Working to Provide a Disadvantaged Community Access to Healthy Food - and Environmental Justice

    • October 16, 2015

Originally posted: March 20, 2015
Last updated: October 16, 2015

Position at time of the award: Executive director, Mandela Foods Cooperative and Mandela MarketPlace; West Oakland, Calif.

Current position: Same as above

In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named Dana Harvey, MS, an RWJF Community Health Leader in recognition of her work with Mandela MarketPlace, a community organization that helps to ensure that residents of West Oakland, Calif., have access to fresh, healthy food.

The problem. According to the World Health Organization, a community is “food secure” when its residents have consistent, ready access to safe, nutritious food. When researchers from the University of California Cooperative Extension in Alameda County surveyed the community of West Oakland in 1998, it failed to meet that standard.

The finding surprised few in the community. Home to approximately 25,000 people, West Oakland is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the county, with some of the highest rates of unemployment, poverty, and diet-related disease, according to the Mandela website. And thanks to its proximity to the Port of Oakland and a history of industrialism, West Oakland is also one of the Bay area’s most polluted neighborhoods, according to a report from Pacific Institute in conjunction with the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization.

In short, West Oakland residents hoping to maintain a healthy life face formidable challenges.

Thinking globally, acting locally. “I come from a long line of nature lovers,” Dana Harvey says. Her father, a scientist and zoology professor, conducted research on the effects of radiation on embryos; her mother had a degree in botany. Both of them were avid backpackers. She spent her earliest years in Montana but moved around a lot, including four middle- and high-school years in Vienna, Austria, while her father worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Her classmates in Austria came from 100 different nationalities, and interacting with them raised her cultural awareness, she says. Back in the states, Harvey entered the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied earth sciences—conservation ecology, soil science, and sustainable agriculture—as well as economics.

Economics must be part of the equation in working to sustain ecological systems, Harvey says. “There aren’t any pristine natural environments anymore, so if we want a natural environment, we need to make a conscious decision about how people are going to be part of that environment,” she says. “We have to insert an economic argument in order to get people to change what they do.”

Embracing environmental justice. After college, Harvey went to work as a volunteer with an Oakland advocacy group called the African American Development Association (AADA) and helped them form the Environmental Justice Institute (EJI) to focus on community-directed advocacy and education. This was at a time when politicians and activists were talking about environmental justice—defined as the right of all people, regardless of their race, color, national origin, or income, to have a voice in the development and enforcement of laws and regulations that affect their environment.

Working in “an urban environment and not a forest,” Harvey says she began to focus more intently on how humans impact the environment and how the environment impacts humans.

Harvey and her colleagues in EJI worked on a number of environmental justice issues in Oakland, including three major campaigns—one to address serious lead contamination; another to close a local yeast plant that was a major source of air pollution; and the third, University of California Cooperative Extension’s 1998 food assessment to ensure community participation in the assessment process. Residents requested the support of EJI to facilitate community-directed planning to address the issues identified in the food assessment.

It all starts with community. In the late 1990s, a national movement toward Community Participatory Research supported neighborhood studies, and Harvey facilitated early efforts in West Oakland. Harvey and her colleagues began their work by asking residents “How do you create a food-secure community?” Harvey says she talked to hundreds of people, and remembers being deeply impressed by how clearly they understood that the problem had to be addressed holistically.

“They came up with systems-based solutions,” she says. “They looked at all of the components of the disparities that they were facing and understood how they were inter-connected, and how any solution they came up with would also have to be inter-connected. That was a powerful, inspiring moment for me: working in a community and really listening to the people in the community.”

These conversations resulted in a five-point plan of action:

  1. Open a community-owned grocery store
  2. Support a local farmers’ market
  3. Support small businesses and corner stores
  4. Support local minority farmers
  5. Have neighborhood greenspace (farm, garden, or park) on every block

Originating from the Environmental Justice Institute and then the West Oakland Food Collaborative, Mandela MarketPlace was officially incorporated in 2004 and has been working ever since to help the community achieve those goals.

