Erin Higginbotham, a founding member of The Deep Grocery co-op.
Erin Higginbotham, a founding member of The Deep Grocery co-op. Credit: Amir Aziz

As a child, Tracy Perron grew up eating vegetables that were grown from a relative’s backyard in East Oakland. “If my mother wanted fresh vegetables, she would go to my aunt’s house and pick it from their garden,” Perron said. Her aunt, however, could only spare so much, so Perron grew accustomed to driving to Oakland’s Chinatown for produce, and as far away as Stockton for fresh meat.

Perron now owns her own home in East Oakland’s Elmhurst neighborhood, and she still commutes often to neighboring cities like San Leandro and Hayward to buy groceries. But those trips should become a lot less frequent after April 7, when The DEEP Grocery Co-op launches its new online supermarket for residents of deep East Oakland and other parts of the city. It’s a service that Perron is eagerly awaiting. “I am so excited because we need it,” she said. “We deserve it.”

The DEEP (Deep East Oakland Empowering the People) Grocery Co-op was conceived in 2019 as a way to bring organic and locally grown foods to areas of East Oakland without nearby full-service grocery stores. Organizers say the effort is as much about supporting local Black and brown farmers and creating jobs as it is about giving residents greater access to healthy foods. To achieve its goal, The DEEP has partnered with Mandela Grocery Cooperative, based in West Oakland, and with Dig Deep Farms, which grows produce at small farms throughout Alameda County.

Users of the online grocery service will be able to purchase vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products, baked goods, pantry items such as canned beans, and a limited selection of non-food household items like cleaning supplies. The online service is a precursor to a physical grocery store the co-op hopes to open in East Oakland by summer or fall of 2022. The DEEP is currently raising funds to support the opening of the brick-and-mortar space.

For now, through the online market, residents like Perron can have groceries delivered for free to their homes, or opt to pick them up in person at Dig Deep Farms in San Leandro. Deliveries and pickups will take place from Tuesday through Saturday at select times, which will be available on The DEEP’s website beginning April 7.

Tracy Perron, a prospective customer of Deep Grocery Co-Op
Tracy Perron grew up in deep East Oakland and now owns a home there. She says full-service grocery stores have been a huge need in the area for decades. Credit: Amir Aziz

Although the service was established for deep East Oakland residents without easy access to full-service grocery stores, anyone living in Oakland can sign up. Erin Higginbotham, a founding member of the co-op, said its members chose to make the service available to everyone in Oakland because “there’s an overall interest in folks who want to help support a service like ours, versus the big-name retailers.”

East Oakland is designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert,” which is defined as a community where at least 500 people or 33% of the census tract’s population live more than one mile from a supermarket. The founders of The DEEP, however, prefer to use the phrase “food apartheid” because it acknowledges inequity based on race.

Higginbotham, who grew up near 70th Avenue, can’t recall ever buying groceries in her neighborhood. The few markets in her area had poor-quality produce and high prices, she said. “Food is supposed to be a natural resource that everyone has access to, but that’s not what happens” in deep East Oakland, said Higginbotham.

The idea to start with an online grocery service came about during the pandemic. Opening a brick-and-mortar space was impractical given COVID safety concerns, and Higginbotham said finding a retail space in deep East Oakland to accommodate a full-service supermarket hasn’t been easy.

“Some of the ones we’ve seen either just aren’t prepared for retail grocery service or they’re super pricey,” Higginbotham said. “This was our response to kind of navigate what some of those challenges were, because we know for a fact there’s a huge need for quality foods in Oakland.”

Perron makes eating healthy a priority for her and her son, but said the corner stores in her part of the city offer few options. “They’re making money off alcohol and tobacco or whatever products that are not of value to the community,” Perron said. Nearby Latin American markets provide more variety, she added, but can be inconvenient: She often finds herself jumping from small store to small store to get everything on her shopping list.

“Once you live here and actually live it, not see it, it makes you angry,” Perron said of the absence of quality grocery stores in deep East Oakland. “I’ve written to the school boards, the mayor—to everyone—and asked, ‘Why do we not have this here?’”

Perron believes change will ultimately come from the residents themselves. “We all have to help and put in work,” Perron said. “There are plenty of days where you’re just like, ‘I don’t care anymore.’ But we have to go past that feeling.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.