This spotlight is a feature in a series of the USDA Community Food Project Competitive Grant Program (CFP). Grantees are doing some of the most innovative and collaborative projects to change local and regional food systems. WhyHunger’s Food Security Learning Center — also funded by a CFP grant — has recently begun to profile these organizations through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real flavor of what the projects look like and how they’re accomplishing their goals. Up today: Mandela Marketplace, Oakland, California. We worked with Mandela Marketplace in 2011 in the first year of the Community Learning Project for Food Justice. Story and picture by David Hanson.
You can’t ignore the fresh produce stand in the front of Bottles corner store at West Oakland’s 12th and Market Streets. A garland of yellow and white flowers frames the four metal shelves that hold bananas, tomatoes, onions, limes, apples, and green peppers. Surrounding the shelf is a corner store. A bodega: the shiny, plastic-and-glass rainbow of chips, candy bars, refrigerated walls of soda, and, behind the counter, lotto and liquor.
West Oakland has over fifty bodegas like Bottles (minus the produce). Until recently, the community of 25,000 residents had no traditional grocery store. Fifty-three liquor stores and no grocery. In some places in the country, a bodega corner store like Bottles is a place to stop for ice or a drink or a pack of chips on a road trip. In West Oakland, however, Bottles was the grocery store, especially for forty percent of the population who lack an automobile.
Three corner stores in West Oakland now have produce stands in them. They are small and, as far as inventory numbers, dwarfed by the remainder of the store. But a funny thing happens when you walk into the Bottles store. You’re eye goes straight to the fruit and veggies. They are so out-of-the-ordinary from what our brains have been trained to expect in such a homogenized, artificial food environment. The store suddenly does not feel so sterile and packaged. With vegetables and fruit on decorated stand, Bottles suddenly does not make such an easy metaphor for inner city blight and decay.
Jamelah Isaac, age 19, and the five other WYSE (West Oakland Youth Standing Empowerment) employees manage the produce stands in three West Oakland corner stores. WYSE is an organization with a mission to develop youth leaders in the West Oakland community. WYSE partnered with Mandela Marketplace, a local non-profit with three core food enterprises in the community. Mandela Marketplace began with the creation of the Mandela Foods Co-op. The small grocery store is the only grocery in West Oakland. It’s largely organic and has boutiquey prices. It makes for a big step – just having a grocery store – but it’s not the solution for a neighborhood with so many residents living on low-income wages.
Since 2004, WhyHunger has featured USDA Community Food Project (CFP) grantees on a database as part of our Food Security Learning Center. The Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program was started in 1996 to fight hunger and promote self-sufficiency in low-income communities. Community Food Projects are designed to increase food security by bringing together stakeholders from across the food system to assess strengths, establish links and relationships, and create solutions that work for the whole community.