Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A New Role for Grocery Stores in Public Health

A 2002 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that, for each supermarket in low-income census tracts, residents increased their intake of fruits and vegetables by an average of 32%. Clearly, being able to purchase more fruits and vegetables in any community is a step toward reducing the conditions that lead to preventive chronic disease. At People's Community Market (PCM) we want to take the good idea of bringing grocery stores to low-income neighborhoods a step further. 

While having a grocery store in a community can result in healthier consumption, conventional models of grocery stores today aren’t necessarily maximizing the impact and role they could play on consumer health. Such food stores are often overlooked and underutilized as venues for addressing public health issues related to diet and lifestyle. We see this as a lost opportunity given that grocery stores are one of the most commonly shared destinations by most people and, as a result, could provide significant leverage for engaging the public.

An underpinning philosophy of the PCM brand is that grocery stores can be settings for engaging communities in addressing health issues related to diet and lifestyle. We're developing a design and plan for a food retail store for the inner city marketplace that reframes the role of the grocery store from being just a food retail business to being a preventive healthcare model that operates as a public health center and consumer intervention site. From this perspective the education and services offered in the store are as important to the business as the products it sells. After all PCM's goal will not just be to sell food, but to improve health in communities that are highly impacted by the prevalence and associated costs of preventive chronic disease.

PCM will offer a variety of in-store consumer education programs to support healthier food choices and lifestyle changes. In order to provide these programs cost effectively and leverage the expertise of others, PCM will partner with community and health organizations that have established proven approaches to engaging low-income urban populations in public health. Relationships with many of these potential partners have already been established through the work of PCM's sister organization, People's Grocery.  While these partnerships and services require refinement, examples of the kind of services PCM wants to provide include:

·      consultations and screenings
·      in-store demonstrations
·      tastings and giveaways
·      workshops and cooking classes
·      nutritional labeling
·      educational signage
·      point-of-purchase materials

We believe that the services provided through partnerships will not only benefit the health and well being of our customers, but will also bring financial benefits to our business. As customers become more knowledgeable about the benefits of a wider array of products they will likely buy more products and return to the store more often. And these programs won't just help boost financial returns. They will also provide PCM, as a small independent retailer, with a critical competitive advantage. The Washington Post recently ran a piece called "To keep up with the big stores, small retailers get creative" in which it interviewed retailers and analysts about how independent stores can compete with big companies that have large budgets for advertising and that can sell more cheaply. The gist of the responses were that small retailers should a) sell products that the big guys don’t sell, b) offer services that the big guys don’t offer, and c) provide a more intimate and service-driven connection to the shopper’s needs and desires. One successful independent retailer was quoted as saying that hosting workshops is a "more personal way to be in touch with our customers and keep them coming back".

The marketing research firm Kantar Retail came out with a case study in July 2010 about how an independent grocery store called Market Basket in New Hampshire was able to successfully compete against a Walmart located just one mile away. The study said that Market Basket's "use of personal appeals, handwritten signage, and a neighborhood brand established the grocer as not only more unique and authentic but also as more engaged with shoppers"
A key goal for PCM is to employ the kinds of strategies that give it a competitive advantage over bigger retailers by enriching its value proposition, carving a niche as a unique destination and customer experience and, through this, deepening loyalty. More importantly, these programs will support the aspirations of West Oakland residents to be more knowledgeable and capable in making healthy food choices and improving their own health.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Convenience is Key for Eating Healthier

Across the country there is a movement to transform our food system into one that promotes health, social equity, and sustainability. This movement is thriving in urban food desert communities where low-income residents are making connections between diet and health and, as a result, are wanting better quality food choices for their families. In response, community organizations have been working to increase access to fresh foods through a variety of food projects such as community gardens, produce stands, farmers markets, veggie boxes (CSAs) and mobile markets. Many of these ventures have received media attention and accolades from public officials, philanthropy, the public health sector and social change organizations. 

People's Community Market (PCM) has roots in this movement through its sister nonprofit, People's Grocery, which has received national attention for its food projects (including the first Mobile Market in the United States which ran from 2003 to 2007). And although PCM has arisen out of this vital movement, much of the reason that PCM is being created is to actually respond to a problem that this movement is facing: satisfying community food demand at a larger scale and in a more convenient way.

