Years in the Making, Mandela Foods Cooperative Still a Secret

Crowds remain sparse at West Oakland's long-awaited grocery store.

When West Oakland’s long-awaited Mandela Foods Cooperative finally opened its doors in June of 2009, it did so with many promises to fulfill. The store was designed not only to provide quality food at a low price to West Oakland residents, but also to help them revive their neighborhood. Yet as the store celebrates its one-year anniversary, its staff often appears to outnumber its clientele at any given time.

Co-op Executive Director Dana Harvey remains happy with its progress. For Harvey, the many goals of Mandela Foods can be summed up by the catchphrase “food security.” The textbook definition of food security, she says, is all people having access to affordable, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods at all times. Harvey also said the store met its early sales projections and has been well-received by the community. “The store looks great, we have happy shoppers, and we have happy worker-owners,” she said.

But while the store’s supporters may be optimistic, far more West Oakland residents appear to buy their groceries at the nearby 99 Cents Only general store, which occupies the same building as Mandela Foods.

It was 2006 when Harvey and the would-be Mandela Foods collective first approached Bridge Housing about opening a cooperative grocery store in the Mandela Gateway transit village across from West Oakland BART. With their eyes set on the village’s prime 11,000-square-foot retail space, it was agreed that if Harvey and company could raise $500,000 to guarantee their first three years of rent, Bridge would lease them the space and even contribute $250,000 to the store’s start-up costs.

Harvey and company set about raising their start-up money and building public awareness. First, the West Oakland Project Area Committee approved a $200,000 grant for the project and agreed to guarantee an additional year’s rent. Then Oakland Councilwoman Nancy Nadel contributed $100,000 of city funding to assist them. Harvey announced that the store would be open by that summer. But as the months passed this goal became less and less certain, and by December of 2006 Mandela Foods was still unable to raise the remaining funds needed to open. Bridge eventually rented the space to the Southern California-based chain, 99 Cents Only.

Still determined to make the store a reality, in 2007 the project received $220,000 in grant money from the California Endowment and had a New Year’s Eve fund-raiser which brought in $10,000. By September, Mandela Foods had signed a lease with Bridge for a smaller retail space, but further delays held up the project until June of 2009.

Since the store’s opening, response has been mixed, which should come as no surprise in a community in which poverty and racial tensions are so prevalent. The uncertainty of when or even if the store would open caused some observers to criticize both the co-op and the city government for the amount of money being sunk into the project. Yet, while many of the neighborhood’s residents continue to shop at 99 Cents Only — which offers affordable, mass-produced packaged foods and produce — other residents, though mostly young and white, frequent Mandela Foods and want it to succeed.

“For someone like me who doesn’t drive a car, this place is important because it’s the only place I can get groceries,” said West Oakland resident Mike Jones. “Pak ‘n $ave is really far. I would rather spend more money on groceries here than go to some other place in the long run.”

Meanwhile, 41-year-old West Oakland resident Brenda Appleby says she shops for groceries at 99 Cents Only about twice a week. When asked her opinion about the neighboring Mandela Foods store, she said she had never heard of it. “I would be interested in checking it out though,” she said. “I like to eat healthy.” Similar sentiments were shared by three other shoppers interviewed.

Mandela Foods worker and co-owner James Carl Bell, who was born in West Oakland and has been involved with the project right from the start, said people often stumble in who had no idea that the store existed until that moment. “It’s improving, slowly but surely,” Bell said. “Not everyone in the neighborhood knows about the store, but as long as they keep on finding out we’ll be good.”

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