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Dana Harvey at the White House talking about West Oakland's food access problems. Photo Courtesy

White House celebrates Oakland food champion

on September 13, 2012

Last week Dana Harvey, the executive director of Mandela Marketplace, a West Oakland-based nonprofit that helps residents develop businesses that sell produce grown by local farmers, received a White House award for her efforts to make healthy foods accessible in Oakland.

Harvey, a Fruitvale resident, was named one of 11 “Champions of Change” by the Obama administration, an honor that included an invitation to the White House and a chance to participate in a panel discussion telling government officials about food issues that affect West Oakland. “I couldn’t be more humbled and honored than by being recognized by the Obamas,” said Harvey, 55. “I actually cried on my panel because it’s very emotional.”

Every week, the White House honors up to 11 individuals who have demonstrated exceptional community work in areas ranging from public transportation to helping fathers become more responsible for childcare. “Strengthening food security,” a category defined by the White House as efforts to end hunger and make healthy food more attainable to low-income people, was the award theme for the first week of September. Recipients in this category included Joshua Williams, an 11-year-old from Tampa, Florida who was honored for creating a foundation that feeds homeless people, and Terrol Johnson, a member of Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation who received the award for forming programs that make traditional, tribe-specific foods more accessible to Native Americans.  Mandela Marketplace was the only California organization represented at the event.

The award ceremony occurred during the Democratic National Convention, so panelists were not able to meet the president, Harvey said, but she was glad she gained access to federal officials that affect local food policies. “It was really nice to be that much closer,” Harvey said. “It made me really feel like this community now has a voice at the White House. We actually have the president’s ear. They know who we are. They know this community now.”

As the president’s personal guests, awardees were given a tour of the White House and welcomed by State Department representatives, including Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. They were then given the opportunity to speak to these representatives about policies that affect their community.

When it was her time to speak, Harvey thanked USDA officials for partially funding Mandela Marketplace and giving it technical assistance over the last decade, without which the nonprofit would not exist, she said. Within the last six years, the group has received four grants from USDA agencies, including a $50,000 “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” grant in 2009 for connecting residents to food grown on local farms. The USDA has also provided the nonprofit with planning and management information to help it create food-related businesses.

While praising the USDA’s support, Harvey said she also used her time on the panel to make some criticisms of the agency. “USDA has all of this innovation and forward thinking and community food security,” Harvey said.  “But then they also have genetic modified organisms and agribusiness farming and patenting life. And so I said that this is a conflict and it’s a challenge within their agency, I’m sure, but it’s a challenge for us on the ground because we’re always sort of butting heads against these other entities.”

In 2006, Harvey helped found Mandela Marketplace to raise funds to create a full-service grocery store in West Oakland, Mandela Foods Cooperative. Harvey said the food cooperative’s business model shows the relationship between making affordable food more accessible and economic development. “Once you have a grocery store in a community that’s operating,” Harvey said, “it brings other businesses into the community. And because it’s owned by people who live here, it starts generating a local income, a local economy—and it gives an opportunity for people in the neighborhood, who may not have been able to make living wages or may have never thought that they could own a business, to  become business owners.”

At the Washington event, Harvey invited Merrigan to visit West Oakland to see the success of the agency’s investment. “It might help them direct money more in community based-efforts,” she said.

Harvey isn’t sure how the award will help Mandela Marketplace, but she hopes it gives the organization more recognition as a community resource. “I think it lends us a little more credibility. It may open up some doors to help us get resources we need,” she said. “If we get Michelle [Obama] here I’ll be totally happy, so we could really have a better relationship with the White House.”

Image: Dana Harvey at the White House talking about West Oakland’s food access problems. Photo Courtesy of USDA Lance Cheung.

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