“A lot of the neighborhoods in West Oakland had 20 to 30 liquor stores and an assortment of fast-food restaurants but no full-size grocery stores,” Jeneba Kilgore, a worker-owner at Mandela Grocery Cooperative recalled about her hometown 10 years ago. “You could barely find the stuff to make a salad within walking distance.”
Briana Sidney, another Mandela worker-owner, said back then there was a 99 cents store that sold groceries. It was the only option for many folks in the Northern California community who didn’t have a car. However, the discount store, which is now closed, was never a place to purchase quality food.
“So, yeah, it has been a really crucial food desert,” Sidney added. “It went from people not having access to quality food to people not having access to grocery stores at all.”
Like many other low-income communities, West Oakland is designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a food desert, an area that lacks enough food retailers that carry affordable, nutritious food.
Mandela, marking its 10th anniversary this year, opened a cooperative grocery store in the community. Its team of eight African-American worker-owners provides quality, fresh food, and opportunities for economic growth in West Oakland. Mandela has plans to expand into a larger space and to launch a sister cooperative grocery store in East Oakland.
It’s one of the success stories in a long history of African Americans using the cooperative business model to thrive in the face of systemic racism. Cooperative businesses are owned by a group of people—not solely to earn a profit but for addressing a mutual need.
Community is the heart and soul of food co-ops. People pay a small fee to become members, which entitles them to shop there, elect board members and offer meaningful input about the co-op’s products and services.
In the worker co-op variation at Mandela, the workers are the owners. They invest time and money into the grocery store to serve the nutritional needs of the community, as well as contribute to its economic health.
Some of the earliest informal examples of black cooperatives go back to slavery, Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, chair of the Africana Studies Department at John Jay College, told The Root. Plantation owners sometimes allowed their slaves to plant their crops on a small plot of land called kitchen gardens, typically located behind the slave quarters. They collectively farmed the plot and shared the harvest. It was a matter of survival. Slaveowners usually provided just enough food to keep them alive and able to work.
Formal collectives, called mutual aid societies, arose later in which groups of African Americans pooled their money to purchase land and tools for collective farms. They also created co-op housing, collective factories and the precursors to modern credit unions.
Collective self-reliance appears to have deep roots that go back to Africa. There’s evidence that slaves had an oral history, passed down from generation-to-generation, about how their African ancestors worked collectively, according to Gordon-Nembhard.
The title of her book, Collective Courage, underscores the danger blacks faced for the audacity of starting co-ops.
“White capitalist and white supremacists used whatever means to stop black cooperatives from succeeding,” Gordon-Nembhard explained.
Co-op members were often lynched and their property burned down.
“However, terror and attacks never killed off the idea of cooperatives,” she added. “It would be reborn in another era to meet the needs of another generation.”
The 1960s began a period of revived collective self-determination. White flight from urban areas to the suburbs caused a phenomenon known as supermarket redlining. Major grocery chains decided to stop doing business in low-income neighborhoods and relocated to the suburbs.
Black activists viewed the work of supplying quality food in their communities as part of the black liberation movement, explained Malik Yakini, who has been a food activist since the mid-1970s.
“There was always a school of thought in the black movement that promoted self-reliance through agriculture and food retail,” he said.
Yakini is currently a board member of the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a full-service grocery store slated to open in 2020. It will be part of the Detroit Food Commons, a larger community development complex spearheaded by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, where Yakini serves as executive director.
Like West Oakland, Yakini said there is widespread food insecurity in Detroit. People who don’t have transportation walk to corner stores for food that is canned or packaged and high in preservatives, sugar and sodium.
The co-op plans to provide healthy food options, but the vision is much bigger. It will also focus on keeping collective black wealth in the community, as well as creating jobs and stimulating economic growth.
“There’s a system that has stripped resources from black communities, leaving us much more vulnerable to the kind of extraction of wealth that happens when other ethnic groups come in and set up food stores in our community,” Yakini stated.
Yakini is on the leadership team of the National Black Food & Justice Alliance, a coalition of black-led organizations that promote food justice. Mark Winston Griffith, who’s also on the leadership team, said that the organization serves as a network to help develop black-led food co-ops.
Griffith, a Brooklyn native, is part of a black-led group that formed Central Brooklyn Food Co-op, slated to open by summer 2020. Centered in the majority-black Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights neighborhoods, the group recently ended a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $50,000, twice its goal. That’s enough money to lease a store.
“We’re building something for people who have, in some ways, been made invisible by the current food system,” Griffith said.
CBFC’s mission goes beyond providing an affordable food alternative to the bodegas scattered throughout the neighborhoods.
“We’re looking to sell food but also to create relationships with farmers and other distributors,” he explained. “We want to create a whole ecosystem of food. It’s not just about consumption but also about supporting other people who are in the food economy and making sure black folks are at the center of it.”
Reaching the 10-year mark as Mandela did is no easy task. The road is littered with failed attempts. That was the case with Renaissance Community Co-op in Greensboro, N.C. It closed in January, just two years after opening its doors to the community. Part of the stated reasons for its failure was that many black people in the community simply didn’t support the store—despite not having a major grocery store in the area since 1998.
Over the past decade, Mandela successfully developed a bond with its customers, Sidney said.
“We are a resource to our neighbors,” Kilgore added. “People support us partly because they know that we are black-owned. There’s also a familiarity, whether it’s our skin tone or the music that’s playing in the store when they shop. It’s for us, by us.”