West Oakland food desert blooms with a single produce market

For most people living in West Oakland, the Community Foods Market is an oasis in a food desert.

Before it opened last year on San Pablo Avenue, there hadn't been a market selling fresh fruit and vegetables in almost 50 years in the neighborhood.

Alex Grant appreciates that he no longer needs to travel outside the neighborhood. He says he's eating a healthier diet.

"There was nothing close or convenient," said Grant who used to take a bus to shop in Safeway.

In an urban setting, a good desert is defined as an area where people must travel more than a mile for fresh food, according to the Department of Agriculture.

"I was looking for fresh vegetables, fresh fruits," said Grant. "So it was divine timing."

According to a study, 10% of all Bay Area households report having difficulty finding fresh produce in their neighborhood.

The Community Foods Market is more of a social enterprise than a business, said owner Brahm Ahmadi.

"It's fundamental purpose for existing and being in business is to address the social and public health needs in this community," he said.

Fresh meat, seafood and a deli counter are part of the grocery store, but the focus is on fresh produce at competitive prices.

Roughly half of the neighborhood's residents don't own cars. Taking a bus to the market affects what people buy.

"If they're going to make that trip they are probably going to buy less than they usually need and make that trip less often," said Ahmadi. "And if you shop less often you are going to buy food that lasts. And that typically is not fresh food."

Many residents rely on corner markets and liquor stores. But some food and poverty analysts say lack of convenient access to food markets is only part of the problem.

"Being able to afford the food is often the biggest barrier," said Eli Zigas--SPUR Food and Agriculture Policy Director. "They're stretching their budget as far as they can. And often fresh food for the amount of calories you get isn't a great budget option."

Alameda County has partnered with a local farm to deliver fresh and healthy food to people in need.

"Places where there is food insecurity is reflective of where there is food apartheid," said Dr. Steven Chen, from Alameda County's All In program.

"When you don't have healthy choices you have more of what I see in clinics. more diabetes, more obesity, more hyper-tension."

Historically, major supermarket chains have stayed out of certain neighborhoods as part of their business model.

But this market proved that other business models can succeed also.

"If the purpose is not necessarily to maximize profit but to serve the community long term. that is an economic equation that does work," said Ahmadi.