Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented | Vernacular
In West Oakland, food justice activists often begin presentations with the following statistic: The neighborhood has roughly 30,000 residents, and about 50 liquor stores, but nowhere to buy fresh produce. However, after years of food justice activism, that is no longer the case.
Today, residents can enter the small but cheerful Mandela Foods Cooperative, where they can find fresh, local, and organic (though not always certified) produce, often grown by farmers of color. In addition, the store features free-range meats, bulk items such as beans and grains, prepared foods cooked on site, and packaged health foods and snacks. Customers at the store are greeted by the cooperative’s four worker-owners, all African American long-term community residents, who are learning the ins and outs of the grocery business while providing an essential service to their neighbors. When asked what the store means to the community, local resident Nwamaka Agbo answered that “Mandela Foods has been a great example of individuals coming together to fill a need in the community—access to safe and healthy food. Just to see your neighbors and friends be owners of a business is extremely powerful and empowering for members of the community.”
Worker-owner James Burke expands on this idea: “I think a lot of people in the community are happy just to have another place to shop that offers a different kind of variety than what you see in the other locations here. But for those that understand more about who we are and what we’re trying to do, you’re seeing people from the community, people you might even see on a regular basis, and now they’re part of something. They’re not just employees, but this is their business and they’re opening in their community trying to support their neighbors.” Not only does Mandela bring fresh produce into West Oakland, it offers the opportunity for local economic development through community business ownership. Mandela Foods is the centerpiece of Mandela MarketPlace, a non-profit food hub and business incubator that also includes a produce distribution company connecting small farmers of color to community-owned businesses; a network of corner store owners excited to feature fresh produce; and an educational program providing health and wellness workshops and cooking demonstrations to families and community groups. Together, these initiatives are working to change not only the local food landscape, but the broader social and economic landscape as well.
Mandela MarketPlace’s Executive Director Dana Harvey and Director of Social Enterprise and Communications Mariela Cedeño explain how the store came to operate in this way. Dana, a white woman who has spent more than two decades working for environmental and food justice in West Oakland, began describing their process. “We did an assessment to determine what foods were and weren’t available locally, and went through a community facilitation process to come up with solutions. One of the strategies that we identified to fix the food security problem was to have a grocery store, and [we felt] that it should be owned by people in the neighborhood. The worker co-op model is a strategy that we felt could bring people from the community together as owners and have a support network for owning the business.”
“It was more for practical reasons,” Mariela continued. “How can we have a business that is owned by the community, that people have equal power in how its run, and have equal profits from how its run and have equal say in how it’s run. And so, that, by definition, is a cooperative… If you look around at Bay Area [cooperatives], it’s mostly white people who either have a network with resources or have their own personal finances that are able to start this kind of business because that’s the idea that they have in their head. This cooperative would have never have happened in West Oakland. The reason we established ourselves as a non-profit to support and incubate Mandela Foods is that four worker owners from West Oakland didn’t have the credit or the networks or the access to the kind of financing they would need to build something.” West Oakland food justice activists turned to a cooperative model because they felt it could best guarantee community ownership. But the co-op remains tied to a non-profit organization so that the latter can provide resources and services that coops founded by wealthier people might access through personal and professional networks.
So far, the plan seems to be working. The store recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, and began to see profits earlier than their business plan predicted. The worker-owners aren’t paying themselves much above minimum wage, but they’re appreciating the chance to own a business in their neighborhood, and to develop the skills that go along with that. This year, a café is slated to open inside the store, which will be an added attraction. Although a health food store seemed a bit of a foreign concept to many West Oakland residents, worker-owner James Burke believes this is beginning to shift. “The challenge I found is surviving long enough to build that respect where the brand itself is part of the neighborhood,” he said. “And I can tell that’s been shifting because we’re still here.”
Mandela is a part of the growing struggle for food justice that has begun to take root between the cracks of busted sidewalks in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the US. Food justice activists go beyond support for the creation of sustainable food systems—those that do not rely on the use of toxic chemicals that harm the soil, water, wildlife, and bodies of workers and communities living nearby, and which limit the amount of fossil fuel necessary for local distribution. They also work to dismantle inequalities of race, class and gender. In both the industrial food system, as well as in many, more environmentally sustainable alternatives, race, class and gender strongly influence who has access to what kinds of food, as well as the roles that individuals and communities play in its production and distribution. Food justice activists such as those working at Mandela believe that sustainable alternatives created by and for communities that lack access to healthy food can encourage locally-led economic development, addressing inequalities throughout and beyond the food system.
Published June 1, 2015