Kiana Tondre, 8 years old, prepares to take donut kebabs on the road for Mamacitas Cafe during Oakland's "Life is Living" festival.

Pop-up cafe uses food to change lives

on November 7, 2014

In a secluded corner of Oakland’s “Life is Living” festival in October, a small pop-up food operation called Mamacitas Cafe offered donuts, coffee and sparkling soda as tools of social change.

“I think you’ve got to add more bacon,” cafe co-founder Renee Geesler said under a tent with a decorative, makeshift storefront.

“You know what we should do?” asked Shana Lancaster, the cafe’s other co-founder. “We should put bacon in the donut dough!”

As Mamacitas employees experimented with the recipe of their top menu item (powdered sugar and cinnamon sugar donut kebabs), the workforce development program for teen girls and young women taught the basic skills of the food service business—handling money, creating a product from scratch and working on a team.

Coffee and donuts serve a deeper goal: fighting the endemic poverty that makes young women in the city vulnerable to issues such as exploitation and sex trafficking. H.E.A.T. Watch, an anti-trafficking unit of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, reported that in a review of 432 young people in the county identified as either at risk for being sexually exploited or already involved in commercial sexual exploitation, 99 percent of them were girls.

Still in its infancy, Mamacitas opened its figurative doors in June and marked its fifth official pop-up last month. It was celebrating a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $16,000. The funding bolstered the $2,000 they raised a few months before, Lancaster said.

The entire process has been “an evolution,” Geesler said, not only referring to the new confection they were creating, but the program itself. The goal isn’t simply training young women to go into the food service industry, she said, but entrepreneurism as a road to self-sufficiency. “We want to go beyond that and have people really be infused with their own leadership skills,” she said.

Iyonna Garcia, 14 years old, was working the cash register that day. Her favorite task so far is serving the donuts and coffee. She said she’d like to attend the University of California, Berkeley and one day own a business.

Behind her, 13-year-old Ajia Jones was covering freshly fried donut kebabs with powdered sugar and cinnamon sugar. Her goal is to go to UCLA and play sports, she said.  She enjoys the good environment at Mamacitas, and said the employees work together as a team a lot.

Co-founders Geesler and Lancaster said the program addresses a community need for more programs specifically tailored for young women that help them overcome barriers to economic opportunity and personal empowerment.

“Oakland’s child poverty rate has only risen,” Mamacitas Cafe said on its Kickstarter page, “and young females are especially burdened by the city’s acute rate of sexual exploitation.”

The issue of sexual exploitation is linked to poverty and is indicative of larger, systemic problems like racial and gender discrimination, said Dr. Tina K. Sacks, assistant professor at the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley.

Precursors of sexual exploitation include generations stuck without access to resources such as physical and mental healthcare, nutritious food options, quality education and employment opportunities close to home.

The United States Census Bureau reported the number of people living below the poverty level in Oakland between 2008-2012 was 20.3 percent—5 percentage points above the state poverty rate of 15.3 percent.

In the United States, “there’s not as much class mobility as one would expect,” she said. “If you’re born into poverty, you often stay in poverty.” Such cycles are a problem that’s seen in many urban, communities of color, while more affluent communities have access to more resources and fare much better, she said.

“We want to prepare young women to take leadership positions within Oakland’s evolving economic landscape, pursue higher education and advance their entrepreneurial ideas,” the co-founders said on their Kickstarter page.

With the Kickstarter funds, Geesler said the program plans to purchase permits, donut frying equipment and supplies, create promotional materials, pay off debts and create a solid foundation.

Though it’s still a pop-up for now, the future goal is to have an actual storefront with a training classroom in the back.

“With the Kickstarter, we feel affirmed that people believe in what we’re doing, which means we’re on the right track,” Geesler said.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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