One of a Kind: The Mandela Foods Cooperative
I was so excited that I called three friends and my mother as I walked through the new Mandela Foods Cooperative on 7th Street in West Oakland. I had been eyeing the developing grocery store for months during my daily commute to San Francisco. After work I would peer into the windows and watch the co-op workers fill up bulk item containers and place gloriously bright yellow bell peppers in produce baskets. I felt like a kid in front of a toy store: I could not wait for the store to open so I could enjoy locally grown, pesticide-free produce everyday without spending most of my paycheck, or having to travel to another neighborhood, or having to wait until Saturday morning to visit a farmer’s market. Then, one afternoon in early June, I de-boarded the train to find a couple of people shopping in the co-op. I picked up a hand-basket and cruised through the store, grabbing organic strawberries, raspberries, apricots, bananas, red cabbage, kale, collard greens, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, free-range organic eggs, and apple juice. Imagine my delight when I carried all of my goodies out of the door for less than twenty-five bucks.
While the Mandela Foods Cooperative is certainly one of a kind in West Oakland, it is also accompanied by a handful of community gardens, urban homesteading programs, and backyard farms developed by West Oaklanders to counteract food insecurity in the neighborhood. Before the Mandela Foods Cooperative opened, one could travel from the northwest tip of West Oakland to the “lower bottoms,” and find plenty of convenience stores, even a few fast food restaurants, but not one full-service grocery store. Some legislators and academics use the term “food deserts” to describe areas like West Oakland, by which they mean predominately low-income neighborhoods with little to no access to healthy, affordable and “culturally appropriate” food in the immediate area. According to a study commissioned by the USDA meant to discover the extent of such “food deserts” in the U.S., minimal access to food translates into a higher likelihood of chronic hunger and greater incidences of diet-related illnesses. While these conclusions are important to state, the study’s popularization of the term, and under-investigation of its sources, threatens to obscure some of the bigger issues at stake.
For people living and working in West Oakland the term “food deserts” only names a symptom, or effect of the systemic social inequities that make it difficult to find healthy food. Brahm Ahmadi, Executive Director of the West Oakland community-based organization Peoples Grocery, argues that the term “food apartheid” or “food injustice” better describes the situation confronting people in poor urban areas. In an exchange with other food activists, Ahmadi maintained that “the term food desert has emerged as a safe and neutral way to avoid rocking the boat with an analysis of inequity, racism and oppression…. No one in our neighborhood has heard of, or uses, the term food desert,” he notes, “but folks do talk about racism, [and] exclusion all the time…. We may live in food deserts, but we live under food apartheid.” The distinction is an important one that pivots on the latter term’s ability to surface the structural and systemic inequities that give rise to “food deserts” – a distinction enabling us to formulate better solutions to the problem of food insecurity, economic disparities, and diet-related illnesses in poor communities.
The Mandela Foods Cooperative really understands the distinction to which Ahmadi refers. The Co-op is part of a multifaceted food and economic security effort mounted by the Mandela Marketplace, a West Oakland based “community leadership incubator that provides civic engagement, economic and entrepreneurial opportunity to low-income residents and minority farmers.” According to Dennis Terry, who has worked on the development of the Co-op for three years, “the co-op is seen as part of a larger effort to develop food security in Oakland, provide income opportunities, and provide nutrition education to Oaklanders.” This integrated approach is meant to reinvigorate local food cultures and the transmission of knowledge about whole foods cultivation and preparation, develop greater self-sufficiency in the community, and support local economic circuits.
Moreover, this three-prong approach tackles some of the root causes of food injustice thereby marking a qualitative shift in how the problem of food insecurity is addressed. By moving away from a owner/worker business model to a cooperative business model, Mandela Marketplace addresses issues of worker’s rights and most notably, the right to democratically determine one’s working conditions and wages. Through their nutrition education classes, which will begin once the market completes the construction of its onsite kitchen, the Co-op provides practical ways for West Oaklanders to take control of their health by learning how proper nutrition can prevent a range of chronic illnesses. It is a low-tech, “do-it-yourself” approach to healthcare in the midst of a healthcare reform debate that consistently fails to connect the dots (at least at the policy level) between real food and healthy people. Finally, the Co-op sources their produce from small to medium sized local farms within a 120-mile radius from Oakland. Consumers can learn about these farms from well-placed informational placards in the store as they shop. It is a gesture that reminds consumers of the reciprocal relationship between food growers and food eaters: the farms support our wellbeing, and we support the health of small farms.
In all of this, what may be one of the most important things about the Co-op is that, as Dennis Terry told me, “it’s the kind of store West Oaklanders want. People can walk to the Co-op” and it is open everyday. In short, it is a neighborhood market that has really taken into consideration what matters to the community it serves. It is a one of a kind food retailer in Oakland: run by the people, for the people.