Fueling economic empowerment— with food

While talking with customers at her South Minneapolis salon, Arabia Jaiteh Muhammad decided she wanted to do something to help women of color improve their economic lives. By Kris Drake.

While talking with customers at her South Minneapolis salon, Arabia Jaiteh Muhammad decided she wanted to do something to help women of color improve their economic lives. By Kris Drake.


Arabia Jaiteh Muhammad cuts women’s hair. The clients who come to her shop in the Horn Towers high-rise just off Lake Street in South Minneapolis are a diverse group; many are low-income, some have disabilities, others are recent immigrants from Somalia and other parts of Africa. There are also Caucasian, Hmong and Hispanic women. As she clips, curls and colors, Muhammad talks to them about their lives, concerns and dreams.

“Most people complain they don’t have enough money,” Muhammad said. Sometimes, they need to barter for her services. These conversations got Muhammad thinking—and talking—about how she and other women of color could work together to improve their economic lives.

Muhammad and her clients considered a number of ideas before settling on a plan to expand a small, existing food-buying club into a food co-op. The Women of Color Cooperative for Economic Justice was born.

This fledgling organization sees a connection between women’s health and women’s wealth.

Obesity and high blood pressure disproportionately affect poor communities of color, said Rev. Norma Patterson, a member of the cooperative who, along with four or five other women, started the original food-buying club. Low-income neighborhoods are not primarily served by large grocery stores. Instead, small convenience stores, which don’t offer many healthy choices, predominate. Patterson said these neighborhoods “need both [co-ops for] buying in bulk and corner stores stocked with healthier foods.”

Patterson sees the Women of Color Cooperative for Economic Justice as an opportunity to connect women of color from different ethnicities and educate them about nutrition, while pooling their financial resources so they can buy better, healthier foods.

Wealth and health

Organizations that study health report a connection between race, poverty and poor health, especially for women. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 49 percent of black women are obese, compared to 38 percent of Mexican-American women and 31 percent of white women.

Patterson sees economic empowerment as key to fighting obesity and other health conditions. In focus groups with different communities of color, the cooperative found that women with limited food budgets buy larger amounts of cheaper foods.

“Most low-income women buy quantity, not quality,” said Patterson.

There are other challenges too. Patterson points out that women who have gone back to work under new welfare laws earn just $9 or $10 an hour and have to pay most of their income for child care and rent, with little or nothing left over for health care or healthy food.

Community spirit

Latina, Native American, Somali and African-American women are involved in the co-op. Muhammad is working with the Hmong community to recruit more Asian women. Patterson sees the co-op’s diversity as a strength; the women can learn from each other’s history and traditions.

“I just feel that…creating opportunities for women to work as a group [will] get the community spirit back,” Patterson said. It is important, she added, “to come together to pass on knowledge from our elders [so] that our children won’t be totally lost.”

Patterson and Muhammad have formed connections with several local groups, including La Oportunidad, the Seward Co-op, the North Country Co-op and faith-based communities.

At the present the co-op is entirely volunteer-run and does not yet have a location. The co-op is seeking women with development and building experience.

Last fall co-op members organized an event, “Breaking the Chains of Poverty for Community Women of Color: A Health Disparities Dilemma.” Among the speakers were Patterson and former Minneapolis council member Natalie Johnson Lee.

The group is now planning a fundraiser—“Taste of Africa”—a gala celebration of African food and culture. Members of the co-op will make food from their part of Africa and wear traditional dress. Also in the works is a series of trainings about starting a co-op grocery store. Patterson and Muhammad are hoping to recruit more women of color as volunteers.

The co-op is a dream of self-sufficiency and an end to health disparities in communities of color. “Being healthier is an important part of our future,” Patterson said.

For more information about the Women of Color Cooperative for Economic Justice or to volunteer, contact Rev. Norma Patterson at 612-708-6931.