The small food projects that tend to characterize the community food movement are often unable to serve the large levels of unmet food demand that exist in under-served neighborhoods (typically ranging between 30-70%). This is largely due to the small size of these ventures. But it's also a matter of being unable to provide a convenient way to buy fresh foods. Most of these offerings only operate one or two days a week and for very limited hours. This requires that residents plan ahead, shift around their schedules and make concerted efforts to get to where the food is located. In the case of veggie boxes, one often has to order in advance, which requires a lot of forethought and actually remembering to make the order. In the case of mobile markets that move from location to location, it requires actually knowing where and when to find the market. 

In addition to being limited by time and location, these projects typically provide a very small assortment of food products, usually just fruits and vegetables. For residents who are trying to buy food across a diversity of categories that include groceries, breads, meats and prepared foods, and are shopping for an entire family for a period of a few days to a week, these projects are far from able to satisfy their shopping needs. Additionally, as many such efforts try to encourage healthier food choices (which can already entail trying out new foods and new ideas) they're often too unfamiliar in the way they operate to effectively encourage the adoption of new food choices.

The best way to increase access to fresh foods and to encourage healthier eating behavior is to make it as easy as possible for a resident to participate. While more and more people want to make healthier food choices, many are unable or unwilling to spend extra time and energy doing so, especially if it entails buying foods that are unfamiliar in variety, flavor or presentation. In a world where people are used to a high level of convenience in everything, providing exceptional convenience is a critical element in addressing food access and health in urban food deserts. These community ventures, though rooted in great values and aligned with a strong vision for a better world, have simply missed the convenience formula and, as a result, are facing big barriers in increasing their impact on local food demands.

People's Community Market is being created to provide a convenience formula that satisfies the full spectrum of food shopping needs in West Oakland. PCM will offer a broad range of products including produce, meat, seafood, cheese/dairy and prepared foods such as soups, pot roasts, gumbos, sandwiches and salads. PCM will offer organic and non-organic products across all food categories, as well as ethnic foods in most categories. And while PCM will be a smaller fresh food pavilion of 10,000 sq ft, it will be large enough to provide ample space for both the products and amenities that are key to a great and convenient customer experience. In addition, PCM will operate 6 days a week, 13 hours a day, and at a central and highly convenient location. 

An important element of PCM's social enterprise model is partnering with community and health organizations to provide consumer education that encourages healthier eating. But equally important to the way PCM will encourage healthy eating is simply being as convenient as possible in all aspects of the convenience formula that residents require. It can already be difficult in our modern food system, where unhealthy foods are so easily available, to make healthy food choices. So shouldn't making choices that are better for health be as easy as making choices that are less healthy, even in neighborhoods that have less food access? By demonstrating strategies for greater convenience in healthy food choices PCM hopes to encourage the community food movement to begin developing ventures that embrace and build on the convenience formula as a cornerstone for how the movement's values make an impact on communities and on the world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fresh Food Demand Not a Matter of Income

One of the most common questions we get when talking about opening a grocery store in West Oakland is whether low income residents actually want to purchase fresh foods or if, in fact, they prefer purchasing the processed foods that often make up a majority of their diets. This question comes, in part, from a perception that low income residents tend to purchase mostly processed, packaged foods and very little fresh foods and produce. We answer this question with three points: 

1) There is overwhelming evidence that low-income shoppers want to and do buy fresh foods.  
A 2006 study by the Alameda County Public Health Department of "West Oakland Neighbors’ Preferences for Eating and Buying Food" found that 76% of West Oakland respondents would purchase more fresh foods if they were available nearby, were affordable, and of high quality and freshness. A study entitled "Food Desert to food Oasis" looked at the food preferences of low-income residents and found that freshness/quality ranked in the top three stated preferences (the other too were convenience and affordability). These are just a couple of the many studies that exist that show that low-income people strongly want, and often make great efforts to buy, quality fresh foods. The nonprofit People's Grocery's experience over the last eight years of working in West Oakland affirms this fact based on what residents have communicated about the foods they want to be able to purchase. 

2) When low-income people buy lots of processed foods it's usually because of a lack of options. Without citing a bunch of more studies (happy to share if you ask for them) there is ample data about the preponderance of processed foods in low-income neighborhoods and the deficiency in access to fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables and foods with more whole, unprocessed ingredients. So a big reason for why low-income people often buy lots of processed foods and little fresh foods is because of the lack of availability of those fresh food choices in their neighborhoods, not necessarily their preferences for those foods. Again, People's Grocery's experience has been that West Oakland residents would really prefer to have fresh food choices and to consume less processed foods.

