Nonprofit Sector

Food Apartheid

September 14, 2022

Where We Go From Here

Ciara Segura, Food Equity Director, and Maureen Silva, Fund Development & Communications Director, Mandela Partners


Mandela Partners started in West Oakland to address the effects of deeply rooted inequities, like redlining and economic disinvestment, on food access and local entrepreneurship opportunities. Today, they work with local residents, family farmers, and community-based businesses to improve health, create wealth, and build assets through local food enterprises in East and West Oakland. Since their founding, they have distributed 2.16 million pounds of sustainably grown local produce; generated $9.6 million in local economic returns; and supported the launch, expansion, and ongoing development of twelve local businesses. 

In this conversation, Ciara Segura, Food Equity Director, and Maureen Silva, Fund Development and Communications Director, describe Mandela’s mission and work, bust myths about food apartheid, share advice on gathering community input, and talk about the importance of unrestricted funding. Joining them is Jorge Contreras, Manager, Loan Origination at NFF.

In this video:

  • The who, what, and where of Mandela Partners. (0:00)
  • Myth-busting: Why food deserts are really food apartheids. (1:21)
  • Myth-busting: Misconceptions on programmatic and financial sustainability. (4:01)
  • What funders need to know about funding food-focused organizations like Mandela Partners. (6:02)
  • How nonprofits can incorporate community input into their work to be not only community-informed but also community-led. (8:01)
  • The power of unrestricted funding for community-centered organizations like Mandela Partners. (10:37)



JORGE: Sometimes it’s just, give us the capital.

CIARA: Yeah, truly. Move the money.


JORGE: Briefly describe your organization's work in a few sentences?

Maureen Silva: We work in West Oakland. That's where we're rooted. But we've also expanded to working in neighborhoods of East Oakland and unincorporated Alameda County. And we've always been anchored in food. We think of food as being a key lever in creating wealth building for individuals and as a way of spurring local economic development in the communities that we partner with. And we do that by sourcing from local and small family farmers of color through our food hub, moving that food to retail partners, and through our donation program. We work with food entrepreneurs to formalize and launch their food business. We provide support to about nine independent grocers to increase healthy foods in their store but advocate for them with the city and help promote their stores in their neighborhood. And we train folks primarily in reentry and kitchen and culinary to be able to get fair paying jobs in the food sector.

JORGE: So, there's a lot of myths about food deserts, especially in Oakland and areas and communities like in Oakland. Based on your work and the communities you work with, what are some of the myths that you feel you want to debunk, that you're consistently having to debunk?

CIARA: I think the term “food desert” is misleading in and of itself. It glosses over the fact that so many communities that are considered “food deserts” are actually food apartheids; that these communities look the way that they look now because of racist government policies like redlining. That has led to a lot of disinvestment in East Oakland. And I also just want to shout out one of our staff members, Amani Ali, who has really spearheaded a lot of this shift in narrative around food deserts, particularly in communities like East Oakland and West Oakland. And so much of what I'm about to share I think is really indebted to her and the work that she's done within the Healthy Grocery Initiative to shift that narrative.

So, to just bring it back, I think the term itself is misleading. These aren't, in fact food deserts. They're communities that have been systematically, structurally impacted by bigger picture policies; and there's a lot of food in this community. Right? There are dozens of small community markets and grocery stores and corner stores throughout East and West Oakland that have been providing food for communities for several decades, at this point. But so much of the attention is on what we actually should consider a supermarket, a superstore, that covers a lot more square footage, that carries a lot more inventory.

And so I think when there's this overt focus on bringing in a big box retailer into a community, it's unfortunate because we have dozens of retailers that have been anchors in these communities for a long time – that if we just shifted our investments to those spaces, so much more could be possible because of those existing connections that they have with their local neighborhood. And those stores are impacted by supply chain issues, too.

What would things look like if we invested capital, and resources, and technical assistance, and grants to those already existing retail networks that are serving community I think really effectively. Is it sometimes the best quality fruits and vegetables? No. But that's also a result of supply chain issues and buying power. Right? But we can get creative about how to address those quality issues. And I think we're already doing a lot of that work within the Healthy Grocery Initiative.

MAUREEN: One thing that we hear a lot is, “How will this be sustainable?” And it's frustrating to be quite honest. Because the real answer is that with your $200,000 grant, or sometimes a lot less, this work won’t be sustainable in two years. And it won't be led. It's not something where the community is going to take this under their wing and do this for free. And I think that's another misconception is, like, “Oh, if you get this grant, then you can just train your community to do this.” And it's extremely challenging to work with those systems. It's taken years for us as a country to disinvest and to take away from the community that's been there.

