makers accountable to the community. Earlier this month, we had a chance to hear from Nakia Woods, Executive Director of HOPE Collaborative about what makes HOPE Collaborative a critical piece of Oakland’s regional food economy and community health infrastructure. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
How has your work with corner stores contributed to mitigating food apartheid in the city of Oakland?
We work with five corner stores across the city of Oakland in areas where there are few grocery options — our contract is to make sure they have healthy food stocked in the store. But our staff member Paul, who leads this work, provides much more than that! Pre-pandemic, he would meet with them [the corner store owners] once a week to ask how they are doing, check in about their revenue and what they need assistance in, whether it’s in managing their suppliers, or applying for loans or grants.
We were also able to connect our corner stores to local growers. We used to have a partnership with Oakland Leaf and would buy produce from them to redirect to the corner stores. Now, stores are able to source fresh produce on their own and we simply reimburse them for it. All left over produce goes into the Oakland town fridges where residents can have them.
Our corner stores also serve as community hubs. Earlier, we would host big holiday events with free hot food, and activities like face painting outside our stores. We’d have our young folks volunteer to help with the meals and create a space where community members can gather. Our stores are welcoming spaces: if you’re houseless you’re welcome at our corner stores, no one is going to look at you twice, as opposed to in a grocery store where houseless people are judged and policed.
Oakland, CA is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the country — how has this impacted HOPE’s work?
As Oakland has shifted and changed, and the world has shifted politically, we’ve had to open up our scope, not just geographically but also in how we were building community. We started in East Oakland but now we’ve expanded to serve different parts of the city. We try to serve any area where there are disenfranchised folks and our community members began to move, so it was natural for us to go where they were. As of now, two of our five stores are in West Oakland and we make sure that the town fridges are distributed well, and that we go to schools across the city to engage with young people. We go where folks request us to be. The world has also changed a lot politically. So we are not only thinking about how we are reaching people that have been displaced, but how we are providing community, that goes beyond inviting people to a rally. We’re asking ourselves what skills we are giving people, and what tangible things our community members are able to walk away with after working with us.
What is the role of local city officials in nurturing community-led food systems?
They need to listen to us! We have them as our audience but we need them to actually listen.
What shape is your policy work going to take this coming year?
We have been reinserting ourselves in the policy space and forcing people to listen to community voices, especially now that Oakland Food Policy Council is now one of our programs. To that end, we’re thinking of launching a policy cohort through which people can be consistently engaged in local policy.
We are also working on our policy agenda and doing short policy briefs that can be easily read by community members. This brief will inform them about local, state and federal level policy that directly impacts them. We want to make flyers that a 10 year old can look at to know what’s happening and how they can engage with it. And we cannot be in every space, so want to give folks the tools they would need to show up at a policy meeting and advocate for themselves.
HOPE Collaborative moves forward the fourth plank of HEAL’s Platform for Real Food — Resilient Regional Economies. How does your work impact Oakland’s regional food economy?
We see ripple effects of our work often. This summer, we hosted a series of public panels and one of the couples that attended that panel were Oakland residents who ran a small catering business. We invited them to join our Steering Council and also connected them with other community members. Now they work with us, with Mandela Partners, and Work Central Kitchen to distribute 100s of free meals a week. We’re also helping them to set up a corner store in Oakland, which has been their dream for a while! So we are not only able to help a local community member grow their business but also do so in a way that provides free meals for the community, and creates an educational, cultural hub for the community.
We think of ourselves as a connector, a community hub. A lot of the young folks that we work with come back and continue their work with us. I think that’s because we have created a safe space for young folks to come together — we dont just talk about food, but wellness, sex, gender, abuse — we’re really real with our young people.