3) A low rate of consumption of fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, is prevalent among all segments of American society, not just among low-income people. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently came out with a report that ranked the United States as the "fattest nation" among advanced countries. The Centers for Disease Control reported in September 2010 that "most Americans don't eat enough fruits and vegetables", with only 26.3% of the population eating three or more servings of vegetables per day. So it's clear that the problem of not eating enough fresh foods and eating too much processed foods is a national issue, not just an issue relegated to low-income communities. Any bias toward purchasing processed foods among low-income shoppers is a reflection of a trend we're seeing in communities of all income levels.

While misperception continues to keep national chain food retailers out of low-income neighborhoods, or results in only attracting chain retailers that don't particularly focus on fresh foods, there are efforts by community groups throughout the country to develop retail models that emphasize and excel at providing fresh foods in underserved communities. PCM will focus on procuring and retailing the best kinds of fresh and affordable foods that residents have long expressed a desire for.    

Monday, August 30, 2010

Creating Art in the Grocery Aisles

At PCM we've been envisioning ways to integrate the arts into our future community food store. Some of the things we plan to do include hosting performances on an outdoor stage, exhibiting the work of local artists on the store inside walls,  having a mural painted on the store's outside walls, and playing music in the store from local artists. Our belief is that grocery stores, as cornerstones of neighborhoods, can offer important space for social, cultural and creative interactions.

So we were thrilled to learn about Super G Mart, a 75,000 square foot international supermarket and public flea market in Greensboro, NC. Super G Mart is taking the idea of a funky and hip food store to the next level. The store has put together an "Experiential Residency Program" in which artists, thinkers and practitioners develop projects right in the store itself. The Residents are given a 144 square feet of space to do whatever they want.  As a post on the store's blog says: "This space can act as a central hub for exploring the Super G, an actual site for social engagement, a temporary resource for the public, or simply a place to sit and do nothing."

So far the artist residents have done some amazing projects at Super G Mart ranging from photo installations to film screenings to live/DJ music to selling their own crafts. (You can click here to see an interview of some of the residents in the program). Super G is proving that our theory that stores can be and do a lot more. FOr more info check out the Super G Mart Experiential Residency Program blog:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Creative Distribution Networks = Affordable Fresh Food

I recently listened to a presentation by Mike Curtin, Executive Director of DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), as part of a webinar on the Wallace HUFED Center. Mike talked about how, because DCCK’s supply of donated food was decreasing as food companies tightened their inventory controls, the organization had to shift from seeking food donations to finding a more reliable supply of fresh food for their clients.

DCCK started reaching out to local and regional growers and buying surplus produce directly from those growers. In many cases these growers weren’t able to sell all of their products to large food companies, often because the product didn’t fit the uniformity and aesthetic requirements of those companies. Being a creative organization, DCCK was able to take advantage of the surplus food that was unwanted by the industry and began replacing the food products it was buying from wholesale distributors with food products bought directly from the growers.

One outstanding result of this shift is that clients of DC shelters are now eating up to 70% local product in their meals. This beats out even the most local-food-focused retail stores, restaurants and school cafeterias.

Another important result is that DCCK has been able to cut its own food costs dramatically, even as it has increased the quantity of food it’s purchasing each year. Mike showed a chart comparing the cost of purchasing food from a local farmer coop to the cost of purchasing food from Sysco, one of the largest food distributors in the nation. There was a marked difference in the cost of the products between the coop farmer and Sysco, which is ironic since Sysco has built its brand on being the cheapest food service distributor in the industry.
To explain how DCCK was able to reduce its food costs so much Mike simply said this: “If you’re creative in creating distribution networks this local food can actually be sourced at a significantly discounted cost from what it would cost to buy it…. from the national wholesalers.” I highlight Mike’s point and the experience of DCCK because it counters the common argument that the cost of food is often a prohibitive factor to making healthy food available in low-income urban communities. What DCCK has shown is that, with the real and direct relationships, creativity and genuine effort, it is entirely possible to provide large volumes of quality food at a very reasonable cost.

