A Grocery Store for West Oakland? 

Plus a rundown of East Bay pan de muerto.

Finally, after a ten-year wait, West Oakland may be closer to getting a new grocery store: If all goes according to plan, People's Community Market will open by the end 2013 — a culmination of the decade that its CEO, Brahm Ahmadi, has spent working to get the project off the ground.

Last Thursday, Ahmadi, who founded the affiliated nonprofit People's Grocery, kicked off an ambitious investment campaign with a "Front Porch" community gathering and pitch session held at the Numi Tea Garden in East Oakland's warehouse district.

West Oakland's shortage of affordable, healthy food is well-documented, but the facts are still startling: There's only one small retail grocer — the Mandela Foods Cooperative — serving a community of 25,000 people. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has some fifty corner stores that sell mostly low-quality foods at high prices — a ratio of about one for every five hundred people. (Rockridge, by comparison, has one corner store for every 7,000 people, Ahmadi estimated.)

Standing amid baskets of fresh produce, Ahmadi spoke movingly about the lengths to which West Oakland residents now go in order to shop at a real grocery store, traveling miles by foot or crisscrossing the city via public transportation.

"What people have to go through if they want good healthy food is ridiculous," he said.

But, as Ahmadi pointed out, this wasn't always the case: In the Fifties, West Oakland was home to lots of grocery stores, big and small — before "white flight," before the last of those stores shut down or moved elsewhere, sometime in the Nineties.

And yet, Ahmadi estimates that West Oakland residents spend nearly $60 million on groceries each year — not an insignificant amount of buying power. Why not open a grocery store that would keep that money in West Oakland? And why not also make the new grocery store a community hub — a place with a literal front porch where people could gather?

In 2002, Ahmadi founded People's Grocery with the intention of opening just such a place, only to realize that — by his own admission — he lacked both the know-how and the financial wherewithal to bring that to fruition. So, for the past decade, People's Grocery has operated as a nonprofit, helping to bring nutritious, affordable food to West Oakland on a smaller scale — through its mobile pop-up grocery store and its bargain-priced CSA program.

The final hurdle won't be easy: To fully fund the People's Community Market, Ahmadi and his team will need to raise $1.2 million via a Direct Public Offering (DPO) — a grassroots investment campaign that's asking members of the community to become shareholders, with a minimum investment of $1,000. Once that $1.2 million target has been secured, the California FreshWorks Fund has agreed to chip in a loan for the final $2.4 million.

Pan de Muerto

As Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) approaches, on November 1, at What the Fork, we're mainly interested in what tasty treats the holiday has to offer. In this case, the signature food item, pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), is well worth seeking out — a not-too-sweet respite from your trick-or-treat-fueled sugar rush.

The local versions I've had have all been eggy and just a little bit sweet, with a soft interior that's partway between bread and cake — something along the lines of a challah or brioche. Typically, each pan de muerto is covered with little knobs of dough that are meant to look like bones, and then the whole thing gets dusted with sugar.

At Berkeley's Casa Latina Bakery (1805 San Pablo Ave.), each $2.50 loaf is covered with a lot of crinkly granulated sugar, but the bread slices well and is more fragrant than it is sweet, flecked with caraway seeds that provide its distinctive flavor.

My longtime favorite had been the rich and intensely citrusy version sold down the street at Mi Tierra Foods (2082 San Pablo Ave.), available in two sizes ($1.99 and $2.99, respectively). But the loaf I sampled this year was a slight disappointment — a bit dry. That said, what's nice for those with less of a sweet tooth is that Mi Tierra also offers a version topped with sesame seeds instead of sugar.

The most unique pan de muerto I've eaten is sold at the Lakeshore branch of Arizmendi Bakery (3265 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland): Each $4.50 loaf is fragrant with anise and orange flavor and is shaped, adorably, like a little man, with chocolate-chip eyes and chocolate-chunk buttons. This year's run wasn't available until Wednesday, October 31, but in the past I've found it to be the least sweet and the most bread-like of the versions available in the East Bay.

All three bakeries should carry freshly baked pan de muerto at least through Friday, November 2. You can eat yours at the gravesite of a loved one, as is traditional, or — if you're like me — you can just bring it home to enjoy for breakfast, sliced thin and spread with jam or honey, for several days running.

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