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As a sustainable agriculture student, Dana Harvey thought she would spend her career in the country. Instead, Harvey has found her life’s work in the city.
As executive director of the Mandela Foods Cooperative and the Mandela Marketplace, she oversees a worker- and community-owned grocery store that provides healthful, organic foods to a low-income, predominately Black community in Oakland, Calif. Mandela MarketPlace is a nonprofit organization that offers job training and small-business ownership opportunities as part of a larger initiative to revitalize a community once contaminated and abandoned by large industrial companies.
“Anyone who thinks that low-income people don’t want healthy food should take a look at our sales figures,” Harvey said. “More and more people are shopping here and countering that stereotype.”
In addition to carrying fresh, affordable foods from local farms, the Mandela Foods Cooperative store has become a community gathering place, offering weekly nutrition classes and cooking demonstrations. The staff of 16 reflects the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, and the store trains residents and students in every aspect of wholesale and food distribution and management. Mandela MarketPlace is developing a wholesale produce distribution business that supports small and minority farmers who practice environmentally friendly food-growing practices.
“Buying directly from farmers helps us keep our margins low and our prices down,” said Harvey. “Our produce distribution business has the same mission as our MarketPlace: to support small and minority-owned farmers and businesses.”
Building the enterprise wasn’t without its challenges. In 2007, as Mandela Foods Cooperative was being built, Harvey was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite her condition, Harvey attended council and community meetings, with her three young children in tow, to ensure that the store became a reality.
For her efforts to create a model for healthy food distribution and job training in a low-income community, Harvey has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award, which honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities.
The selection committee honored Harvey for her long-term commitment to the community and her creativity in developing a model approach that does much more than ensure access to healthy food, said Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin. “The social entrepreneurship of the Mandela Foods Cooperative has provided a foundation for a well-stocked grocery store, community health educators and job and skills training,” Griffin said. “Dana Harvey is unwavering in her commitment to a comprehensive approach to improving community health and supporting the infrastructure to sustain those gains.”