Mandela Grocery Cooperative Celebrates a Decade of Thriving

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(L to R) Adrionna Fike, Briana Sidney, Andrea Talley James Bell and Ryan Daniels celebrate Mandela Grocery Cooperative’s 10th birthday on June 7, 2019. They work in and own the cooperative. Photo by Zack Haber.

Mandela Grocery Cooperative (MGC) in West Oakland celebrated its 10th year in business on June 7 with a street party.

Farmers and suppliers who collaborate with  the co-op  set up booths to showcase their products,  and hundreds of community members showed up to celebrate and show support.

“The fact that MGC is a co-op and works on a small scale allows it  to more easily develop personal relationships with clients, showcase more local producers, and I’m more able to meet their volume demands,” said Jamil Burns, a Black, small-scale urban farmer, speaking at the celebration while he sold his lettuce, onions and other produce. He  recently started selling some of his crops to MGC.

It’s often difficult or impossible for small farmers to sell to large grocery stores that  demand a much larger volume of product than MGC does, accoridng to locals.

MGC gives a market to producers like Burns while their commitment to direct relationships allows them to cut out middlemen such as  distributors, which both provides farmers with more money and helps to keep prices down.

MGC is different than most grocery stores,  Black owned and operated . Its cooperative structure means that there are no bosses. Of the 11 employees, eight of them are owners.

Once the three non-owner employees have completed  1,000  hours of work or a year of employment, they’ll also have the opportunity to become owners.

“Every product you see in our store,” said owner/worker Adrianna Fike, “is here because somebody who works here really wanted it here.”

MGC owner/workers meet weekly to discuss new products and new ideas for the store. They make their decisions by consensus and require that all eight members come to a general agreement before accepting a new product, employee or plan.

Usually when something new is proposed, the group agrees. But discussion and clarifying questions come first, which MGC encourages.

“We applaud and appreciate when workers and owner/workers ask questions,” said Fike, who felt in previous jobs that she often had to bite her tongue when she had an idea or a question.

One reason MGC owners and owner/workers work well together, they say, is that they have similar values, and the mission of the store is clear.

“The goals we have are to continuously provide clean healthy food at affordable prices for underserved communities and to educate people on the importance of eating healthy, especially in urban neighborhoods where people often have ailments due to nutrition deficiencies,” said worker/owner James Bell.

It’s important to MGC’s owners that workers have as much knowledge of products as possible, so owners encourage new employees to read the list of ingredients in  products and to try them out.

While MGC has fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, grains and enough products to provide customers with all their grocery shopping needs, the store is small enough for the employees to have a deep knowledge of every product.

Curious customers can learn a lot about food and health by talking to MGC’s workers. MGC plans to open up its kitchen soon to do live demonstrations.

Since many of MGC’s customers are struggling economically, worker/owners do what they can to keep prices low while still providing themselves with a living wage and benefits like health care.

They make their intentions clear with vendors and are sometimes able to buy products cheaper than other stores can, which allows them to charge customers less. They provide a 50 percent discount on California produce for people who use food stamps.

While working in a retail job can feel competitive and stressful, MGC’s employees claim that’s not how they feel at work.

“We’re not competing with one another,” said Fike, “The goal is not to stay up all night trying to make everything happen. Sometimes it’s hard, but most of the time working here is fun.”

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