East Oakland Grocery Cooperative founding cohort members (from top left) Demetrius El Gant, James Hudson, Erin Higgenbotham, Crsna Cox, Yolanda Romo, Jameelah Lane and Daniel Harris-Lucas with EOGC project manager (front right) Ayano Jeffers-Fabro of the East Oakland Grocery Cooperative. Photo: Demetrius El Gant

In East Oakland, the general understanding among residents is that the further east you live, the farther you will have to travel for fresh, healthy groceries. In deep East Oakland — from 73rd Avenue east to the San Leandro border — there are only three full-service grocery stores, which is why a group of East Oakland residents and others with long ties to the area are working to open the neighborhood’s first worker-owned grocery cooperative.

The East Oakland Grocery Cooperative (EOGC) is a Black and POC-led, community-developed initiative that aims to provide fresh, local, healthy and culturally relevant foods, as well as job opportunities, to East Oakland residents. The point is not only to diversify neighborhood food offerings, but also to localize and build economic resilience among the area’s Black and POC communities.

“This was something that this community has been voicing for a long, long time,” said project manager Ayano Jeffers-Fabro. “This was just the moment where the energy came together to launch.”

Jeffers-Fabro was a community program coordinator with Acta Non Verba, a youth urban farming nonprofit, when she connected to the East Oakland Neighborhoods Initiative (EONI), a committee made up of the city of Oakland’s Planning Bureau and 12 community organizations. In spring 2019, EONI began canvassing East Oakland residents at business, faith-based gatherings and community events to identify what development they would most like to see in their neighborhood.

In October 2019, EONI published a final community plan with the heading “Better Neighborhoods. Same Neighbors.” Among a desire for more bicycle infrastructure, urban greening and mobile medical services, community members wanted access to healthy foods, farmers markets, edible gardens, and — specifically — a cooperative-run grocery store.

With funding from California FreshWorks, Jeffers-Fabro was tasked with project management of the fledging co-op. In collaboration with Mandela Grocery, a worker-owned market in West Oakland, Jeffers-Fabro was tasked with recruiting and training a founding cohort of up to eight individuals. Jeffers-Fabro had planned to do more outreach at community events, but COVID-19 put the kibosh on in-person recruitment. Instead, she put together a website and fundraising page, along with an Instagram and Facebook presence for the EOGC, to start recruiting online.

Though the funding allowed for up to eight members, the existing cohort is made up of seven Black and POC individuals, which for the moment feels like the right number for the work, Jeffers-Fabro said. There were no hard and fast requirements to be considered for the cohort, but priority went to Black and POC applicants with deep ties to East Oakland.

“We know a lot of our rooted community members who were born and raised in East Oakland may not technically be living in the same zipcode or even city limits anymore,” Jeffers-Fabro said. Even among the seven founding members, not all live in East Oakland, or even Oakland at all. One member commutes from Tracy. So rather than basing membership on an address, Jeffers-Fabro asked applicants why the project resonated with them, what their connection was to East Oakland and how the co-op fit into that sense of connection. “We really used that as the determining factor rather than checking boxes.”

East Oakland Grocery Cooperative members meet for a visioning session. Photo: Demetrius El Gant

Founding member Daniel Harris-Lucas lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up — between 98th Avenue and the San Leandro border. He had been working in tech when he was laid off in March on account of COVID-19, which gave him time to reconnect with his community, notice what had changed in his neighborhood, and more importantly, what hadn’t.

“Having been home, I realized I don’t have a lot of access to groceries,” he said. Harris-Lucas occasionally has to travel as far as Hayward or Castro Valley to complete his shopping list.

Wanting to get involved with a project that would benefit his family and his greater community, Harris-Lucas said he was immediately drawn to the EOGC’s mission. “I was at home, scrolling through Instagram, and then linked to East Oakland Grocery Cooperative, and at that moment it was ‘aha!’”

Harris-Lucas said that in recent years, he has experienced what he calls the double disappointment of gentrification. That is, seeing residents and businesses desert East Oakland, and then seeing new businesses move in that are disinterested in serving the neighborhood’s longtime residents. Instead, they seem to have an eye on serving an eventual, more affluent clientele — “Projects that are not for us but the next iteration,” Harris-Lucas explained.

“This is a project that cares about East Oakland. This project has brought me home.” — Daniel Harris-Lucas

“There are Black and Brown people who have been here but been left out of the planning process,” he said. “To build a grocery store that Black and Brown people can identify with, that’s homegrown,” he said, “that’s a project that I can feel connected to.”

“This is a project that cares about East Oakland,” he said. “This project has brought me home.”

Fellow founding member Erin Higginbotham had been living on the East Coast for a few years when she moved back to the Bay Area. She grew up splitting time between East Oakland and Berkeley.

Having been away for a few years, she found the changes to her old neighborhood discouraging. “Any of us who are from Oakland have recognized that there’s not just food deserts but food apartheid,” she said. “I got into the habit of grocery shopping in either San Leandro or near the Montclair area, not by choice, but out of need.”

After moving back to California, Higginbotham wanted to get more involved with community work. “There were so many ways residents were being left out of conversations that impacted us the most,” she said. She just wasn’t quite sure what that work would be until stumbling upon the EOGC through “a random Instagram scroll” and knew that she wanted to get in at the ground level.

“This is still very new but it feels like we’re moving in the right direction,” Higginbotham said.

At present the seven members are engaged in a 12-week training program at Mandela Grocery Cooperative, which is serving in an advisory capacity, along with Repaired Nations, an organization focused on building wealth and resilience within Black communities.

Mandela is offering a kind of “cooperative apprenticeship” at their West Oakland store, teaching the standards of operating a grocery business (ordering stock, operating a register, customer service, managing a budget) as well as the nuances of running a worker-owned cooperative (constructing a mission and vision, resolving tension and reaching consensus).

“Any of us who are from Oakland have recognized that there’s not just food deserts but food apartheid.” — Erin Higginbotham

“It’s our co-op 101,” said Adrionna Fike, a worker-owner at Mandela Grocery, describing the training process. “Running a cooperative is a mindset as much as it is a business operation.”

Fike was happy to help the EOGC become real. She wants to see more cooperatives, and especially grocery cooperative, throughout the Bay Area. “We’re in the space of lots of things — food justice, racial justice, economic justice. All the intersecting justices move through food,” she said.

While its founding members continue training, the EOGC is working with the Black Cultural Zone to identify and secure an eventual physical location, with the hope to open for service in 2021. The work is very internal for right now, though by July, the EOGC hopes to offer food to residents, by way of a subscription service, a buyer’s club, curbside pickup or delivery.

Whatever the format, the cohort wants the initial offering to be a preview of what the eventual physical co-op could be. The cooperative is considering offering a box, similar to a CSA, of healthy, local, fresh, and culturally relevant foods, as well as a package of holistic health products like tea, smudge sticks and tinctures.

“It may not be exactly Mandela or Rainbow (a grocery cooperative in San Francisco),” said Jeffers-Fabro, describing the eventual result. “It will be East Oakland Grocery Cooperative. But it will have those same cooperative values.”

Learn more about the project and how to support East Oakland Grocery Cooperative here

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.