What Food Justice Looks Like in West Oakland and rural Hawaii

Interview with Ted Levinson, Director of Lending.

Nikki Henderson (People’s Grocery, Shared Gifting grantee) and Cheryl Vasconcellos (Hana Health,borrower) are leading the charge to ensure healthy, quality food for all. Working in two very different locales, West Oakland and rural Hawaii, we decided to bring them together to share their experiences. Catch the podcast for more of our Clients in Conversation.

Ted: Can you both give us a brief introduction to your work?

Nikki: People’s Grocery has been around for 10 years now with a mission to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through the local food system. We do nutrition education, gardens, cooking classes and all of the typical individual behavior change activities. In the last couple of years, we’ve moved a bit more toward partnerships and leadership development to build the capacity of people in the community to solve their own problems around food and health.

Our main program now is called the Growing Justice Institute, a leadership development program where we work with people from West Oakland who are really interested in food and health, to co-design a local food project.

People’s Grocery teaches Oakland youth about healthy eating and delivers fresh food to underserved communities.

Our direct service programming really sits with our strategic partnerships. Two of our top programs include a garden at the California Hotel, which is a low-income housing structure in West Oakland and the “Bite to Balance program” at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Families who have children dealing with childhood obesity or diet-related disease get a free grub box with nutrition education for six months. The hospital tracks their health outcomes to record the changes in their health based on different nutrition behaviors. We’re about to start that up again this year with hopefully 100 families.

Cheryl: Hana Health is a non-profit, federally qualified health center that serves the unmet healthcare needs of the low-income Native population in Hana, which is a very small, isolated, rural community.

We’re trying to address the local social determinants of health — high rates of unemployment, lack of education, and lack of a stable, nutritious food supply. So we have several programs in addition to the medical center, which provides the full range of primary care services, dental and behavioral healthcare.

The Hana Fresh certified organic farm has grown from one acre to seven acres in full production. From this we run a daily farm market for the Hana community where we sell fresh produce and prepared foods.

Our approach to prevention has been on a stealth basis. We make sure we have good food that people will want to eat at the market. We don’t ever refer to it as healthy. We refer to it as really good. And it’s taken off—the community is really enjoying it.

We were operating the full service program in a 75-year-old, 100 square foot kitchen up until we were able to get the building permit for our new nutrition center, which, thanks to RSF, we were able to finish.

Ted: It’s hard to imagine two places that are more different than Hana, Hawaii, population – 2200 and Oakland at 400,000 with more than 10 times the density. However, both of you are working in the same space—the intersection of food, health, and economic development. Why focus on three things instead of one?

Nikki: In the community we work with in West Oakland, you can’t really talk about anything without talking about economic development. People aren’t going to take us seriously because times are just so hard. People need to have a good job to meet their basic needs.

If we’re talking about health without connecting it to the day-to-day realities, then we’re not going to be relevant. Bringing food into health is part of the inspiration that’s needed when people are living in survival mode. For example, in West Oakland, we just came off of a month of a lot of deaths of young people because when summer comes, temperatures rise, and that’s usually when there’s a rash of killing. August is always a somber time in West Oakland. When you have things like that, that you can anticipate, it helps to focus anything you do with an orientation towards celebration and healing of the spirit and the soul. It’s a way to stay relevant and to be a positive force in the community. Food is healing to the soul.

Ted: Cheryl, how does economic development manifest in the work you do?

Cheryl: Well definitely in job creation. We are able to provide good jobs to a community that has very few options just by virtue of its size. We know that good jobs are a key determinant of good health.

Our Nutrition Center as well as the Hana Fresh Farm are also economic drivers in this community because the money that’s generated through the programs are pretty much kept within the district. People work, get a paycheck, and spend their money at the local stores, which create additional jobs. That’s actually a big part of what we do.

Hana Health serves up fresh food along with education and care.

