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W-Oak Street Eats

W-Oak Street Eats is a community-driven food hall that links new and old residents and empowers local entrepreneurs through good food.

Photo of Jessie Wesley
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

University of California, Berkeley

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Other

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA LLC)

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Berkeley, California

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

West Oakland

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I moved from Seattle to Oakland in search of a place where I, a black woman, could fit into the food justice movement. A place where communities of color were hard at work to change their food system. There was no place that resonated with me more than West Oakland. The place where, over 50 years ago, the Black Panther movement started the free breakfast program, inspiring free breakfasts for children across the nation. The place where black farmers and owners were working to take back their food system. 

West Oakland grew the seeds of the movement that I sought back home. I arrived in Oakland, training local residents to teach their communities about nutrition and cooking healthy, delicious food. Despite developing this incredible community together, these individuals could not change the systemic issues that plagued their community. Fresh healthy foods were simply not available, affordable or accessible. 

Going back to school with a passion to find solutions for food-poor communities, I stayed connected to West Oakland. Last year, an opportunity arose to work with a group of black developers seeking to restore justice to West Oakland. I brought this project to a Food Innovation course at the Haas School of Business, where a team coalesced that was similarly passionate about combating injustice in the food system in West Oakland. As an interdisciplinary team with insights from the medical field, public health, business, urban planning and law, we took a systems approach with an eye towards creating a more just food system in West Oakland. 

Our team went to local community meetings and interviewed residents, businesses, nonprofits and others passionate about urban food justice. As students, gentrifiers and privileged community members, we are responsible for using our skills and knowledge to ally with West Oakland in supporting a vision for a healthy food future. We believe this project can accomplish just that.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

West Oakland is famous and infamous, holding different meanings for everyone. A dynamic place, West Oakland is often the topic of movies, case studies and music as a nexus of meaning in culture. To understand West Oakland is to understand its history and place. 

The history of West Oakland is one of demographic change and political opposition. The port, railway and shipyard brought diverse people to Oakland’s shores. In the 1930s, Oakland became a thriving black community known as the “Harlem of the West,” albeit segregated through redlining practices. Ignoring West Oakland as a bustling cultural hub of its time, the City of Oakland designated West Oakland as blighted in 1949, slating it for reconstruction in parallel with a nationwide effort to clean up “slums.” This policy spurred years of disinvestment, political isolation and destruction of homes. West Oakland’s 7th Street, including the local businesses and jazz clubs along this corridor, was replaced by a new transit station, called BART. 

The legacy of prejudice and theft from the community is vital to understanding the need for justice. In the 1960s, West Oakland claimed some of this justice back with the birth of the Black Panther Party. The Party developed programs, including the breakfast program, free health clinics and others that centered and helped the black community. Yet, much of this progress was dismantled through a series of combative police and state practices. Today, West Oakland is still largely black and faces disproportionately worse economic and health conditions. Transportation routes and proximity to the Port of Oakland, a product of policy and environmental injustices, cause higher rates of asthma and increased hospital visits. People in West Oakland earn less than those on the other side of the freeway divide. For 40 years, a full-sized grocery store did not exist in the area. Food that is available in West Oakland, largely fast food and convenience stores, only compounds chronic disease rates, which are higher in West Oakland than in the county at large. 

Despite these challenges, West Oakland is resilient. Many long time residents who lived through tremendous racism and injustice are still anchors in the community. Organizations like People’s Grocery, Mandela Co-Operative and the West Oakland Indicators Project empower local residents. Festivals like Life is Living celebrate the legacy of the Panthers’ free breakfast program and coalesce environmental organizations in the community today. Urban gardens like City Slicker Farms empower community members to sow their own seeds of health. 

When we visited West Oakland, residents shared with us what was taken from them. They want what any community deserves: a space to be together, laugh and feel safe. As Oakland faces extreme housing pressures and yet another tide of rapid change, West Oakland wants a place that feels affordable, where they can play music and continue to hold barbeques. A place where they can feel and be their whole selves.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

21000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Imagine coming home after a long day at work: your kids get home and you want to give them a healthy dinner but have nowhere to get it. The only full-service grocery stores are over a mile away, and the next bus is in 30 minutes. Fast food and liquor stores are the only affordable options. This is just one example of the injustices that West Oakland families face everyday. 

