Mandela MarketPlace: A Beacon of Healthy Hope in Disadvantaged West Oakland

By Dave Soref

The San Francisco Bay Area is ground zero for the healthy eating movement known as California cuisine, a philosophy that emphasizes fresh, lean foods grown locally.

But just a few miles away from the celebrated restaurants, like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, which gave this food movement its name, sits the neighborhood of West Oakland, a region of 25,000 people that until recently had no options for grocery shopping other than the many corner stores that primarily carried alcohol and a narrow range of convenience food.

That began to change in 2009, when the 2,200-square-foot Mandela Foods Co-op opened its doors to the people of West Oakland. The small store boasts a healthy array of meat, dairy, produce, bulk goods, and other items you might expect to find on the shelves of a Whole Foods Market.

Give the People What They Want

Where did this healthy oasis in a food desert come from? Mandela Foods is a project of the nonprofit organization Mandela MarketPlace, which works in partnership with local residents, family farmers and community-based businesses to improve health, create wealth, and build assets through cooperative food enterprises in low-income communities.

The idea for the store, though, came from West Oakland residents themselves when Mandela MarketPlace reached out to determine what they wanted.

“They came up with three main ideas,” said Mariela Cedeño, Mandela MarketPlace’s Director of Social Enterprise and Communications. “They wanted to have a community grocery store; increased access to healthy food at different retail spaces (for example, corner stores); and they wanted to incentivize the idea of farmers’ markets, and with that to find a way to support local farmers—local minority farmers in particular.”

Brick by Brick

Establishing the community grocery store became Mandela MarketPlace’s first order of business. “When we sat down at the table, we realized there was no way that residents who wanted to own the store were going to get the investment they needed,” Cedeño recalled. “So we incorporated as a nonprofit to go after grant funding and provide loan guarantees. We incorporated in 2006, and Mandela Foods opened in 2009 with six worker-owners.

“Nobody who opened the store had any grocery experience. They were all just really invested in the idea of bringing healthy food into their community, improving their quality of life, and also building their political voice.”

Initially, Mandela MarketPlace helped with the business planning, training and legal procedures, gradually passing on more and more of the ownership duties to the store’s worker-owners.

“We had a lot of lessons learned,” Cedeño said about that initial startup period. “There were growing pains around the support the workers needed. Also, we were negotiating for an 11,000-square-foot space and ended up with a 2,200-square-foot space. That was kind of a big hit up front. But what’s been surprising is how well they’ve done in such a small space. They’ve had growth of 20 percent or more from year to year, and they’re becoming more self-sustainable every day. They’re doing really well.”

The Little Store That Does

The space utilization of the store is impressive. Imagine a 7-Eleven-sized area stocked with a full variety of all the things you would expect to find in a higher-end market rather than lottery tickets, Big Gulps and 12-packs. In addition to fresh produce, there are wall coolers of local, organic meat and dairy products (including soy, rice, almond and coconut milk), bulk grain dispensers along one side of the store, and a rack of healthy snack foods in the center.

The store has an onsite kitchen as well, in which fresh daily soups and lunch specials are prepared by one of the owners who took it upon himself to learn culinary arts. They are also working with a local low-income entrepreneur to open up a café on the premises, which will feature outdoor seating and take advantage of the store’s ample sidewalk space out front.

Serving Community beyond Food

Besides serving as an oasis in a food desert, Mandela Foods brings something else to the community: economic opportunity and empowerment. West Oakland is one of the Bay Area’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, with a poverty rate double that of California and unemployment almost twice the national average.

“Being a business owner puts you in a different echelon,” Cedeño said. But business ownership opportunities are rare here. “When you go to traditional investors, they’re never going to give money to people without credit history and without steady income,” Cedeño explained. “There are huge barriers for people in underserved communities in getting access to quality jobs.

“Grocery is a hard business with tight margins, and I think a lot of people felt there was no way that these community folks could make this successful.” Though, according to Cedeño, they have.

“Seeing these worker-owners build their own skillsets has been impressive. I’ve been around since they opened, so I remember them when they started compared to where they are now, and the growth has been amazing. This has been a journey showing that people have inherent assets that can make them thrive as entrepreneurs,” said Cedeño. “In addition to the current worker-owners, the store employs two at-risk youth. The store is an opportunity for them to build their skills and see what it’s like to be working in a 9-to-5 environment while dealing with folks who look like them and come from the same backgrounds as theirs.”

Dana Harvey, Executive Director at Mandela MarketPlace, seconds Cedeño’s pleasure with the store’s success. Harvey, who has been working with Oakland residents to improve their environment since the 1990s, was recognized by President Obama as a 2012 Champion of Change in Food Security for her efforts.

“I’m so proud of those guys,” Harvey said of the store owners, “because they are from this neighborhood and they could have made a decision to say, ‘Well, we want to make the highest profit, so we want to bring in anything that sells at a high margin.’ But they didn’t. There’s no high-fructose corn syrup in the store; there’s no alcohol; there’s no junk—I mean, there is some junk in the store, like kettle chips; but it’s the higher-end junk with healthier ingredients than the GMO or highly salted products in other stores. They made that line and said, ‘We’re sticking to it.’

“The café we’re getting ready to open is going to bring a whole new wave of excitement around the store,” Harvey added, “because people will see folks sitting outdoors having their food, and it will begin to let us spill outside onto the sidewalk.”

The store’s central location near the subway leading into San Francisco and growing word of mouth mean that they are already getting a diverse socio-economic mix of customers, and Harvey is even more bullish for the near future. “This is our year,” she said. “We’re really excited about it. We’ve built this place, we’ve stabilized it, and now we want to expand. We want a bigger grocery store, we want to distribute more food, and we also want to support other communities that are interested in doing something similar. We are creating a viable model that can be replicated across the country.”

The success of the food co-op isn’t the end of the story though. “If you bring a grocery store into a community, it can catalyze a lot of other businesses,” Harvey pointed out. “We see that happening now, and we want to make sure that the businesses being catalyzed are also owned by the people in that local community.”

For Mandela MarketPlace, the journey is a labor of love, and one that is likely to continue for a long time.

To find out more, visit mandelamarketplace.org.