Accomplishments include the creation of:

  • The Mandela Foods Cooperative, a for-profit, worker-owned grocery store that sells organic or sustainably grown produce, and features locally made food and bath products
  • Mandela Food Distribution, an alternative distribution network that brings produce from local farmers to neighborhood stores at wholesale prices
  • The Healthy Neighborhood Store Alliance, which provides full-service produce delivery and display for neighborhood corner stores, making produce readily available in the places that community members frequent the most
  • Community produce stands with nutrition education that opened weekly at residential facilities, health centers, and schools
  • Mandela Ladder-Up Finance that provides access to financing for local, food-based entrepreneurs and is a Kiva Zip trustee. It is also supported through the Community Economic Development/Healthy Food Finance Initiative (CED/HFFI) and California Endowment’s FreshWorks Fund
  • Pre-harvest loans to local farmers to increase economic security of marginalized farmers, and urban access to locally grown, fresh, and affordable produce through a partnership with another nonprofit, Farm Link
  • The launch of Zella’s Café, another new, local enterprise that operates in Mandela Foods Cooperative. It played a key supporting role along with Oakland Community Action Partnership (OCAP)

In addition, Mandela MarketPlace has working relationships with local government stakeholders, including City of Oakland, Community Action Partnership, and Alameda County Public Health and Health Care Services, to establish policies that support food security and local economic development in Oakland neighborhoods.

Food and the broader health of communities. Contemplating the scope of activities Mandela has engaged in, Harvey marvels at how central food issues can be in addressing the broader health of a community. “Food is actually a really powerful economic catalyst,” she says, “and that’s one exciting aspect of this work.”

More programs like Mandela MarketPlace could make the communities like West Oakland less vulnerable to gentrification. Poor communities in San Francisco neighborhoods are being transformed by wealthy commuters, often pushing long-term residents aside. These trends are increasingly affecting Oakland neighborhoods as well, but Harvey is hopeful West Oakland’s efforts toward increased investment in local business and community self-sufficiency will withstand the pressure, and establish a model for other disinvested communities.

“We have a model that isn’t scared of gentrification,” says Harvey. “If we can establish a foothold of economic ownership in the community, where people in the neighborhood own the economy, then when new money comes, we’re like, ‘bring it on.’”

Her Community Health Leader award. Harvey and her colleagues were still celebrating the opening of the Mandela Foods Cooperative when she received RWJF’s Community Health Leader award in 2010. After years of work in the community, the award came as a major affirmation.

“It made us feel credible,” she recalls. “It was really important to all of us. I accepted the award on behalf of so many people who put blood, sweat, and tears into this work. To have low-income people who usually are so invisible be recognized with a national award from a foundation we all respect... it was really powerful.”

Two years after receiving the RWJF award, Harvey was honored with a “Champions of Change” award from the White House, given to individuals who have made significant changes for the better in their communities. Again, Harvey accepted the award on behalf of all those in the community who had made it possible. “The work that I am being recognized for is truly ‘our’ work,” she said. “It requires the dedication, commitment, and strength of an extended community effort.”

In that spirit, Harvey donated the $20,000 “personal development” portion of the RWJF award back to Mandela MarketPlace. The $105,000 project portion of the award went to strengthening the organization’s work in various ways, including providing “Block to Crop” field trips that serve to connect urban residents with the farmers who grow their food.

A national model, but no simple formula. Winning nationally recognized awards has helped raise Mandela MarketPlace’s profile, and as a result, other organizations are asking for help in establishing similar programs. Harvey is working to create a model of the approaches they’ve used, and she’s excited about sharing what they’ve learned. Still, she cautions that there is no simple formula for creating social change.

“We get calls all the time from people who want to know if we can come open a grocery store in their community,” she says. “Our response is, ‘We’re not about opening grocery stores. What we can do is engage your residents in the process of planning a solution and then find resources to support them in actualizing those solutions.’”

“It’s not about plopping a grocery store down in a community. It’s about engaging and resourcing a community to solve their problems, and own those solutions,” says Harvey.

Postscript. As of October 2015, when RWJF updated all of our Community Health Leaders’ grantee stories, Harvey still serves as executive director of Mandela Foods Cooperative and Mandela MarketPlace.

RWJF perspective. The Foundation recognized the first 10 RWJF Community Health Leaders in 1993—unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities, often among the most disenfranchised populations, to address some of the nation’s most intractable health care problems. The last round of leaders was chosen in the fall of 2012. The program closed at the end of 2014. For more information on the program see the Special Report.

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Dana Harvey of Mandela MarketPlace: Working to make low-income neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., food secure