How a Caring Community Launched a Thriving, Worker-Owned Grocery Cooperative
Before community members of West Oakland, California formed Mandela Foods Cooperative in 2009, area residents relied on small, poorly stocked stores for nutrition. The Cooperative was born out of the desire to not only improve access to healthy food but to create opportunity and business ownership. By partnering with local farmers and food makers, MFC offers high-quality food at affordable prices. Almost a decade later, the worker-owned, black-owned grocery is thriving and will be moving into a much larger retail space sometime this year. Owner/workers Andrea Talley and Adrionna Fike graciously answered our questions below.
1. What was the inspiration for starting Mandela Foods Cooperative?
The history of West Oakland is rich in African American history. In the late 1800’s, railroad car workers settled here with their families, creating the Pullman Porters union for train porters. In the 1960’s the black panther party organized “urban renewal” projects in its headquarters in West Oakland. During that time, 7th street, the main business strip, flourished with a number of vibrant black-owned businesses. Beginning in the 1940’s, the introduction of urban renewal projects, community redlining, removal of homes and local businesses under eminent domain and construction of the Cypress Freeway disrupted the local economy and community. This disinvestment led to health and economic challenges for remaining residents. In the late 1990’s, residents identified strategies to address the severe lack of healthy foods, thriving local businesses, and underemployment. One of these strategies led to neighbors coming together in 2004 to incorporate and launch a community worker-cooperative grocery retail: Mandela Foods Cooperative.
2. What makes this grocery store different from a typical grocery?
Unlike traditional supermarkets, our grocery cooperative prioritizes a mission to improve the health and well being of our workers and community members, while redefining our local economy and sharing the surplus. By strategically partnering with local farmers and food makers, we provide high-quality food at affordable prices to our economically diverse patrons.This generative feedback loop allows us to increasingly support small and sustainable farms and local food businesses, creating an increasingly equitable Northern California food system.
MFC currently carries over 50 products from local food and beverage companies, prioritizing shelf space for local vendors. We encourage local food makers to demonstrate their products in our store to meet their customers and educate our community about their products.
Mandela Foods Cooperatives contributions reach beyond retail. We offer an employee track to worker ownership and continuous education. We contribute to the growth and success of other local mission-driven enterprises while increasing community access to culturally appropriate, healthy foods.
3. Talk about your individual role in the community?
We have had great support from our nonprofit partner, Mandela MarketPlace, that provides short-term economic support to help assist and spur business growth. Supporting and strengthening local businesses to thrive even/especially in the face gentrification.
4. Can you give us an example of how this model has made a difference for someone?
James Bell is one of the co-owners of Mandela Foods Cooperative. His family has long and deep history in West Oakland. James wanted to play a part to re-install the vibrancy that his family saw disappear through the age of industrialization and failed urban renewal projects. James loves having the opportunity to define what makes him the individual that he is. More times rather than not, the people in West Oakland, in general, get a bad rep. It is not so often that you hear about other things going on. James wanted to be part of the good things that happen here, that people don’t really hear about.
He would like to see more stores of this sort on each corner. Where there are liquor stores, the community should have some alternative. He would like to see more stores popping up in urban neighborhoods where people really need the access to, and deserve–just like any other neighborhood–good food and good jobs.
There are many places like West Oakland across the globe in urban areas that do not have access to healthy fresh foods. That is an atrocity. No matter if you live in Beverly Hills or in the bottom slums, you still deserve good food. West Oakland deserves good things and good food. For the community and for various people in the community, we are making a difference.
5. Are there plans to expand the marketplace locally? Nationwide?
Mandela Grocery Cooperative envisions replicating our model of a local cooperatively-owned grocery store in five locations around California within the next ten years. Increasing access to affordable, carefully sourced and nutrient-dense food is a real need for a lot of communities around the state and nationwide. Additionally, our model of educating and training workers to become business owners further supports economic development.
For more information about Mandella Foods Cooperative, go to www.mandelafoods.com.
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