West Oakland’s history and this family’s story are a prolonged fight for justice. Community members and organizations are working to address some of the challenges in West Oakland’s food landscape, many of which are a direct result of this “history” of racist public policies, disenfranchisement, and divestment. We say “history” tentatively; West Oakland still faces forms of governmental, social, and economic racism. These forces manifest themselves in the food system through inequitable access, adverse health outcomes, reduced economic security, threats to community cohesion, and gentrification and displacement. Our aim is to authentically represent what the community is asking for: a focus on empowering economic growth and food access through W-Oak Street Eats. 

The USDA classifies West Oakland as a food desert. Compared to the one grocery store for every 8,175 people in the nearby Oakland hills, there is only one store for every 42,350 people in the Oakland flatlands that includes West Oakland (City of Oakland’s West Oakland Specific Plan, 2014). This lack of access contributes to poor diet, obesity and other diet-related illnesses. Food is also perversely more expensive in food deserts. Numerous West Oakland food establishments have shut their doors or moved, resulting in the loss of local businesses and gathering places centered around food. These patterns exacerbate economic inequities, as community purchasing power is not invested back into West Oakland. Starkly, households in Oakland’s food deserts spend over half a billion dollars per year on fresh food, but most of that is spent outside their neighborhood (City of Oakland’s West Oakland Specific Plan, 2014). 

This community and our world are changing. As we approach 2050, we will see these challenges persist and shift. Climate change will undoubtedly impact the health and culture of West Oakland, exacerbating already disproportionate air pollution exposure. Development proposals for “transit-oriented development” seek to achieve climate goals through densifying housing, increasing transit ridership, and lowering vehicle miles travelled. While these goals are important and necessary, they simultaneously threaten to accelerate gentrification as new residents move in and change the dynamics of the community. As we consider and implement sustainable development patterns, we must not leave communities like West Oakland behind in this transition.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

We are here to bring current and new residents together through food. W-Oak Street Eats will be a flexible community space, hold a commissary kitchen, and create opportunity for local food vendors to shine at a community-driven food hall. W-Oak Street Eats is timely and uniquely positioned to intervene with a vision for change, translating long-standing challenges into a space that helps create economic and cultural opportunity through food. 

W-Oak Street Eats will lower barriers to starting a food business through a cost-sharing model while facilitating knowledge-sharing. All vendors are local businesses and all staff are local residents. The commissary kitchen offers new businesses chances to perfect their craft, as well as culinary trainers a place to train residents looking for new skills. Residents getting home from work will have the option to find fresh, affordable food right at their doorstep. W-Oak Street Eats also provides a flexible space for public events, a mobile health clinic, a CSA pickup and makers market for local merchants, recognizing the interconnected needs of the community. 

The time for this venture is now. Mixed-use retail and housing developments are underway around the West Oakland BART Station, offering the opportunity for new food-focused retail. In the next five years, over 4,000 new units of housing and 100,000 square feet of new retail space will be built on and by the BART station. By partnering with SUDA LLC, the lead developer on the mixed-use project at the BART station, and the community, we can bring our shared vision of increased food access and economic growth to life. 

This is the window of opportunity for change. West Oakland is a state-designated Opportunity Zone, an “economically-distressed” community where new investments are incentivized through preferential tax treatment. Given the current and planned investment in West Oakland, it is possible that the community could lose this designation come 2026. 

We also have a responsibility to fight for this change as the climate crisis heightens. As residents experience more heat waves and health impacts, W-Oak Street Eats can provide respite as a cooling center and connect residents to food-related health services like CSA fresh produce and mobile health advice. As cities like Oakland look toward transit and bicycle infrastructure to mitigate emissions, W-Oak Street Eats will promote transportation equity as an accessible, walkable anchor where people can enjoy food. 

Our vision is rooted in the past as well as the future. Our vision for W-Oak Street Eats is the product of decades of food justice activism in the community: we seek to support, not subsume, this inspiring work. By offering community space for local artists and makers, employing local staff, showcasing local culture through food and connecting our mission to local movements, we can increase economic and food access through highlighting the unique culture of West Oakland.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In the West Oakland of the future, W-Oak Street Eats is an anchor and a changemaker. Residents no longer have to choose between staying close to home and finding the fresh ingredients they need to make nutritious, enriching meals. Fresh produce is readily accessible and makes families feel empowered everyday. Rather than exporting the community’s resources to be spent elsewhere, the $10 million of estimated potential sales that was previously spent in other communities stays where it belongs in West Oakland. Residents gather with friends and family at W-Oak Street Eats, brought together by creative, culturally relevant and diverse meals prepared and imagined by local food entrepreneurs. 

