A Conversation with Nikki Henderson of People’s Grocery, Part 2

 

Our conversation with Nikki Henderson, executive director of People’s Grocery, continues.  In this excerpt, Nikki talks about the urban garden the organization has created, and what it means for the community.

 

CTH Blog:

We’ve talked about the Growing Justice Institute.  Are there any other People’s Grocery programs you’re especially passionate about?

NH:

Our garden at the California Hotel.  The California Hotel is a single-room occupancy, low-income housing space in West Oakland.  At the back of the hotel, on a quarter of an acre, we have a garden, greenhouse, vermiculture (worm composting) and chickens.  We grow mushrooms.  We have aquaponics.

CTH Blog:

Aquaponics?

NH:

An aquaponics system is where you can grow produce in rocks and water, without soil.  You need a fish tank that pipes into a bucket of rocks, and then you plant seeds in this bucket of rocks.  And fish poop, which is in the water, serves as the fertilizer, and the plants can grow from the nutrients in the water, right in the rocks.  Then you have a filtration system using the plant roots, so that clean water gets piped back into the fish tank, creating this closed-loop system.  And the fish used – often tilapia – can be eaten.  So you can eat your tilapia and your vegetables right out of your little aquaponics system.

CTH Blog:

Wow — that’s really cool.

NH:

It’s hard core.  (Laughs)  It’s pretty amazing.  The garden is mainly a community building and health space.  We do four major events a year, plus tours, as well as a weekly series in the fall where we try to bring people together around food and health in a tangible way and just create more of a community in West Oakland.  And the health component is that the hotel is being renovated, and Healthy Oakland and Lifelong Medical – a physical health clinic and a mental health services organization – are going to come into the hotel to service the community.  And we at People’s Grocery are going to serve the emotional relationship building component of health with our garden.

CTH Blog:

How does the health and well being of one community ultimately affect surrounding communities, and the society at large?

NH:

According to the census, 15 percent of Americans (46.2 million) live in poverty.  33 percent of Americans deal with hypertension, and I think 8 percent of Americans deal with diabetes.  And a lot of those numbers overlap.  That means there are millions and millions of people who are both poor and dealing with diet-related disease.  And a lot of these communities tend to look exactly the same.  They were thriving, had a lot of industry.  Enter public works projects, like freeways or post offices, which bisect the community.  Industry leaves to the suburbs, and now you have a low-income community.  That story has been repeated over and over again.

I feel like we can demonstrate in West Oakland what it looks like for community transformation to be based not on deficits – these people don’t have money, don’t have education, and we need to come in and give to them – but rather work from an asset-based perspective:  These people have a complex and nuanced understanding of the challenges facing their community.  It’s about looking at what we do have that we can use rather than what we don’t have that we need to provide.

And we can share with other communities.  Ultimately, in order for the health of one community to affect surrounding communities and society, best practices must be exchanged.

CTH Blog:

Are there organizations and programs similar to your work at People’s Grocery already in place throughout the United States?

NH:

The Social Justice Learning Institute in Inglewood, Calif., is actually one of our partners, and we’ve been co-writing a paper together that goes into how similar our organizations are.  There are also organizations in New Orleans, Detroit and New York that are all doing work very similar to our efforts.

CTH Blog:

The holidays are a time of year when people are looking for ways to help, especially surrounding food (so many canned food drives).  Do you have any suggestions for ways people can help?

NH:

If you donate food or volunteer at a food bank, I would suggest looking for ways to carry that investment over the course of the wintertime.  You don’t have to donate food over the course of the winter months, but if you donate food, could you hold a cooking class?  Figuring out a way to keep in touch with what’s happening and make sure it’s not just a one-time thing would probably be the best thing you could do to help.

Check out more on all of People’s Grocery’s programs at its website.

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