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Everyone has the right to fresh, healthy food. Nikki Henderson, Executive Director of People’s Grocery, talks about the importance of food justice.
Tell us about the work and mission of People’s Grocery.

Nikki Henderson: People’s Grocery is a health and wealth organization whose mission is to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through the local food system. We do that through health projects like our community garden and our partnership with Highland Hospital, and food enterprises like our grocery store spinoff, People’s Community Market; and microenterprises and partnerships with leaders through our Growing Justice Institute.

What is food justice and why does it matter?

Nikki Henderson: Food justice is the belief that healthy food is a human right, so everyone has an inherent right to access healthy, fresh food. Access is a mixture between location, affordability, and cultural appropriateness. Food justice is important for everyone because food is culture. Food is your family. Food is part of how we communicate with one another; it’s a way we share our love. Being able to enjoy and prepare food that actually nourishes the body and keeps us healthy is connected to our ability to stay sane as human beings.

The concept of food sovereignty is a global concept, and the concept of food justice is a local concept within America. This is key, because the global peasant farmer movement is huge, and it’s something that people see as being completely necessary and non-negotiable. The right of people to control their own food, the farmer legacy, is a priority in every culture. In different parts of the world, if someone asks, “What are you famous for?” the answer is often, “Our music and our food.”

What role does cultural appropriateness play in food access?

Nikki Henderson: Part of cultural appropriateness is that the food pyramid, or the new version of it, MyPlate, just doesn’t work for everyone, health-wise. There are some cultures that get sick if they eat unfermented vegetables, or other cultures where the majority of folks are lactose intolerant. Even beyond looking at cultures, food intolerances are a much bigger issue than they were fifty years ago because of the way we treat our food supply. People being able to choose foods that create health for them is super, super important.

We call that “cultural appropriateness” because our focus is people of color and low-income people, and we know that different ethnic communities, because of their cultural backgrounds, eat different foods. So for us, it’s more than just health. Being able to maintain your grandmother’s special dish, or being able to cook your husband that food that your dad always made for you that you really loved, are things that are not to be trifled with, and that need to be protected.

How can individuals and communities create a more just food system?

Nikki Henderson: I think for individuals to join community is the first step. The culture of voting with your dollar and being able to consume your way to a better food system—is simply not enough. We have to go beyond purchasing a CSA or growing our own garden; it’s about good food for all. Choose a community you want to be part of, whether it is a community garden, a faith-based group, or a food policy council, then engage with others working toward systemic change. There are many ways to participate.

What are some examples from your work that give you hope?

Nikki Henderson: We developed our Growing Justice Institute model in response to what we were seeing in the community. The Growing Justice Institute evolved because we knew that we could do an enterprise once every couple of years, but there were people in the community that were trying to move from the individual to the community, and it’s really hard when you have day-to-day life hitting you in the face. I’m able to watch our recent Fellows develop these projects that are improving the health and economy of West Oakland through food. I see them work together and watch how their projects morph and change through their contact with each other and with the community. All of the different projects shifted as people came into contact with one another. It’s like having a cohort, having a group to bounce your ideas off of. I’ve been super inspired.

A great example is that one of the Fellows did a cooking class, in partnership with New Foundry Ventures, Lifelong Medical, and People’s Grocery. She was super enthusiastic about all of this and wanted to do more. Through a jobs forum of ours, she connected with Revolution Foods and now works for them full-time. She’s not a Growing Justice Institute Fellow anymore, but she accomplished what she wanted to accomplish. She’s a woman of color inside this entrepreneurial food organization that has really great values, and she gets to take all that she learned from us and apply it toward healthy school food.

What does the food movement mean to you?

Nikki Henderson: Family. If the world was the way that it should be, the food movement would be composed of such traditions as Thanksgiving and birthday parties and community celebrations that would happen anyway. That’s the heart of the food movement to me — wanting that special thing that takes place when family and friends gather together around food — to be everywhere, with everyone.

About Nikki Henderson

Nikki began her work in social justice through the foster care system in Southern California, having been raised with seven older foster brothers. Through mentoring, tutoring, and directing Foster Youth Empowerment Workshops, she developed her passion for youth leadership development among communities of color. She later shifted into sustainability, developing course curriculum for the University of California system and advocating across the state for environmental justice and political ecology.

Nikki has worked closely with Van Jones and Phaedra Ellis Lamkins at Green for All, fighting for a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. In 2009, She co-founded Live Real, a national collaborative of food movement organizations committed to strengthening and expanding the youth food movement in the United States. In 2010, Nikki was featured in ELLE magazine as one of the five Gold Awardees.

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