Mandela Food Cooperative gets the Redford nod

James Berk rings up food justice at the Mandela Food Cooperative
All photos by Caitlin Donohue

The following is a sentence you wouldn't be reading a year ago. Yesterday, I went grocery shopping in West Oakland. But, thanks to James Berk, and his fellow worker-owners at the Mandela Foods Cooperative, I did – and way more importantly, residents in an area that went without a source of produce and other healthy foods for years now have a place to buy the food they'll need to make dinner. Berk's being honored for his work by the Robert Redford Center's “The Art of Activism” award (Wed/9), another fist pump from Bob for the Bay's finest community leaders.

“Having been a resident of West Oakland,” the 19 year old Berk told me in a phone interview “I didn't have a car. [If you're] not going to go to Pack N Save, your options were Hungry Man dinners and Hot Pockets.” Berk was sick of it. He took his first steps towards addressing the problems that face Oakland's low income neighborhoods in 2007, when the executive director of Mandela Marketplace (the food co-op's umbrella organization), Dana Harvey, came to his high school looking for help with a survey that would address the area's issues and needs.

Berk jumped on the project, and the survey confirmed what was already obvious to those that responded; corner stores weren't cutting it when it came to the nutritional needs of families. Thus began a lengthy process to do something about it, a process that Berk was an integral part of. Two years later, on June 6th, 2009, Mandela Food Cooperative opened the doors to its 2,500 square foot storefront in the Mandela Marketplace complex, a colorful stand of buildings across the street from the West Oakland BART stop.

On my trip to see what the Cooperative was all about (and yes, buy groceries), I realized that the store's aim was to improve more than just the contents of West Oakland's refrigerators. Small placards near the stacks of fresh (a mix between organic and conventionally grown) veggies and fruits signal one of the place's least heralded aspects; its purchasing practices don't just support low income consumers, but producers as well.

Carrots where there once was none in West Oakland

Each card has a photo of one of the co-op's produce suppliers, and a short note on how they run their farm. “Mandela Marketplace buys direct from small minority farmers, who in a lot of cases wouldn't be able to provide enough of a harvest to sell to the bigger supermarkets,” Berk tells me. Black and Latino faces beam out from the pictures on the walls, proof that the co-op is working on the larger issue of an inequitable food system that provides no easy breaks for the little guys on the production end, either.

“There's been a lot of positive feedback,” Berk says. “We have customers we see on a day to day basis, but we can still do more.” With zero storage space, there was initially problems keeping food on the shelves – demand can be difficult to predict, which has been part of the learning process for the store's worker-owners.

But logistical issues haven't slowed down the staff of Mandela Food Cooperative, which also runs pop-up markets at senior centers, where limited mobility would otherwise curtail residents' ability to do their own shopping. Every Saturday in the store, a nutritionist holds an open health and disease prevention class, occasionally cooking with ingredients like quinoa to highlight their role in a healthy diet. The families that come through while I'm in the store can choose among two aisles of bulk foods, locally produced cheeses, soy products, and items from the butcher counter. Berk sees the neighborhood's enthusiastic reaction to the market as proof it has the power to improve the way people eat.

Nowadays, Berk works a couple days a week at the co-op, does youth empowerment work with WYSE (West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered), and works on Mandela Marketplace's program that focuses on getting nutritious food and positive businesses practices into convenience stores, the Healthy Neighborhood Stores Alliance. He's a community leader who tends to minimize his own role in the change he's helped to create and focus on what it means that his groups have found success.

Berk will share the stage at the Redford Center awards ceremony with co-honorees, actress Rosario Dawson (who in addition to being smokin' hot, co-founded Vote Latino, and is active in a variety of social causes), and Martha Ryan, whose San Francisco Homeless Prenatal Program has provides medical care and support services to over 3,000 unhoused families a year. Berk's hopeful that the recognition he and his program are receiving spreads the taste for change to others who are in the same place he was back in 2007.

“Residents who have no prior business experience were able to make this happen,” Berk says. “If we can do it, than others can too. In areas like West Oakland throughout the country, people don't always have the power to get a loan from the bank. But they have the power to make something like this happen.”

“The Art of Activism”

Wed/9 7-9 p.m., $20

Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

1881 Post, SF

(510) 809-0790

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