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A produce store grows in West Oakland

on June 17, 2009

Among the dilapidated housing, the abandoned, weed covered lots and graffiti marked walls of West Oakland sits the Mandela Foods Cooperative, an organic grocery store.

It’s an ideal place to start an organic grocery store and nutritional education center, said Stephanie Camus.  “There hasn’t been a real grocery store here for 30 years.”

Camus is one of eight workers and owners of the cooperative that opened at 1430 7th Street earlier this month.

“We’re trying to provide healthier food for people who are going to corner stores and getting potato chips and soda,she said, wearing, like the others, shirts with their motto: “Food, People, Power.”

“Mandela would be the ‘power’ part of it,” said Camus, on why they selected the name of the former president of South Africa. Camus, a former educator who also worked in optometry, was inspired to open the store by the idea of people uniting to serve healthy food .

Up until the opening of Mandela, it was  easier to buy a six-pack of beer than to find an apple in West Oakland. Many residents have been going to Berkeley Bowl six miles away or into Emeryville four miles away for their weekly groceries. There’s roughly eight liquor stores in the area, including the block Mandela sits on.

“This is tremendous,” said Haqqa Wishnoff, 31, who came to pick up Kombucha drinks. “This is the only real conscious grocery store we have that sells real food.”

Wishnoff generally goes to Berkeley Bowl for organic foods. That has since changed since Mandela opened.

Nearby at Subway, a sandwich restaurant,  employees take orders through a bullet proof window and drop sandwiches through a metal tray.

“When I thought of moving to Oakland I found this beautiful, old, really diverse neighborhood,” said Camus. “But if I moved here where would I go for food? Wow. Nowhere, I guess.”

The cooperative gets its produce from farmers who are unable to get into the larger distribution system. Many of these farms like Rodriguez Farms are stationed in Watsonville. Sweet Home Ranch, run by Paul Buxman is in Reedley

These small farms usually attend seven to eight farmers markets a week to sell their produce. Now many, can count on Mandela Foods Cooperative as a customer.

Wishnoff said one of the only drawbacks are the prices even though Mandela Foods is often cheaper than many of the organic alternatives.  Peaches at the cooperative cost $1.49 a pound compared to Berkeley Bowl, where they cost $2.19 a pound. Mandela Foods Cooperative is hoping to convince the community that spending extra money on organic food is worth it.

“It’s not reflective of the community it serves,” Washoff  said. “Once the revenue starts to flow maybe they’ll be able to lower the prices.” She almost purchased a watermelon but considered the $8 price too steep.

Although the grocery store opened last Saturday, many walk by and – as vehicles passing by a car accident – slow down, do a double take, press their hands on the window and look inside in shock.

“Ya’ll want to become like Trader Joe’s?” said Nyota Koya .

“Better,” said Camus, who was on her knees stacking mustard sauce.

Koya, with one hand in her pocket, strolled down the aisles inspecting the produce–$1.49 for organic red apples. $5.99 for a gallon of milk. She could pick up the same amount of red apples for 89 cents but would pay $2 more for milk at Berkeley Bowl.

Koya left empty-handed.

“We’ll see how long they last,” said Koya, who was on her way to the 99 cent store.”The prices look kind of high for the neighborhood.”

Koya, a resident of Oakland for five years, goes to multiple grocery stores and chooses the better deals. “I go to Trader Joe’s and they have some things, Whole Foods – sometimes you have to buy some things organic anyway so you go in and deal with it. I roll around.”

Shawna Ellwood, another Oakland resident, dropped by for the first time and found the prices reasonable. “I think I’ll stop by here on my way home and pick up my vegetables from here,” said Ellwood, who uses the West Oakland Bart station everyday.

“I live by a Pack and Save but I’d rather come here and support the community,” said Ellwood, who sees many of her neighbors go to a 99 cent store for their produce.

The store receives its biggest rush of customers on weekends and the after work crowd stroll in after 5 p.m., according to Camus.

Camus used to get her groceries on her bicycle in Berkeley and even San Francisco.

“I’m doing better than a lot of folks. I’m able bodied. But it gives me a sense of what it must be like for other folks.

Lead image: Stephanie Camus, owner, by the produce section of Mandela Foods Cooperative


  1. west oakland neighbor on June 17, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Why does this article not include any mention of the several hundred thousand dollar city subsidy given to this store? And why does it act like there is no produce nearby when the 99 cent store in the same development sells produce. 99 cents store wanted to sell more produce, but the City restricted the amount they were legally allowed to sell in order to protect Mandela Foods. Then Mandela Foods didn’t open for almost two years after they were supposed to. This is very incomplete reporting.

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