The Roots Community Health Center is a nonprofit health clinic in East Oakland that was founded in 2008 and currently has over 29 different programs to serve the community. One of their most recent additions is the Roots Community Market. For more insight on the new program, I spoke with Service Development Manager, Julian Johnson.
“We’ve been working on our food market and our food distribution plan for about a year.” Johnson said. “It has been up for about a month and right now is open to clients in two specific programs that we have.”
“We had a capacity building grant through the Alameda County Food Bank that helped us secure a lot of what we have here, such as the refrigerator and the fixturing. That has been a really important partnership in making sure that we are able to to get this food out to the community.”
Johnson went into further detail on the overall process.
“The Tuesday to Thursday clientele are predominantly those who are in two programs that have case managers. What ends up happening is that they meet with their case manager over whatever they might need in housing, medical or financial support and then their navigator ends up walking them over here to get food.”
Looking to add some dignity into the process, the Roots Community Market developed a point system for their clients when selecting food. The amount they are able to take is determined by the amount of people in their respective families.
“What I’ve noticed since utilizing the point system is that people use it like money and they do think of the products then as having more value,” Johnson said. “There will be a lot of people coming in here and not use all of the points that are allocated. They’ll say, ‘This is enough for me. I can save more for somebody else.’ The model in itself is more respectful than other things that we’ve seen.”
Aside from giving their clients food, the market has also been able to further expand their knowledge and use of the produce.
“For example, a lot of people don’t know what arugula is or they don’t know how to prepare it so there is definitely an educational component that we offer. We have cookbooks that people are allowed to take with no point value that are soulful recipes that are healthy.”
“We have a ‘Welcome Wednesday’ that is every Wednesday. Our street outreach team goes to encampments around Oakland that are unsheltered so that they can get medical care and empowerment services. We have a clothing closet as well and a prepared lunch that day so they can actually sit down, eat some food and come through here before they leave.”
As for any potential leftovers, there isn’t any need to worry.
“We have such a reach that if we have any leftover food that hasn’t been taken over the three days that we are open, I can have the street outreach team take it out. It cuts down on food waste exponentially because we do have the infrastructure on a relatively large scale.”
“The feedback most of all has been really appreciative. They come here knowing this is somewhere that they can trust and that we can support them in this. We all have so much that we worry about day to day and if we take all of those obstacles that our community faces, and if we can take just one of them away, that is huge, especially if it something as important as food.”
As for Johnson herself:
“I am actually transitioning out. I am finishing a social welfare degree at UC Berkeley so it’s been very bittersweet to be able to see all of the is fruition after all of this time and energy put into it. The response has been great and the cool thing when you create a sustainable model, you should be able to back away and say this is going to be able to work without me and know that it will be substantial and stand the tests of time.”
In their first month open, the Roots Community Market served 116 people – 26 children, 30 adults and 60 seniors. They served 100 people as of July 12, when I did the interview. It was a pleasure talking with Johnson and getting to see in person the infrastructure Roots has been able to create. It includes food and all of the many other services they provide through kind-hearted community members who are truly looking to make the world a better place, starting here in East Oakland.
To strengthen the message, I will end the article with these strong words from Johnson.
“We didn’t want to call it a food pantry, we’re calling it Roots Community Market, re-framing the way that we think about food distribution. In food access there is all of this framework that food is medicine but it’s not only that – food is a human right. You eat well and you eat right because you deserve to nourish your body.”
The Roots Community Market is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays with Welcome Wednesday in between. The Roots Community Health Center is located at 9925 International Blvd. Oakland, CA 94603. You can contact them at 510-777-1177 or go to their website rootsclinic.org.