Mandela Foods Cooperative is a locally-owned and operated full-service grocery store and nutrition education center located in West Oakland, a community long underserved in grocery retail. The present undersupply of food retail in West Oakland represents an opportunity to leverage untapped local buying power into new business and employment opportunities and healthy eating options for West Oakland residents. The Cooperative will offer local goods, wholesome, fresh and affordable foods grown on family farms, nutrition education classes and a cooperative economic investment program that provides multi-level investment for community residents.

Video of James worker-member of Mandela Food Cooperative, Oakland

One of a Kind: The Mandela Foods Cooperative

While the Mandela Foods Cooperative is certainly one of a kind in West Oakland, it is also accompanied by a handful of community gardens, urban homesteading programs, and backyard farms developed by West Oaklanders to counteract food insecurity in the neighborhood. Before the Mandela Foods Cooperative opened, one could travel from the northwest tip of West Oakland to the “lower bottoms,” and find plenty of convenience stores, even a few fast food restaurants, but not one full-service grocery store. Some legislators and academics use the term “food deserts” to describe areas like West Oakland, by which they mean predominately low-income neighborhoods with little to no access to healthy, affordable and “culturally appropriate” food in the immediate area. According to a study commissioned by the USDA meant to discover the extent of such “food deserts” in the U.S., minimal access to food translates into a higher likelihood of chronic hunger and greater incidences of diet-related illnesses. While these conclusions are important to state, the study’s popularization of the term, and under-investigation of its sources, threatens to obscure some of the bigger issues at stake.

For people living and working in West Oakland the term “food deserts” only names a symptom, or effect of the systemic social inequities that make it difficult to find healthy food. Brahm Ahmadi, Executive Director of the West Oakland community-based organization Peoples Grocery, argues that the term “food apartheid” or “food injustice” better describes the situation confronting people in poor urban areas. In an exchange with other food activists, Ahmadi maintained that “the term food desert has emerged as a safe and neutral way to avoid rocking the boat with an analysis of inequity, racism and oppression…. No one in our neighborhood has heard of, or uses, the term food desert,” he notes, “but folks do talk about racism, [and] exclusion all the time…. We may live in food deserts, but we live under food apartheid.” The distinction is an important one that pivots on the latter term’s ability to surface the structural and systemic inequities that give rise to “food deserts” – a distinction enabling us to formulate better solutions to the problem of food insecurity, economic disparities, and diet-related illnesses in poor communities.

Source: PARAME CultureWorks

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