Making Healthy Food Accessible: Brahm Ahmadi and the People’s Grocery Inc.

hs11Brahm Ahmadi, 32, is the Founder and Executive Directorof the remarkable and innovative People’s Grocery, Inc. It’s a community-based nonprofit organization that works to improve the health and economy of the West Oakland community through the local food system. In order to successfully accomplish their mission, People’s Grocery Inc. has launched several unique programs including the Mobile Market, a truck converted into a traveling food store that sells healthy foods at affordable prices to West Oakland residents. They are also looking to open a for-profit, worker owned, grocery store in order to help fund their project and make themselves financially solvent. Brahm’s belief, as well as the organization’s, is for the right of all people to have access to healthy food is what makes People’s Grocery Inc. unique. If you have a passion for progress or just want to learn more about the organization, read on in this week’s Non-Profit Spotlight.

About the non-profit

People’s Grocery is a community-based nonprofit organization working to build a local food system that improves the health and economy of the West Oakland community. People’s Grocery addresses public health issues in the West Oakland community, especially diet-related chronic diseases and malnutrition, through a community-based approach utilizing nutrition education, social enterprise, sustainable agriculture and youth development. Over four years PG Nonprofit has grown to receive significant attention for its social innovation.

People’s Grocery promotes the concept of “food justice”, an assertion that access to healthy foods is a human right and that no one should be prevented such access because of economic or social constraints. While there is a strong movement to address an environmental crisis precipitated by unsustainable forms of industrialized agriculture and to transform the food system to ecological balance and restoration, People’s Grocery advocates that the reshaping of the food system must prioritize the participation and leadership of people of color and low-income people in order to prevent further marginalization of such populations. People’s Grocery believes that it is possible to create a sustainable food system that bridges the gaps of social inequity and enables the urban poor to benefit from and contribute leadership to a vision of ecological, economic and social change. We also assert that the creation of a community food system can provide economic opportunities for low-income communities to create jobs and generate greater resources.

People’s Grocery’s approach to creating change in West Oakland is to engage youth and families to improve the conditions of their neighborhoods. The agency’s primary goals for the community are:

  • Educate residents about food systems, sustainable agriculture, cooking, and nutrition.
  • Provide access to locally grown, healthy, culturally appropriate and affordable food.
  • Employ and train youth as leaders in the food system and their community.
  • Build self-reliance through employment, training, and local business development.
  • Build the capacity to produce food locally through sustainable agriculture.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

I do a lot of what most Executive Directors do every day like fundraising, strategic planning, public relations, program oversight and board and staff development. But, as most small non-profits, we are overworked and understaffed, so I do a lot of “extra” things like direct service delivery, organizing events and training youth. I love the diversity of activities in my job though.

Most notable milestones

Most notable of our efforts was the Mobile Market, a truck converted into a traveling food store that sold healthy foods at affordable prices to West Oakland residents. This project got tremendous attention for its out-of-the-box approach to solving inner-city food access problems.

Another important milestone was the launch of our farm, which enabled us to scale up beyond what small community gardens could provide to become a bona fide food producer. We are now selling to restaurants and will soon launch a project called the “SOUL Box”, which will delivery boxes of fresh produce from the farm to low-income families using Federal Food Stamps.

What’s the niche?

Our primary niche is our focus on bringing healthy and fresh foods to the inner-city area. Within this we are striving to broaden the understanding of food retail and distribution as a health service and education model and to place the role of such food enterprises within the domain of public health.

Our efforts to construct a vertically-integrated local food system is also a niche – we are attempting to recreate the food chain within our our organization sphere, an effort few have undertaken.

Another defining niche for us is our uniquely urban and values-driven brand identity and compelling story that taps into popular culture icons to augment our message. Our persona as a nonprofit is seen as being hip, community orientated, culturally-based and demonstrating a young and accessible attitude.

What’s the biggest challenge?

Funding. Staffing. Capacity. These are many of the same challenges faced by other non-profits. A unique challenge for us is making our social enterprises profitable or, at least, financially solvent. However, it is very difficult to achieve this in small-scale farming or in low-margin food retail. We are making progress nonetheless.

