Dana Harvey: One Woman Bringing Real Food to the Desert

by Dave Soref

A lot of people are inspired to do work to help their communities. For some, that work becomes a full-time job. And in a few cases, the job they do leads to being honored at the White House for their service.

One of those people is Dana Harvey, Executive Director of Oakland, California–based Mandela MarketPlace, a nonprofit that helps residents of low-income communities take control of their health and well-being by developing cooperative food enterprises.

Under Harvey’s stewardship, over the last several years Mandela MarketPlace has opened a for-profit, worker-owned sustainable community market in Oakland; assembled a group of corner stores willing to carry a selection of fresh produce; and established a produce distribution center that supports small family farmers.

For her efforts, Harvey was recognized by President Obama as a 2012 Champion of Change in Food Security.

But this path wasn’t Harvey’s original career trajectory. She thought that her master’s degree in soil science/sustainable agriculture from UC Berkeley would have her working in the countryside somewhere. Instead, Harvey found her calling in the inner city.

Five Minutes with a Hero

How did you first get on the White House radar as a Champion of Change?

I was nominated, and I didn’t even know it. When I got the e-mail informing me, I forwarded it to our communications director and asked, “Is this spam?” because I didn’t really understand what it was! But yes, I was nominated by some local folks. Out of hundreds of nominations, the White House selected us to represent California; so I was really happy about that.

How did you come to live in the Bay Area?

My parents are both from California, but I sort of grew up all over the place. I ended up relocating from Washington, DC, to the Bay Area in 1987 as a returning student to UC Berkeley, and I’ve never left. At first I was like, “I can’t wait to get back to Washington!” But the Bay Area really grows on you.

What was your major at Berkeley, and did it influence your career choices?

My degree is in soil science and sustainable agriculture. I started doing volunteer work for a local organization that looked at environmental justice issues. This happened to be the year that President Clinton signed the executive order for environmental justice [a 1994 directive to address the adverse effects of previous environmental policy on minority and low-income populations]. So that’s how I got involved in community work rather than another area of agriculture.

Tell us about your first job in environmental justice after Clinton’s executive order.

Some guys in a community group were playing basketball at a park in East Oakland and they noticed ooze bubbling up through the asphalt, so they contacted the city. It turns out that the ooze was arsenic and cadmium, so the EPA got involved. They started doing some soil samples and realized the ground was extremely lead contaminated as well.

I happened to be at the office when the EPA was talking to these guys about how lead behaves in the soil, and realized they weren’t quite getting the whole story.

Since I had a background in soil science, the local guys started taking me to all their meetings so I could listen to what they were being told. We spent several years focused specifically on that park, and it’s now called the cleanest park in Oakland.

Was it just the park, or did you do more for the neighborhood?

We were also able to get something like 33 nearby homes cleaned up, because one 98-year-old man stood up at a meeting and said, “I remember when there was an incineration tower!” It turns out there had been a lead battery manufacturing plant, and the lead came from the incineration smoke and landed all over the yards. So we were successful in establishing cause and effect. That was my introduction to community work.

And how did you transition to the community work you do with Mandela MarketPlace?

As the environmental justice movement began slowing down, the food movement started picking up. It was a new way to address issues of health and poverty in inner-city communities. Some of the women in the food desert of West Oakland who knew me from my earlier work said, “We really want to do something about this food situation. Can you come work with us?” And I said, “Sure.”

We say, “Go, Dana!”