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Cultivating Equitable Food-Oriented Development:

Lessons from West Oakland

From production to distribution to retail, the Oakland-based nonprofit Mandela MarketPlace (MMP) cultivates a model approach for advancing equitable food-oriented development with an ecosystem of businesses, entrepreneurs, and initiatives firmly rooted in the principles of community-driven solutions and economic self-determination.

Now, with proof of concept after more than 10 years of experience, MMP’s model offers a path forward for other communities impacted by historical and systematic disinvestment—one that is equity driven, can withstand neighborhood change, and prioritizes investment in the people and places that are most often left behind.

Maria and Julio Catalan of Catalan Family Farms, members of the MFD network.

The Evolving Role of Mandela MarketPlace: A Local Hub for Equitable Food-Oriented Development

“What keeps community entrepreneurs from launching a business to fill a locally recognized market gap? The reality is that launching a business in a marginalized community correlates with inadequate access to financial, physical, and structural resources. Not only are resources limited, but historical systems of extraction have siphoned wealth and uprooted support systems for decades. Because of this, traditional models of access to capital and business development need to be revised—we have to reinvest not just through patient debt capital, but also by restoring extracted wealth and building networks of support.”

–Mariela Cedeño, Director of Business Development and Lending

Mandela's evolution into a local hub for community-based and equitable food-oriented development was in part a direct response to the uneven playing field that West Oakland residents and local entrepreneurs faced as they sought the appropriate resources to develop Mandela Foods Cooperative (MFC), the community's first full-service, cooperatively owned grocery store. In addition to serving as an entity for centralizing resources, investments, and partnerships, the organization has grown to be a cross-pollinator of an interlinked, hyper-local food economy.

The enterprises in this economic network operate under a broad and more equitable framework: a commitment to “local” not only considers where food is sourced, how it’s grown, or the geographic reach – but also who is hired, who is borrowing or accessing capital, who is leading a project or owning a business, and who is actively participating in decision making—and whether or not the people who most benefit also own and make decisions that reflect community needs and desires.

Mandela Foods employee, Fekida Wuul, staffing the cash register at Mandela Foods Cooperative
Local entrepreneur and farmer Maria Catalan signing papers for her loan agreement with Mandela MarketPlace.
Marcos Avalos of Avalos Farm, a Mandela Foods Distribution member, with farm-grown strawberries

The Mandela Model and Network: Linking a System of Supports to Build Community Capacity

“It takes time to build the trust, relationships, and groundwork in the community to engage people in the idea that their personal investment is going to lead to something. It’s not coming in and dropping out quickly. It takes the perseverance to stay with a community to make sure that at the end of the day, the thing promised is going to happen.” —Dana Harvey, Executive Director

Over the years, Mandela MarketPlace has tested and fine-tuned a model for food-oriented development that builds a community-driven local food system and economy—rooted in people, place, and partnerships—in low-income, historically marginalized communities. The five value-driven and complementary components of the model include community engagement; place-based healthy food retail, including access to Mandela Foods Distribution; business incubation and technical assistance; access to capital and financing; and training and education.

Nakia Dillard, a Mandela Entrepreneur, with her Goddess Crowns jewelry line
Carvell Wallace, customer at Mandela Foods Cooperative
Sam Virk, the owner of Bottles Liquors, one of the stores in Mandela’s Healthy Retail Network
Local entrepreneur Bilal Sabir of Delightful Foods preparing a batch of his “No Cookie” cookies
TaSin Sabir of Delightful Foods holding a finished “No Cookie” cookie
East Oakland introduction to business development workshop graduates

Business Spotlight: Mandela Foods Distribution

“ We were able to create something new. A different business, a symbiotic relationship, that supports local farmers, cares about the farmers, works with them, provides them with resources and helps them grow their business. It’s so rewarding. I can see us developing a business that is rewarding for employees, for us, for the community, and the farmers, all around.”

–Yuro Chavez, Mandela Foods Distribution

Mandela Foods Distribution grew out of the need for better infrastructure to connect under-resourced farmers of color to urban markets in need of fresh, healthy produce. Today the distribution network is made up of seven core and 18 additional seasonal farmers in the Salinas Valley who have been able to access healthy food retail markets in the Bay Area through their partnership with Mandela.

Lettuce field at Avalos Farm
Efren Avalos of Avalos Farm, a member of Mandela Foods Distribution and Harvest to Market borrower
Yuro Chavez of Mandela Foods Distribution loading produce from a local farm.
Produce selection at one of Mandela’s produce stands
Erick Ismael Sanchez de Leon, of Mandela Foods Distribution, unloading produce
A glimpse into Mandela Foods Distribution’s walk-in cooler
A selection of summer produce grown by MFD’s member farmers

Business Spotlight: Zella’s Soulful Kitchen

A locally owned café incubated by MMP and located inside the MFC grocery store, Zella’s Soulful Kitchen, is another symbol of what’s possible when community ingenuity, a commitment to healthy food, and economic opportunity come together. Owned and operated by Chef Dionne Knox, Zella’s is a tribute to Knox’s family history, named after her grandmother who was a chef and community leader and taught Knox the value of quality food made from fresh ingredients. The café is also the culmination of Knox’s long history of youth development and community advocacy and passion for bringing people together through food.

Chef Dionne Knox and Lee Levy, of Zella’s Soulful Kitchen
Helen, customer of Zella’s and Mandela Foods Cooperative
Homemade biscuits and biscuit sandwiches from Zella’s
The counter at Zella’s Soulful Kitchen, a locally owned café inside Mandela Foods Cooperative.


Central to the goal of economic inclusion is equity: shifting the way that resources and investments are made and how the economy operates to guarantee that everyone is included and benefits. In places like West Oakland, this means ensuring historic residents who have built up the community can stay and thrive.

As Mandela MarketPlace’s network of interconnected local businesses and partners mature and solidify their roots, and as organization traverses this juncture of growth and neighborhood transformation, it knows it is not alone—it is part of a larger movement committed to revitalizing local economies, building community capacity, and creating healthy, thriving communities with dignity and honor, ready and eager to forge onward.

To learn more about Mandela MarketPlace’s story, read the second installment of a three-part case study series, Cultivating Equitable Food-Oriented Development: Lessons from West Oakland. This series will document a catalyst strategy for shifting the dynamics of poverty and racism, and the impact of that strategy. Read the first case study, Transforming West Oakland, and accompanying photo essay here.

Mandela Foods Cooperative worker-owners and employees, L to R: Erin Clark, Fekida Wuul, James Bell, and Adrionna Fike
Footnote: Photos courtesy of Mandela MarketPlace and Michael Short Photography. Sincere Thanks.
West Oakland, Oakland, CA, United States