What’s in store for the future?

Our main focus is to built the capacity of our farm to achieve greater scale and revenue generation. We are looking to expand our production in order to serve more restaurants. To do this we will grow our staff and take on more acreage of land.

We plan to launch the SOUL Box in the Spring of 2008, initially serving 30 West Oakland families and then growing at a rate of 10 new families per month.

We’re in the process of developing a for-profit, worker-owned grocery store and have a goal of Fall 2008 for a grand opening.

Best way to stay effective

Personally: Don’t burn out. Take Breaks. Relax. Have Fun. Exercise. Laugh.

Organizationally: Build solid internal and external communications.

Guiding principle in life

Most of what you do will be forgotten, so do something that no one could ever forget.

Yardstick of success

Being told “thank you” by someone.

Goal yet to be achieved

A one-year sabbatical. Someday maybe.

Best practical advice

Take a vacation every three months. Don’t eat at your desk. Only check email twice a day.

Supportive words from a family member or friend on your venture

“Someday you will be rich.” The closest I’ve gotten to words of support yet.

Mentors?

My grandfather – he was a farmer and taught me to slow down and notice the land around me. This changed my entire way of seeing the world, even though I have lived most of my life in urban environments.

Scott Atthowe – a neighbor, donor and personal mentor. As a an art student in college he moved art to pay for school. He turned that gig into a multi-million dollar business. I like this kind of story – someone who built something from nothing.

Mujahid Abdullah – An African Amercian entrepreneur who “made it” to Wall Street as an investment banker and then decided it didn’t have enough soul. He’s now starting a firm called Sustainable Capital. I like stories about people who choose to go another direction than the status quo.

What motivated you to get started?

I always wanted to make a difference in the world and to do something unique and innovative. I have lived most of my life in inner city areas and have a passion for those types of communities and the struggles they go through. I wanted to help somehow. My grandfather also inspired me to reconnect with the land and with farming as a way of life. I wanted to provide an opportunity for others to make this connection for themselves. I’m passionate about justice and human rights and believe that, with these values at the center, we can construct incredible efforts to change the world.

Like best about what you do?

I like to talk. On the phone, at a conference, on a panel discussion, over a meal.

Like least about what you do?

Hiring and firing. Especially firing.

What have you learned doing this work that suprised you?

I was surprised to see how quickly our organization got attention and accolades. I learned that if you craft the right story that is compelling and near to people’s hearts it can carry you very far.

What other movements are you involved in or interested in?

I am generally too busy running my organization to be involved in other movements, but the expansion and privatization of prisons and the struggle for freedom in Palestine are two issues I care a lot about.

What advice would you give others who are interested in getting involved?

Be prepared to find yourself doing things that you thought you never would.

At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be three things: a veterinarian, an architect and an fiction author.

What was your first job?

I vacuumed cars at my father’s car wash.

Biggest pastime outside of work

Swimming, salsa dancing and cooking.

Person most interested in meeting?

If he were alive, Krishnamurti. His philosophy is inspiring and shakes up the way I think about the world.

Leader in business most interested in meeting?

Steve Jobs. I think he’s very innovative and able to somehow break through paradigms. I also admire a person who went from being an unknown, LSD-using computer geek to a premiere global technology executive.

Three interesting facts about yourself

  1. My father is from the Middle-East (Iran) and my mother is from the Midwest (Iowa).
  2. I play hand drums, especially djembe and congas.
  3. My favorite food is honeydew melon.

Three characteristics that describe you

  1. Calm
  2. Passionate
  3. Inquisitive

Three greatest passions

  1. Justice
  2. Culture
  3. History

Favorite book

“Getting to Scale: Growing Your Business Without Selling Out” by Jill Bamberg

Favorite cause

Food access for inner cities and low-income people.

Most influential event in your life

Moving from Iran to Iowa to LA within two years. This experience shook up my sense of place and identity and gave me a much more global and multi-cultural perspective.

Favorite food

Honeydew melons!

Who would you like to be contacted by?

Anyone with expertise in fundraising, public health, business development, agriculture, food distribution and retail, organizational development, and management.