Mandela MarketPlace – Beyond Food and Economy

By Dana Harvey, Mandela MarketPlace
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.
Beginning by questioning a lack of access to healthy foods in West Oakland, residents understood that solving one challenge involved solving more complex issues and that sustaining that solution would take a comprehensive approach. To start, even just improving food access meant more than having food in a community — the elements of access are multifaceted. Access includes building the capacity in the community to purchase that food, to honor the food cultures of people in the community, and honor the producers, retailers, and families who are all part of a cultural food system. So, when residents answered the question, “How do you create a food-secure community?” — they designed a plan that included community-owned retail, honoring local culture, creating sustainable business ownership and job opportunities, dignity in work and community, and respect in how the food is grown, manufactured, and sold to families.
Mandela MarketPlace made, and continues to make, significant investments to support this community ingenuity. The strength and success of our work rests in lifting up community engagement and empowerment as core guiding principles — and recognizing that food can serve as an innovative catalyst for igniting local economies, local entrepreneurs, improved community health, and cultural awareness and dignity.
Integral to a systems approach, our work fosters long-time, trusted relationships that build social cohesion within the immediate community: shopping at local markets, knowing the business owners – those owners choosing to sell products made by neighbors — and, within a broader community, supporting farmers who face similar social and financial hurdles. Beyond profit margins, our work puts ownership of the local economy into the hands of residents themselves, strengthening their economic position and weakening forces that may otherwise displace their economy and culture.
The sustained movement of our 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.
View the accompanying photo essay, with original photography from Mandela MartketPlace. 
Dana Harvey is the Executive Director at Mandela MarketPlace, a non-profit organization that works in partnership with local residents, family farmers, and community-based businesses to improve health, create wealth, and build assets through cooperative food enterprises in low income communities. Learn more at
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Healthy Food Access Portal.