The key difference between DCCK and those who make the argument that healthy food can’t be made available affordably is that DCCK thinks outside of the box of the mainstream food distribution system, while the critics are often embedded within that mainstream food distribution system and are tied to its conventionalities. Thankfully, the approach of People’s Community Market will be much more aligned with DCCK than the mainstream players. And this approach – rooted in real and direct relationships, creativity and genuine effort - will be a key way that PCM will also ensure that West Oakland residents can always find affordable fresh food on the store’s shelves. DCCK has proven that when you get creative and think with a fresh perspective, fresh food becomes easy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A food culture revolution in the grocery store

A key idea for People's Community Market is that it will be much more than just a grocery store and retailer of food products. While PCM will be a reliable and trusted fresh food retailer that does an outstanding job at offering great products that the community truly desires, selling food will not be all that PCM will do and be about. There is much more potential for grocery stores to play a meaningful role in communities, including helping to preserve and reactivate cultural traditions and relationships to food. One way that PCM intends to demonstrate that potential is by helping to ignite a dynamic cultural food renaissance in West Oakland. 

West Oakland has a rich and vast array of cultures, social networks and food traditions that reach back at least several generations. Many of those cultures and traditions were brought to West Oakland by people who relocated from places such as the Southern States, Latin America and Asia. But over the last couple of generations many of the food traditions have begun to slip away as residents depend on an industrial food system and corporate supermarket industry that are largely void of these traditional cultures. Yet, as we interact with and hear from the community, it's clear that there is a strong desire among many residents to be more connected with their food cultures and traditions.

This desire presents an opportunity for a grocery store to play a role in rebuilding the community's cultural fabric and relationship to food. PCM is planning all kinds of creative and unconventional ways to stimulate and provoke conversation and awareness about West Oakland's food cultures. From offering culturally-oriented food products to hosting workshops/classes/speakers about food cultures to using performance art and other forms of creative expression to explore the rich landscape of ideas and issues pertaining to food in the community, PCM will respond to and support the community's desires for a meaningful and interesting relationship to food that connects to cultural traditions, histories and values. And all of this will be done right in the grocery store itself so that customers can, if desired, conveniently attend a class or performance or other activity while on their shopping trip.

One of our criticisms of many supermarkets is that they often feel like giant, sterile warehouses void of any real culture, creativity or heart. But it doesn't have to be this way. If the people managing and running a store allow themselves to be more creative and to think outside of the box, the possibilities are endless. Stores can become community and cultural centers. They can become hubs of community activity and interaction. They can help invigorate excitement about the role of food in people's lives. Stores can help facilitate more meaningful interactions between eaters, their food and the people who helped to grow and provide that food. And they can become centers of inspiration for re-imagining the way our communities are developed, feed themselves and co-exist with the world around them.

A food culture revolution is happening in this country. Even in food desert communities many residents want more than just access to good food. PCM is planning to become a model for how that food revolution can be given life inside of a grocery store by providing as much space for and attention to culture, tradition, history and relationships as to the food products that are on the store's shelves.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Huffington Post Article Features PCM

July 28, 2010 - Eric Holt Gimenez, the Executive Director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post that raises concerns over the move of Walmart and other big box retailers into urban food deserts communities. While bringing retail and good food into these communities is very much needed, Eric breaks down the potential damage that big box retailers can cause to communities that are already vulnerable. PCM's CEO, Brahm Ahmadi, is quoted in the post.

Here's the link to the story: The Fight Over Food Deserts -- Corporate America Smacks Its Way Down

Thursday, July 15, 2010

PCM Presents at Slow Money Alliance National Gathering

In early June 2010 PCM's CEO Brahm Ahmadi attended the annual National Gathering of the Slow Money Alliance. An Entrepreneur Showcase was help on June 10 in which 25 food entrepreneurs each gave a 3 minute presentation on their venture and funding needs. Brahm participated in the showcase and presented on PCM. Click here to view a video of Brahm's presentation at the Slow Money Alliance's 2010 National Gathering.

Another important development that took place at the National Gathering was the announcement of Ari Derfel as the new Executive Director of Slow Money Alliance. This is very relevant to PCM as Ari is a member of PCM's Board of Director's and is the Board Treasurer. So Ari's direct involvement and leadership is building a movement for slow money that supports mission-driven and socially responsible companies is a significant opportunity for PCM to gain greater traction and support. You can learn more about Ari on his Facebook page by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Brahm and PCM featured in Earth Island Journal

Earth Island Journal's Summer 2010 issue features a story on the efforts and challenges of developing urban agriculture in low-income neighborhoods. Brahm Ahmadi is quoted numerous times in the article. He discusses the need for scaling up in local food efforts and, especially, developing food retail stores in inner city markets that can sufficiently address the needs and desires of residents.

