Partner Profile: Mandela Partners
In this Partner Profile, we're speaking with Mariela Cedeño, the Interim Executive Director of Mandela Partners about their work in Oakland, CA. Mariela shares how, in the face of COVID-19, the EFOD (equitable food oriented development) approach to this work has enabled them to be more resilient and to quickly pivot their programs to continue supporting and serving the communities and people they are accountable to. Scroll the photos above to see what they're all about!
First up, what's the best way for us to follow your work?
For those of us who are unfamiliar with the work of Mandela Partners, can you give a brief background of Mandela Partners and share how you approach systems change work?
Mandela Partners was born in West Oakland in response to a need for acknowledgment and resourcing of community based solutions to address health and wealth inequities. In the late 1990s, institutions were paying especially close attention to West Oakland, collecting data to unearth the underlying causes of health disparities that were disproportionately affecting local residents. Community members, however, didn’t need data to validate what they had long experienced first hand: a legacy of redlining and economic disinvestment, challenges in accessing healthy food, and barriers to opportunities that could increase choice and build intergenerational wealth. And so, Mandela Partners - led by our beloved late founder Dana Harvey - was established to support the development of a community-led plan that centered community members' ability to identify local needs, and uplifted resident driven solutions.
15+ years later, our work - born from that community-led plan - continues to build on a systems model that addresses issues of economic disinvestment, food insecurity, and health inequity, building on local assets to cultivate thriving communities. We drive a holistic set of programs and strategies that: support income generation among small, local sustainable growers; increase access to affordable healthy foods; support the launch and growth of local food enterprises; and create dignified ownership and job opportunities with and in low-income communities.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways… the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted individuals, communities, and organizations across the world. How has COVID-19 impacted your community and how has Mandela Partners responded?
The impact of Covid-19 has been severe - but more than anything it has unearthed and exacerbated long-standing inequities that low-income communities of color endure everyday. The communities we serve are at most risk of contracting Covid, have been the most impacted economically by Covid, and are dealing with higher levels of food insecurity prior to and as a result of Covid. Small food businesses and under-resourced farmers that were already working on thin margins, are now dealing with the heavy burden of having to lay off workers, scrambling for new sales channels, or having to close down and put livelihoods at risk.
For Mandela Partners, Covid-19 meant ‘doubling down’ to respond to the emergency needs of the folks to which we are accountable. We had to find ways to deploy healthy food more quickly, ensure that we were responsive to our entrepreneur network to the best of our ability, and that we were taking care of the farmers who are the keystone of our food system. We quickly pivoted long-standing programs to:
● Offer free produce boxes, CSA-style bags of mixed fruits & vegetables, and produce-based meals to community members throughout the East Bay in partnership with a network of 12 community hubs and partners. We are serving 1,000 families weekly, and 100% of the produce distributed is sourced from local growers.
● Repurpose our restaurant and culinary training site - Oak Harvest Kitchen - to prepare meals for the unhoused and low-income families; and provide supplemental wages to our second chance employment kitchen team and trainees.
● Prioritize sourcing only from our network of partner farmers to supply Covid-relief programming, creating an additional $24K a month in revenue for under-resourced, local, sustainable growers impacted by significant sales losses due to Covid.
● Support incubated businesses by pausing loan payments, waiving monthly rent, providing utility subsidies, and other sales generating support.
● Create a Mandela Meal Fund to support income generation for small, local restaurants who then prepare and distribute meals for low-income, low access community members.
MP was able to quickly deploy Covid relief programs because of our capacity to repurpose infrastructure, dedicated staff willing to step into essential work, and hardworking community partners that provided outreach and distribution support. Because we pivoted from affordable food programs and low-cost services, to free food distribution and subsidies, we reached out to a handful of aligned foundations and individual donors who we believed would prioritize locally-led and equity-based iniatitives. It was progressive philanthropy, sharing our concerns over disproportionate impacts of low-income communities of color, that stepped up to rapidly deploy funding that would support MPs Covid programs.
Mandela Partners approaches its work through an Equitable Food Oriented Development* (EFOD) lens. Do you think this approach has enabled your community to be more resilient in a time of crisis? Tell us more!
Absolutely. The EFOD framework is centered around the holistic nature of people-first community development - one in which health, well-being, economic resilience, and cultural heritage, are key in supporting thriving communities. Furthermore, it uses food as a lens to create economic opportunity, build health, and uplift community assets. Mandela Partners’ capacity to quickly respond in a time of crisis was largely due to this systems approach to community work. We had relationships of respect for and connection to local residents and community hubs that helped us navigate community needs as well as deploy programs;we were able to leverage our in-house food hub, Mandela Produce Distribution, to source and distribute local, sustainably grown produce; and because our programs support a network of local food entrepreneurs who are vital to the social and economic fabric of our neighborhoods, we were able to leverage them as assets to make food available to those in need.
The pandemic has caused many regulations to be loosened and new partnerships to be formed. Of the changes you have seen and made, which would you like to maintain moving forward? Are you seeing steps that food systems leaders can take to ensure lasting change?
As COVID-19 continues to highlight inefficiencies in our conventional supply chain, and as food and economic insecurity become even bigger challenges for low-income communities, I hope that our collective consciousness continues to hold onto the importance of supporting local food systems, and the need to challenge the current economic structures that keep communities in or on the verge of crisis - pandemic or not. In the last few months, it wasn’t big ag or corporations that we saw come ‘to the rescue’, but rather it was regional farmers, residents, local businesses, and community-based organizations that led relief efforts. I am grateful for local foundations and donors that saw the importance of resourcing this community response, and hope that this provides an opportunity for government and other institutions to follow suit.
As we look towards the coming months and years, one of my biggest worries is that despite all that has been brought to light in the midst of a pandemic, we go back to things as usual. Among the loudest voices in not returning to the status quo are food systems leaders - not always well resourced, but ever optimistic about how our world could be reimagined.
*EFOD is a development strategy that uses food and agriculture to create economic opportunities, healthy neighborhoods, and explicitly seeks to build community assets, pride, and power by and with historically marginalized communities. Learn more at https://www.efod.org/
Thank you so much Mariela, and the team at Mandela Partners - we're so inspired but the work that you all do.