These food entrepreneurs aren’t just anyone: they are a part of the community themselves. W-Oak Street Eats vendors are established restaurants like Brown Sugar Kitchen and Red Bay Coffee, that mentor up-and-coming shops like Mammacitas Cafe. Local entrepreneurs know W-Oak Street Eats is the best place to get their foot in the door to the competitive food industry. They hire local residents on as staff, providing a pipeline to financial independence. Those involved in West Oakland’s food ecosystem experience a sense of empowerment and control of their future, and the future of their community. 

The rising tide soon lifts all boats. Community members regularly use W-Oak Street Eats for public and private events and residents enjoy the gathering space for recreation they have so long desired. As transit ridership increases and W-Oak Street Eats gains popularity, the neighborhood becomes safer, aided by the presence of community ambassadors. West Oakland residents - both new and existing - can express and be themselves in a co-designed space that is welcoming to all, fostering a sense of belonging and togetherness in the neighborhood.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Yesterday, I got off BART at West Oakland. It was dark, and a line of cars waited to take people to other parts of the city. The ‘open’ signs of Mandela Market and the corner store across the street glimmer as small beacons of hope. If I need a full-service grocery store or crave something to eat, I too have to wait 30 minutes for the next bus or drive where I want to go. If I wanted to start a restaurant, cafe or other food business, I don’t know how or where I could do that. 

In 2050, West Oakland is transformed. Getting off BART feels like coming home, to a community that could only exist at West Oakland. Food brings together old and new residents. Abundant produce fills the stalls of Mandela Market’s expanded space at W-Oak Street Eats, where an affordable CSA caters to both low income and affluent residents. You walk into W-Oak Street Eats and see a bevy of colorful restaurants, run and staffed by the local community. There will be chicken and waffles, dairy-free ice cream and a small tamale shop. Every stall offers a $6 meal option, just in case my money is tight this month, and they’re all delicious. On the other end of the food hall, up-and-coming artists serenade visitors during an open mic night. Residents who have lived in the community for over 60 years and remember the Panthers’ legacy gather and talk about the jazz clubs that used to exist, and how they compare to the crazy music the kids are listening to now. 

The climate in 2050 is different than it was. Neighbors seek respite from the changing weather and drifting plumes of wildfire smoke at W-Oak Street Eats, feeling resilient, surrounded by family and friends. Because the community works and lives at W-Oak Street Eats, there is an ethos of care and concern for the larger community that goes beyond food. 

The commissary kitchen bolsters the local economy, providing a space for residents to learn culinary skills and incubate businesses. Satellite restaurants founded by West Oakland entrepreneurs that first planted their seed at W-Oak Street Eats now pop up across the Bay Area. The food stalls in W-Oak Street Eats have a following of loyal customers who are able to hop off BART to stop in for a healthy, delicious and affordable meal before they head home. New folks come every day to experience what West Oakland offers. 

The vision is woke (and W-Oak). W-Oak Street Eats is not just about a food hall and kitchen. It is not solely a mechanism for economic opportunity or a weight against gentrification. We envision a process that is co-created, that passes the mic to the many voices of West Oakland. We envision a space that offers people a way to connect, through food and entrepreneurship, in an increasingly divided world. Longtime West Oakland residents along with new ones will come here to enjoy food and share space. This is more than just a food hall. It is a place where all people feel welcomed, not alienated by price, atmosphere, or attitudes. W-Oak Street encourages everyone to be their full selves and leave with full bellies. 

West Oakland - with its rich history of opposition, activism and culture as the “Harlem of the West” - is an apt locale for the birth of the W-Oak vision. A community at the crossroads of change, a vision that nourishes community cohesion will be crucial. This is where W-Oak’s mission can link the co-benefits of cultural, economic and physical well-being for the West Oakland community. 

Currently, West Oakland faces a number of health and socioeconomic challenges that were brought on by racist and segregationist policies. The redlining that designated all of West Oakland as blighted in 1949, took away the thriving black community that had been created. BART replaced the center of West Oakland’s downtown with a transit system that catered to bring far away residents over, rather than through the neighborhood. These injustices continue to be felt today. 

