Food Fighter Feature: Building a Local Food Economy in West Oakland

The Mandela Marketplace shows us how it’s done.

Mandela foodsThe core values of Mandela Marketplace are virtually infallible.  They believe that change comes from within and that empowered people working together can build strong sustainable communities where wealth and resources can be cooperatively shared lifts everyone to higher ground.  The elements of empowerment, cooperation, and community driven action run deep throughout the organization and it is this deeply ingrained sense of purpose that makes Mandela Marketplace’s projects so fruitful.  Mariela Cedeno, the Senior Manager of Social Enterprise and Communications at Mandela Marketplace, explains that they have always been about supporting “food leaders and local economies.”

Initially incorporated in 2005, Mandela Marketplace and its enterprises and programs were born out of Executive Director, Dana Harvey’s compulsion to support the community’s desire to address food access and economic disinvestment issues in West Oakland bring the findings of a community lead food access study in West Oakland to the whole community.  

The study, similar to the findings in many of America’s most vibrant urban neighborhoods, showed that healthy food was virtually inaccessible to most of West Oakland’s residents.  Ms. Cedeno, explains that, “the ‘upholding and building the integrity of the community’ piece is what we hold most steadfast to.”  And this might be an understatement. 

Mandela Marketplace dichotomizes its endeavors into two categories: enterprises and programs.  The enterprises engage community members in the actual work of building a local food economy and the programs empower people to join in the effort.  Engage, empower, engage, empower, engage.  This is a cycle that brings people together, builds community and has the potential to squash the faceless corporatized bullies that have come to stomp the power we have over what we eat. 

storefrontLet’s look at The Mandela Foods Co-op for starters. The Mandela Foods Co-op is a well-known spot to get great healthy food at reasonable prices in West Oakland.  It’s easy to get to and serves not only as a place where people can drop in to buy some local produce, but also as a prime example of the what happens when people take the time to teach their neighbors to invest in local business, thus strengthening the local food economy. Mandela Foods unlike your typical grocery store is a worker and community owned meaning that there are no real employers and no real employees–just people working to keep their investment of time and resources in the community running smoothly.  There are two employees of Mandela Marketplace who are dedicated to supporting and training Co-op worker-owners.  They not only sell produce but also run regular nutrition workshops and cooking classes that are free to members and the public.  In their own words, Mandela Foods “seeks to transform a neighborhood into a dynamic, healthy and prosperous community for the benefit of residents, employees, commuters, and local farmers.”

Mandela Marketplace also includes a huge youth empowerment element in their work as well.  Leveraging individuals in the West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered (WYSE) program, young people are given the opportunity to develop real business skills through life experience.  Youth in the WYSE program partner with neighborhood corner stores and take on the tasks of setting up and managing an inventory of produce, delivering fresh produce each week and providing nutrition education and recipes to store patrons.  Some young people even ride their bikes to deliver produce to their partner locations.  bikeMariela explains that this particular enterprise leaves young people “feeling like they are owning their own solutions.”  That kind of self-determination serves to empower a whole new generation of leaders in the West Oakland food system. 

earths produceAnother one of Mandela Marketplace’s enterprises is a distribution effort called Earth’s Produce.  This project was designed to support local, under-resourced and minority farmers by offering them alternative distribution outlets that would otherwise take too much legwork for individual farmers to reach.  Earth’s Produce is distributed in the Healthy Neighborhood Store Alliance (HNSA) locations, Mandela Market Stands, and in the Mandela Foods Co-op.  Currently, Earth’s Produce is incubated both by resources and technical support by Mandela Marketplace, but remains entirely self-sufficient in the day-to-day operations.

Mandela Marketplace has clearly got the long view in mind.  From supporting small family farms to empowering West Oakland’s youth to live healthy engaged lives, a local food economy is definitely growing.  Mariela admits, “Building a store that is run by the community is much more difficult, but in the long term it has a much bigger impact in the work you are doing.”  And we all know that when the change is coming from within, there is nothing to do but to keep working everyday.  This well-oiled community endeavor has seen wonderful results in its first 7 years and will continue its work in building a local food economy in West Oakland for years to come. 

Photo of AriFor more information about Mandela Marketplace, visit, or for helpful ideas on how to kickstart your own local food economy please email or call our National Food Security Coordinator: or (502) 569-5818.  Sharing is caring!