Monday, November 26, 2012

Mandela Foods brings fresh produce, a brighter future to West Oakland with Kiva Zip

The West Oakland neighborhood of the Bay Area covers 8 square-miles and houses 25,000 people, but it only has one grocery store -- Mandela Foods.

Opened in 2010, Mandela Foods is a worker-owned cooperative grocery store that aims to combat the area’s expansive “Food Desert.” Stocked with fresh organic fruits and vegetables, bulk bins of nuts and grains, hormone-free meats and dairy products, snacks that eschew high-fructose corn syrup, and more, Mandela is a haven of healthy foods.

Kiva Zip borrower James Berk, an Oakland resident and worker-owner at Mandela Foods since its founding, has seen firsthand the impact the store has had on his community. 

“There’s not a lot of businesses that are still open around here,” he says. “Before we opened up, if you wanted to grocery shop you would often have to go into the next city or miles out.”

At just 22 years-old, James has a mature demeanor that reflects a wisdom beyond his years. For him, the mission of Mandela Foods -- “Food, People, Power” -- is not only a part of Oakland’s future, but also his personal experience growing up there.

“I was raised in Oakland almost my entire life, West Oakland most recently,” he says. “The lack of food was a real issue -- I basically grew up eating nothing but junk, chips, soda, and it was showing in my diet... I had all types of different health concerns, issues with my heart and never having any energy... all because I didn’t have any food in my diet.” 

With 25% of residents dependent on emergency food programs and 71% earning less than $30,000 a year, West Oakland is considered to be one of the city’s most vulnerable and underserved communities. Compared to surrounding cities like Alameda, people suffer disproportionately from dietary issues like diabetes and heart disease -- the area’s leading cause of death according to the Department of Public Health. The lack of local grocery stores and fresh affordable food has been pegged as one of the primary causes.

“[Mandela] being here is having an impact on people’s lives,” James explains. “There’s people who I see more and more who are coming in here for their food because they wanna see a change, and I just want to make sure that continues to happen.”

But Mandela Foods is not only improving its neighbors’ health -- it’s boosting the local economy too. 

The store sources its products from about 25 local vendors, including many Oakland-based companies. And all seasonal produce comes from within a 200-mile radius, supporting around 20 local farmers every year. In addition, Mandela’s close relationship with these suppliers allows it to buy produce at more reasonable prices and pass the savings along to its customers. 

Last spring, to help Mandela grow, James got involved with Kiva Zip, our pilot project that helps Kiva lenders connect quickly and directly with borrowers through community trustees. His $5,000 loan for Mandela Foods got funded by 39 lenders, enabling the cooperative to invest in marketing and spread the word through T-shirts and bags with its logo.

“We had a lot of challenges around marketing ourselves,” he says. “Every week I had people come in and just say ‘Oh man, I’ve lived here for years and I never knew you guys were here.’ So now everybody that shops here is basically a walking advertisement.”

For a new, non-traditional business model like Mandela Foods, Kiva Zip was the first and only service willing to provide funding. Larger banks prefer established businesses that can prove lower risk.

“We’ve had a challenge getting any type of financial support here,” James says. “We’re a small business, we’re a new business, and we’re a cooperative business. So all around we just don’t appeal to large financial institutions.” 

Kiva Zip, on the other hand, is excited to keep pace with the progress made by small businesses doing good in the world. This one seemingly small loan is not only fueling Mandela’s mission and helping it put down roots, it’s also increasing West Oakland’s confidence in locally-owned businesses.

No one can say it better than James: “Us doing this is showing that we still have the ability to be independent and strike out and do something on our own.”

Have questions about Kiva Zip? Want to become a Zip borrower? Become a Zip lender? We’re happy to help at

Photos also by Esther Rose Honig.