And so it's insulting to see something that says with this tiny infusion of money, you can just, make it better; because we can't. And we're working toward it, and I think we have a future where that's possible with the work that we've done with our communities and with our staff, that have shed just a really powerful voice on how we should be doing the work differently. But that's been a really hard system to operate under with some of these initiatives that ask about sustainability.

CIARA: Yes. Can't agree more. A two-year grant is not an anti-poverty measure. Right? You need sustained, ongoing investment, and also, I think, buy-in from your local government, whether it's at the city or county level, to help subsidize the cost of that food. That is literally what it takes. 

JORGE: Sometimes, it’s just give us the capital.

CIARA: Yeah, truly. It's move the money.


JORGE: Trust us. It’s that simple. Like we – trust what we are doing. Trust our capacity, our commitment, and our ability to really continue to impact the communities.

What would you like funders, partners, allies, and others to know about what it's like and why it's needed for them to back and fund organizations like Mandela Partners?

MAUREEN: I think just going back to the pandemic – which always is going to feel front of mind for a really long time – what I think it did do is it really created a test, and it surfaced a lot of the inequities we already knew were happening in our local food and economic systems. And I think it really kind of brought up this need. We need to be focusing not just locally, but with community-led organizations that have been here for a long time. We can't just be focusing on these helicopter initiatives that are just popping up and are going to soon go away once this is over.

And I actually think that's something that our funders started to understand as well. We have a lot of different foundation partners who just got in there with us, and I think with COVID, you don't have time to be polite anymore. You just have to say it like, “This is what I'm seeing. This is what others are doing that is continuing to exacerbate these inequities. Like we need this now or our community is going to suffer long term.” You don't have to play the game like we did before with the traditional evaluation metrics and showing numbers. You can invest based on trust and based on the relationships that you've built over time with organizations like ours and the communities that we serve, and that should speak for itself with the work that we do.

And so, we've, I think, been able to slow down a little bit because of these different funders that we work with that have said, “That's okay. Let's focus our attention a little differently so that we can do the work meaningfully.” That's been incredibly powerful, and we are just forever grateful for that.

JORGE: We know it's important to make sure that we're constantly engaging folks that we work with and we partner with. What advice would you have or would you share with organizations that are looking to incorporate community input into their programs and services?

CIARA: I think it is important to lean on existing partnerships to help facilitate the connection to community members that you're seeking feedback from, and ensure that those partnerships are strong, and that there's a lot of trust there before jumping in to surveying or focus groups or what have you. And then just bringing, I think, a really equitable lens to the way that you communicate with constituents and how you gather feedback from them: ensuring that it's not extractive, it's not burdensome, that it's in an accessible language, of course. And ideally – and this is something that we're working toward – I think we're kind of at phase one and two of gathering community input. And eventually we really want to work directly with community members to shape the way that we capture information and feedback from different community members. I think that feels incredibly important, that the approach that we take is not solely informed by our program team or by a nonprofit consultant or something. We want to ensure that the folks that we're seeking feedback from are also a part of the design of that approach and the way that we gather and incorporate feedback into our programs. And then ultimately developing more pathways for community members to design the work, to inform the work, and hopefully one day lead the work. I think that's something that I dream about, is how do we create pathways for local community members to be a part of our organization?

MAUREEN: And one – just to tag on to that comment, Ciara. I think this kind of plays into how we're really trying to have it feel community-led and community-designed. We stipend or provide honorarium in the same way to the community that we would a consultant. And I think that sometimes gets lost when folks come in and are like, “Hey, we want your input. That's great, but we're still going to do this other thing. And we've also stolen your time.” So we try really hard to compensate folks fairly and also move away from what we thought we knew and incorporate those elements that speak to what folks are saying, what they want.

JORGE: What hope you have for the future of this work?

MAUREEN: To get to some of these more innovative ways of thinking about programing and community-led versus community-informed, we have to get more unrestricted funding. And we're doing a better job than we ever have of moving that way. And I think our funders have been with us along that road to help move in that direction. But that, I think, is the only way forward – getting unrestricted or general operating funds to move more freely and be able to design programs that speak to what the community needs.

CIARA: We want to work with funders who trust our judgment, who trust our tenure, the legacy of the work that we've done, so that we're able to do work that is innovative; that we can work with, integrity. And I think our ultimate hope is that Mandela Partners no longer has to exist in the way that it currently does, because a lot of these issues will have been addressed really effectively.


Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.