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Building a Community-Based Food System

Story by PolicyLink, Lifting Up What Works® March 18th, 2016


In just a little over 10 years, Mandela MarketPlace has done what was once thought impossible in the rapidly changing San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood of West Oakland: develop, open, and sustain a community-owned, cooperative grocery store, Mandela Foods Cooperative.

From its beginnings as a resident-driven grassroots effort to bring good food and good jobs to the community, the nationally recognized local nonprofit Mandela MarketPlace, which emerged from these early organizing efforts, has helped to bring real, tangible changes to residents.



For far too long, communities like West Oakland have suffered intentional and sanctioned dis-investment — stripping people and communities of financial assets, social cohesion, and human dignity. The work of Mandela MarketPlace builds a foundation for community re-investment — a foundation composed of engaged and honored community voices, resources directed specifically to empower those voices, and core values that honor community-owned solutions and economies for community benefit, grounded in a demand for health and a respect for culture.

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“There are many places like West Oakland across the globe in urban areas that don’t have access to healthy fresh foods. That’s an atrocity. No matter if you live in Beverly Hills or in the bottom slums, you still deserve good food. West Oakland deserves good things—and good food.” –James Bell, Mandela Foods Cooperative Worker Owner

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more than a grocery store—growing a community-based food system

“My dream is for Mandela and others who buy from me to grow too. Because it wouldn’t work if only I grow. If I planted a lot of stuff but don’t have any place to sell it, what am I going to do? If I had somebody who’s going to buy it, I can plant more for them. If they’ll be growing, I’ll be growing. It’s a connection.” –Efren Avalos, Owner of Avalos Organic Farms and Mandela Foods Distribution member


Avalos is a member of Mandela Foods Distribution (MFD), an alternative food hub incubated at Mandela MarketPlace that comprises a network of under-resourced family farmers of color within a 200-mile radius of the Bay Area. Prior to owning and operating his small farm, Avalos spent 13 years picking strawberries for a large agricultural company. He occasionally sold produce to Mandela MarketPlace for years before formally joining the network, to access loans with more flexible terms and the chance to repay a no-interest loan with crates of his produce.

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a new model of ownership

“This worker-owner grocery store model had been untested in communities like West Oakland. It helps people begin to think not only about healthy food options, but about ownership options; about the possibilities for people who look like them, are diverse, and are living in the community or near. This is a whole new paradigm that we haven’t seen before. Now local residents might begin to think that this is ‘our’ store.” –Thomas Mills, Board President of Mandela MarketPlace

Longtime residents, who had historically been left out of, or were eventually displaced through, community development projects would now have the chance to benefit from job and wealth creation.

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driving change by honoring community voices

“When people have democratic voice in a business, this also lends to political voice. When you’ve seen your voice lead to action in terms of business execution, you begin to feel you have economic clout and self-worth to voice your opinion. So when something happens in your community, you feel a sense of ownership over making your voice heard on those issues.” –Mariela Cedeño, Social Enterprise and Microfinance Director at Mandela MarketPlace

Mandela MarketPlace has shown that it is possible to rebuild an entire food system with local residents driving its development, ownership, and sustainability.

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moving forward

“We have been a catalyst for creating opportunity for people who might not have realized they have this opportunity. Even if we go away, there is a whole network of people who aren’t afraid to take risks, who know they have value in their community, who will advocate for themselves and others.” –Dana Harvey, Executive Director, Mandela MarketPlace

What began as an alternative vision of a food system grew into an innovative model that has sparked the interest of communities across the country seeking to replicate the Mandela MarketPlace model.

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The sustained movement of Mandela MarketPlace’s work is a testament to the residents, businesses, farmers, and partners who daily work together to improve the health and wealth of each other and their communities through food, culture, and economy. To learn more about Mandela MarketPlace’s story, read the first of a three-part case study series on Building a Community-Based Food System. This series will document a catalyst strategy for shifting the dynamics of poverty and racism, and the impact of that strategy, starting with the first installment: Transforming West Oakland: A Case Study Series on Mandela MarketPlace.

Footnote: Photos courtesy of Mandela MarketPlace.
West Oakland, Oakland, CA, United States