We also had to look at economic development initiatives out of necessity because the state was no longer willing to fully subsidize the medical center. How could we keep healthcare in the community, when the funds clearly were not going to be there? So, we looked at what we could do on our own that would be mission driven while at the same time creating a financial base to support the health center.

Ted: The Rand Corporation has said that there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in the neighborhood and obesity among children and adolescents. Is this your experience?

Cheryl: I don’t know that I fully accept that. From our experience in Hana, we know that in making fresh produce available to the community, the community’s eating habits are changing. We’re tracking how people are eating. And we’ve been able to document that they have increased their consumption of fresh produce by one serving a day.

That’s not a lot, but it’s a step in the right direction. We know that people are eating vegetables who never ate vegetables before.

Nikki: What I’ve seen is that if you drop a grocery store into the middle of the community, things don’t necessarily change. People are going to buy the same things in grocery stores that they bought at liquor stores if there’s not engagement around the types of food they’re eating.

We have found that if we just do a nutrition demonstration, that’s probably not enough to change behavior. But if there’s a cooking class in addition to ongoing engagement through the California Hotel, people’s behaviors are absolutely changing.

Ted: What can we do to make healthy food more affordable?

Nikki: The thing about affordable food is that objectively speaking, producing healthy food is incredibly labor and resource intensive. In the U.S., that incredibly resource-intensive thing that all societies must learn how to do was started the wrong way from the very beginning with the way that we subsidized agriculture using free labor, and we’ve never quite recovered from that.

One of the reasons why I go that far back is because I think the normal foodie’s answer to that is that the government subsidizes bad food, which is why it’s cheaper. That’s absolutely true. But the government has always subsidized agriculture in a way that hasn’t really been healthy for those producing the food or for those eating the food.

There’s a fundamental culture shift that has to happen with the way that our entire monetary system works around food. We need to create a system where everywhere on the food chain there will be monetary incentives to produce quality food as opposed to cheap, nasty food.

Ted: Why have you chosen to incorporate enterprise into your mission?

Cheryl: I wanted to approach our mission in a bigger way because it would have been very easy for me coming to Hana 15 years ago to just run a small medical clinic that provided decent medical care to the community.

But in a community of this size and nature, and given the native population here, I felt that if we couldn’t have a bigger impact than just operating a clinic in this small little community, there’s not a whole lot of hope for the rest of the world.

With Hana Health it really is more than just having a medical center. It’s about addressing the social and economic determinants of health. And of course, we need money to operate. So I think it was kind of natural to start looking at enterprise and economic development strategies for increasing wealth and creating jobs.

Nikki: We have to look at the sustainability of a community when it comes to how it’s going to get healthy food forever and not just right now.

It’s just so expensive to have a food system that subsidizes unhealthy food, and then an economic system that leaves a lot of people unemployed so that the emergency food system is totally overloaded.

Self-sustainability and financial sustainability was a conversation from the very beginning. That’s actually why I think enterprise has always been a focal point of what People’s Grocery has done, because we don’t want people to be relying heavily on emergency food systems forever. We want them to be able to sustainably get healthy food, so we had to try to figure out a way to do that. That’s why enterprise.

Ted: Thank you both.

Nikki Henderson is the Executive Director of People’s Grocery. Nikki began her work in social justice through the foster care system in Southern California, having been raised with seven older foster brothers. She has worked closely with Green for All, fighting for a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty and as part of Slow Food USA, in Brooklyn, NY. Nikki holds Master’s Degree in African American studies from UCLA. People’s Grocery is an RSF Shared Gifting and Donor Advised Fund grantee.

Cheryl Vasconcellos has been the Executive Director of Hana Health since 1997.  She is the past CEO of Planned Parenthood of Hawaii and has worked in Hawaii’s non-profit sector for thirty years.  Cheryl began her career working with non-profit organizations as a VISTA volunteer placed with the Maui United Way.  She attended Wayne State University in Michigan, and Hilo College and Chaminade University in Hawaii, studying Sociology and Business. Hana Health is a borrower of the RSF Social Investment Fund.

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