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Photo of Malaika Edwards and Brahm Ahmadi
Local Heroes

Making the world a better place to live takes passion, not a Ph.D.

With a flicker of an idea and lots of dedication, a diverse group of idealists sallied forth to change the world -- or at least a small part of it. They possessed little in the way of environmental training, but so what? Making the planet a better place to live, they'll tell you, takes passion, not a Ph.D. So read on, be inspired by their stories, and maybe we'll see you in these pages, same time, next year.

Oakland's Little Edens

For an organic garden, it was not an auspicious beginning. A house had burned down on the site 30 years ago, and its lead-based paint had leached into the soil. The derelict ground, covered with brambles, trash, and concrete slabs, was a toxic eyesore. But somehow Malaika Edwards, one of the cofounders of the People's Grocery, saw its potential. Today she stands on that very spot surrounded by vines ripe with tomatoes, rows of kale and collards, and bushes of raspberries. From this 1/8-acre plot in a beaten-down section of West Oakland, California, she can still see the familiar views of highway overpasses, crumbling houses, and razor wire. And yet, says Edwards, bending over to pick a small strawberry, "There's something magical in all this."

Edwards, along with Brahm Ahmadi and Leander Sellers, founded the nonprofit People's Grocery in November 2001 to grow and sell fresh produce in a community with little access to healthy food. The 30,000 residents of West Oakland have exactly one small grocery store -- and it's sandwiched between a McDonald's and a KFC. The only other places that sell produce are three corner stores, but they charge twice the price, and the quality and freshness are questionable at best.

So Edwards, Ahmadi, and Sellers, with the help of the property owner and dozens of volunteers, transformed this homely plot into the City Slicker Farm. They planted mustard and sunflowers to pull out the lead, hauled away the top layer of contaminated dirt, and grew vegetables in raised bins. People's Grocery has helped create five such gardens in West Oakland, but the group does more than till the soil.

Recently, they've hired eight young people to learn, among other things, farming techniques and small-business administration, and they've almost finished outfitting the "Mobile Market," an old postal truck that now runs on biodiesel. (Solar panels will power its refrigerator and freezer.) Painted orange and purple and souped up with a booming sound system, the truck will haul produce through the neighborhood three times a week. The profits from that venture will fund the group's most ambitious project to date: an actual grocery store. "I would like it to be a center for the community, not just a store," Edwards says, "with bulletin boards, child care, even a little deli that's run by the youth who have gone through our program." Given what the People's Grocery has accomplished so far, it's easy to imagine neighbors walking up aisles abundant with produce -- fresh, organic, and priced to sell.
-- Stuart Luman

Oakland's Little Edens
Good Counsel
Long Hauler
Mine Fighter
Sweet Crude
Lucky Horseshoe
View the 2002 heroes

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Photo: Timothy Archibald

OnEarth. Fall 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council