By divesting in homes and the economy, and running transit routes with particulate matter through what used to be centers of black life, the City of Oakland systematically oppressed the West Oakland and contributed to their poor health. Today, a child born in West Oakland will live 6.6 years less than elsewhere in the county at large, simply because of where they grew up. Rates of chronic illness, like diabetes and heart disease, are higher here; higher especially for the balck population that continues to call West Oakland home. West Oakland’s asthma rates and hospitalization due to asthma are widely disproportionate. 

Food can pave the road to a healthier, happier West Oakland. While community based organizations like Mandela Co-Operative, the West Oakland Health Indicators Project and City Slicker Farms provide hope and do important work, there is still much to be done. West Oakland is still considered a food desert, with only one full service grocery store for its population of over 40,000 people. W-Oak Street Eats seeks to be a part of the larger solution by employing and empowering local residents around eating good food everyday. 

West Oakland is no stranger to the complexities of a multifaceted food system, but our vision puts the community’s desires first. In a community like West Oakland, there are problems of food access, sustainable sourcing, local employment and affordability. Wicked problems like this that have been decades in the making cannot be fixed overnight. By prioritizing the needs that are priorities of community (specifically, local employment and job creation in the food sector), we are creating a vision ushered by the community rather than forced upon them. For example, Mandela Co-Operative strives to stock their shelves with ethically-sourced goods but also is obligated to serve the community’s food preferences, which may not align with their values of sustainable sourcing. While the problems are many, the most pressing desire residents voiced was the desire for economic opportunity and food access. Understanding that, more often than not, progress comes with tradeoffs, W-Oak Street Eats can help usher in a new wave of food progress. First, empowering the local economy and providing food access. Then, becoming a sustainable, locally-sourced food system that the residents are proud to be a part of. The City, developers, new residents and those who have benefited from their position in the world also have an obligation to listen to what West Oakland has been demanding for decades: a rightful place in a just and thriving food system. 

By 2050, W-Oak street will spur the local economy in West Oakland. Those 10 million dollars that were being spent outside the local economy are now 20 million dollars and are reinvested into businesses locally. Community members can now afford to purchase more of the land that they are living on and are excited about cultivating urban gardens and achieving food sovereignty. The boom in food economics has allowed restaurants to forge partnerships with local black-owned farms. Regular partnerships with these restaurants has given the farmers consistent income and allowed them to begin the expensive process of switching to organic produce. 

W-Oak Street Eats has brought together developers, nonprofits and locals together to work towards a more sustainable food future. West Oakland has changed, but change that is shepherded by the community rather than imposed on it, correcting the injustices that have happened time and time again in the past. 

While there is no other West Oakland, there are many communities with parallel histories that face similar contemporary challenges. One does not need to look outside the Bay Area to find places like Richmond or Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco that are similarly majority black communities subject to a legacy of discriminatory policies and currently classified as food deserts by the USDA. We envision W-Oak Street Eats as a recipe for other communities grappling with these issues.

After early success in the Bay Area, the W-Oak Street Eats model has expanded to communities, like Central District in Seattle and south Fresno, seeking empowerment and revitalization. Inclusive, co-created food halls are popping up in cities across the country, taking on the culture and character of the local place. Economic opportunity becomes a reality for many when there was none before, as young entrepreneurs and community members find meaningful work in their community. Changing economic and climate conditions shift patterns of migration, but now, communities have a vehicle and space to welcome new residents into the fold. Like in W-Oak Street Eats in West Oakland, residents new and old gather together, connect over food and build a sense of belonging and empathy for one another. 

Although we have come a long way, difficult challenges remain. The world continues to struggle to adapt to the new normal introduced by climate change. We address these challenges differently than we did in 2020. Diverse voices are at the decision-making table, bringing new ideas and ways of thinking and empowering problem-solvers with different perspectives and experiences. The political discourse has become less polarized, as citizens no longer feel an “us vs. them” mentality due to an increased sense of engagement and connection in their own communities. There is a shared and renewed sense of hope: with an anchor and sense of belonging in their community, citizens feel empowered to effect the change they want to see. Food is a force to empower and unite, and it came to life through W-Oak Street Eats.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Prize partners

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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