Here is the link to the article:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Video Interview with Delicious Living Magazine

June 23, 2010 - Brahm attended the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, CA in March 2010, where he participated in several panel discussions. Brahm was also interviewed by Susan Esrey of Delicious Living Magazine about People's Community Market. Here is the video of the interview.


Monday, June 21, 2010

PCM in East Bay Express

June 21, 2010 - The current issue of the East Bay Express features a story entitled "Gardening Eden" about urban agriculture and food access. The feature article includes some mention of People's Community Market and statements from CEO Brahm Ahmadi. Click here to read the article.

While the article does a pretty good job in its explanation of PCM, there are a few points to clarify:

1. The article states that, after coming to understand the grocery business, Brahm was forced to rethink his approach. What really happened was that Brahm and his colleagues decided to employ a strategy in which they developed a mix of projects and small-scale food enterprises through a nonprofit which could create the foundation, capacity and social relations needed to position for the successful launch of a grocery store. The approach of creating a grocery store was never abandoned but simply placed within a broader strategy. PCM is the grocery store that Brahm and his colleagues began envisioning in 2003 and People's Grocery is the nonprofit that was created to act as a partner and in that effort.

2. The article states the People's Community Market is scheduled for launch in the spring/summer of 2011. While that time frame is our desired target date, nothing has been formally scheduled.  The timeline will be determined by how when PCM is able to secure the startup capital it requires.

3. The article states that Brahm Ahmadi left People's Grocery as its Executive Director in 2006 to work full-time on developing People's Community Market. This is not correct. Brahm departed from People's Grocery in January of 2010. 

4. The articles states that PCM expects that less than 25% of its product stock will be from local urban farms. While this is true for URBAN farms, it is not the case for sustainable family farm operations in the local region. PCM expects a much higher percentage of its produce to be sourced from local farms in the region. It is simply unclear as to whether smaller urban farms can be reliable suppliers to PCM.

Friday, May 21, 2010

First Loan Secured

May 21, 2010 - I have secured PCM's first small loan from a gentleman who has been a strong supporter of People's Grocery for years and is now an enthusiastic support of PCM. This loan is what I call "pre-money money". It's intended as a stop gap between having no money at all and raising capital for the real launch of the company. In order to raise that capital a lot of things have to be in place already, like a solid business plan, financial model, presentation, office space, etc. But these things all take money, especially if you want to do them right. So in order to prepare to go raise some money, I actually needed to have some money in the first place.

Most entrepreneurs end up funding their "pre-money money" needs out of their own pocket. I'm fortunate to have the support of a gentleman who believes in PCM and in myself who agreed to provide that first bit of funding himself. I'm very grateful to him.

Now things can really get cooking as I hire three key consutlants to help me finish up the planning:
  • Retail Planning Specialist (helps with the floor plan, equipment plan and inventory plan)
  • Deli and Prepared Foods Consultant (to help develop a unique menu and signature deli experience)
  • Brand Development Consultant (to help further develop PCM's brand identity and strategy)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

First Public Debut

May 20, 2010 -- My name is Brahm Ahmadi. I am co-founder of People's Grocery that I directed for eight years. In January 2010 I hired a new  Executive Director to take my place at People's Grocery. My planned departure from the organization was based on one goal that is shared with the Board and staff: to create a sister company, called People's Community Market (PCM) that could open and operate a food retail store in West Oakland (the same community served by People's Grocery).

Since that time I have been taking many initial steps toward making PCM a reality. I've made lot of progress in the last couple of months. Up to this point I've been staying pretty much out of the public's eye as I complete the formation and planning process. Of course, the planning and design process is still underway and will be for some time. But it's safe to say that I'm reaching the tail end of a phase where I hadn't wanted to share too much about what I've been up to so as to avoid promoting prematurely.

But now it's time to to start sharing a bit with the public about my progress in this exciting new venture. I'll be sharing much of what I'm up to and the basic concepts behind PCM  through this blog and through PCM's website. The time to start seeking capital to this venture is fast approaching. Which means that things are going to getting pretty exciting as I enter the next critical stage of the start up. And this next stage  is as much about telling the story of PCM and sharing the passion of it, as it is about making a solid business proposition and reporting on accomplishments. So stay tuned as this story begins to unfold.