How a Healthy Food System Can Transform Your Community

Nov 28, 2016, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Mandela MarketPlace understands that community members hold the key to positive change. By lifting up a culture of community ownership, Mandela is increasing access to healthy food and sustainable business opportunities.

Oakland residents shop at the Mandela Marketplace booth

Sixteen years ago, I embarked on what I thought would be a year-long project to help the residents of West Oakland gain reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

More than 23.5 million people live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket, according to the USDA. That includes West Oakland, one of the city’s poorest areas. The community has a high rate of crime, pollution and unemployment—along with dozens of liquor stores and fast food outlets. Health outcomes are dismal; residents are two times more likely to be born at a low birth weight and 2.5 times more likely to die of stroke than residents in the nearby affluent area of Oakland Hills.

West Oakland residents were eager to transcend these circumstances when they asked me to work with them in designing strategies to improve healthy food access and economic opportunity. This culminated in Mandela MarketPlace, a farm-to-customer food network, and lead activator in the development of a community-owned, co-operative grocery store.

Today, Mandela has created spaces for community empowerment by providing access to healthy food while also boosting economic and business ownership opportunities. It’s been a social catalyst, too. For example, James Berk, a young West Oaklander, began working with us when he was only 15 years old doing surveys on food access. James was driven by a deep desire to overcome personal health challenges and transform the community through better food. Now, at the age of 25, he is the youngest co-owner of Mandela Foods Cooperative, our test-case grocery store—proving that food can be a starting point for community shifts. Witnessing ongoing transformations like this—both of individuals and the community at large—underscores my faith that generations to come will benefit from this hard work.

Forging a brand new community effort meant we had no model or mentor for guidance. Now, with 12 years of experience under our belt, I’m eager to share the lessons we learned about building a sustainable system in hopes that others facing similar challenges can benefit.

Chart that shows the network impact of the Mandela MarketPlace.

Engage the community at all stages of development.

We respect the lived experiences of community members and their ability to identify needs. So we were mindful of not behaving like a non-profit swooping in to “fix” things. We didn’t build a grocery store in our own image—we helped residents to build their own. Their innovation and tenacity continue to be our source of inspiration.

Urban centers and communities like West and East Oakland have rich histories and a dedication to the power of family and community. That’s one of the important aspects of investing in people who belong to a place, so they can build and own their own economies and cultures. This strengthens roots so that when gentrifying forces come along, they are not displaced, but instead can benefit, if they choose to, from the influx of higher incomes.

We incorporated Mandela MarketPlace for residents to access start-up and infrastructure resources they needed to open the co-op, get training in business ownership, and to now provide ongoing advising and support as new entrepreneurs. To get ourselves off the ground, we searched for and secured a variety of local funding from health departments, city grants, and small foundations.

Create a sustainable system.

Many areas like West Oakland lack financial or development support for starting a business. We’ve helped community members start and maintain enterprises by strengthening their production and distribution networks—building community in the process.

For example, local leaders wanted to work with farmers of color, recognizing that they face similar barriers—social, racial, and access to resources—that the inner-city community faces. They also wanted culturally-relevant, sustainable and healthy foods, without pesticides, which they saw as an environmental and health injustice. Through a partnership with FarmLink, a non-profit lender, farmers can take out a pre-harvest loan and pay Mandela back in produce.

As well as the 2,200-square-foot cooperatively-owned grocery store, which also has an in-store café with a menu that pays homage to local cultures, our network includes a biweekly produce delivery at ten corner markets and seven produce stands in partnership with institutions like schools, senior centers, and health clinics.

Inspire demand.

One of our primary successes has been encouraging residents to patronize the food outlets in our network, reminding them they have a stake in the outcome of this venture. People want to eat well, and we’re making it easier for them to do that by keeping our food affordable. For example, through a federal grant, we started our Fresh Creds program, which provides customers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) a 50 percent match credit towards the purchase of fresh produce at any of our partner stores or produce stands. We hold health and wellness workshops for patients at Highland Hospital, the county safety-net hospital; these workshops build off a successful past series with pregnant women who received services through West Oakland’s Women, Infants and Children's (WIC) Nutritional Supplement Program. These include cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes that focus on easy-to-make meals for families and single adults. The community-driven nature of these efforts is key to their success—they don’t involve someone in a suit telling residents to eat better; it’s residents from within the community supporting one another.

Strive for equal ownership. 

The owners of Mandela Foods Cooperative and the leadership and team of Mandela MarketPlace, embrace the idea of collective decision-making where all voices are considered, and each "vote" bears the same value. Cooperative ownership is not just an organizational or business structure—it translates into how we take responsibility as a team. There’s shared responsibility without blame and in which we each own our actions. I recommend this structure since it brings transparency and diverse perspectives to your organization’s design, priorities, and potential impact.

Grow organically. 

When you are ready to start branching out, work with your team to examine the existing market. What’s the capacity for people to support this? Where are you sourcing the product from? Where and how will you find entrepreneurs? Where can technical assistance be of the most help in creating stable resources? When you start putting these pieces together, the process evolves. Identify issues, work with residents and organizational partners, come up with ideas, and run numbers to see what’s going to be viable.

Measure progress.

Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) are federally funded projects that aim to increase access to nutritious food in low-income communities and communities of color. They also aim to boost community development and create jobs. We’re an HFFI grantee, and we’ve looked closely at our footprint within the community and how well we accomplish a “triple bottom line” of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. We’ve distributed over the last 3 years 650,000 pounds of fresh produce, 46 percent of which comes from small family farms within 200 miles of Oakland, helping keep farmers on the land, and increasing their income by over $300,000. Mandela Foods Cooperative and café have created over $5.5 million of new, locally circulated revenue since 2010. We’ve shown that investing directly in a community helps generate sustainable income for many of its residents. And we’ve empowered a coalition that is still operating after 16 years, working in a community that people can feel good about.


Dana Harvey is a 2010 RWJF Community Health Leader and received a White House Champions of Change Award in 2012 for food security. Read more about her work.