James Berk of Mandela Foods Brings Produce to His People

by Sarah Henry on May 4, 2011 · 29 comments

in civil eats,food businesses,food security

James Berk is a serious young man of few words. But when he speaks people take notice. And it’s not just because of his radio-ready baritone.  When asked why he got into the grocery business he says simply: “The food I was eating was killing me, and it’s killing my community. I wanted access to better food for myself and the people in my neighborhood.”

As a young teen, Berk’s diet largely consisted of Hot Pockets, Hungry Man dinners, soda and the “O”s (Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos, and microwavable burritos, sometimes with Cheetos stuffed inside). He knew his eating habits weren’t healthy, but the West Oakland child of a low-income single mom found food where and when he could.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to come by in the neighborhood where he grew up, a mostly black and Latino community of 25,000 residents. The nearest full-service grocery was an hour’s walk away. Like many other so-called food deserts across the country, the area is filled with liquor and corner stores selling cheap, fast food. In his mid-teens Berk started to have health problems — heart pain, dizziness, and overwhelming fatigue — and knew his diet (including hunger) was likely a factor. He knew poor eating was also the cause of the overwhelming rates of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes in his community.

So in 2007 when health advocate Dana Harvey came to his school recruiting youth to work on community issues, Berk, then 16, jumped at the opportunity. He and other teens undertook a survey of the community, but Berk didn’t need to collect data from his neighbors to know one of the biggest challenges in his West Oakland neighborhood: Access to real, affordable food.

Video: Courtesy of Storytellers for Good.

Fast forward a few years and at 20, Berk is the youngest owner-worker at Mandela Foods Cooperative (a program of Mandela Marketplace) a full-service grocery store and nutrition education center in West Oakland, a community long overlooked by supermarket chains.

The co-op, which opened in June 2009, is a 2,500 square foot store centrally located across the street from the West Oakland BART stop. It sells fresh, organic and conventional produce from small farmers and bulk goods along with carefully curated packaged foods. The store also sells ready-to-eat meals prepared in-house. It serves low-income, longtime local residents, mostly people of color, as well as a new wave of artists, urbanites, and commuters of varying hues and economics.

Signs dotted throughout the produce section inform shoppers about the small group of mostly minority growers from local farms that Mandela works with to stock its shelves. The store is a clearinghouse for flyers from like-minded food justice organizations in the area. Recipes and nutrition information pamphlets are easy to come by. It’s clear that the co-op owners realize that education is as big a part of their job as stocking the shelves with good food. (To see Berk and his co-workers in action, watch this Storytellers for Good video.)

Not content to simply peddle produce to the people who walk through the co-ops doors, Berk and a crew of young ones bring produce to the people, delivering food to corner stores via bikes with trailers through a partnership between West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered and the Healthy Neighborhood Stores Alliance, whose goals include getting nutritious food and positive businesses practices into convenience stores.

Two local grocery owners at Bottles Liquor and Millennium Market piloted this effort and display fruits and veggies prominently in their stores. The program has been welcomed by residents. Last year more than 4,000 pounds of produce was delivered to the two shops. “We figured it was easier to bring apples to an existing convenience store and make it available to people than to open another cooperative,” says Berk.

Berk (front left) appeared on a panel with other young food advocates in the Bay Area, including (from back left) Hai Vo of Live Real, Yonatan Landau of CoFed, Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots, chef and community fundraiser Samin Nosrat, and (seated right) Haleh Zandi of Planting Justice.

Berk is a young black male business success story, (he was recently honored for his work with the Robert Redford Center’s The Art of Activism award) in a neighborhood where few African American youth receive recognition for their community efforts. And he’s done it through sheer hard work. He dropped out of school and never obtained a high school diploma. When this reporter, scouting for a background for a photo dismissed a building as feeling “too much like a university,” Berk deadpanned: “I wouldn’t know.”

Now a commuter himself (a girlfriend in San Bruno means he catches the train to work) he credits his job for keeping him closely connected to his community. Since he is self taught and has had to learn a slew of challenging tasks to run a business with scant training and even less experience, Berk believes in empowering people to take responsibility for their own lives and make decisions based on informed choices.

“I didn’t start doing this work to be an activist, I did it because I wanted to make good food available in my community,” says Berk, who seems wise beyond his years. “Rather than wait for someone else to do it, sometimes if you want to make change, you just have to step up and do it yourself. But know that you don’t have to do it alone,” he adds. “There’s real power in community. The Mandela Foods Cooperative is daily proof of that fact.”

On Tuesday evening Berk spoke on a panel at UC Berkeley dubbed Next Gen Food Activists, as part of the Kitchen Table Talks series, a joint venture of Civil Eats and 18 Reasons.

This post was republished on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

UC Berkeley Grads Grow Thriving Mushroom Business
Berkeley Student Food Collective: Education & Eating
Berkeley Bites: Samin Nosrat, Ex-Eccolo Chef and Co-creator of the Pop-Up General Store
Urban Youth on Growing and Selling Good Food
Garden Teacher Kim Allen Offers Youth Space to Grow

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart May 5, 2011 at 7:14 am

I love this story. Good for James for taking an opportunity when it appeared and really taking it so many steps further.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2011 at 8:19 am

Glad you like it, Roxanne. And, yes, Berk is an example of someone who saw what was needed, had an opportunity, and did so much with it — for himself and his community.


Neelam Sharam May 5, 2011 at 10:38 am

Love this article, it’s so good to see grassroots folks getting some coverage for the really hard daily work of transforming our food systems!


Sarah Henry May 5, 2011 at 11:15 am

Thanks for taking the time to chime in, Neelam. Nice to see you here and I think you’re not alone in the sentiment you express.


MyKidsEatSquid May 5, 2011 at 12:02 pm

What a cool story! I’m so glad you’re featuring people whose efforts may have otherwise gone unnoticed.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Thanks, MKES, since so much of the news out of Oakland relating to youth is focused on crime, violence, and drugs, I think it’s especially important to highlight forces of good in this community among the younger generation.


Gil May 5, 2011 at 12:26 pm

I like it.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I rest my case. Thanks for chiming in James (aka Gil).


Marie May 5, 2011 at 2:03 pm

So nice to see a real example of what the combination of commitment and opportunity can do.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 6:14 am

I couldn’t agree more, Marie. Thanks for adding your voice here.


Jane Boursaw May 5, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Love the can-do attitude – if the food in your local grocery stores is less-than-desirable, start your own grocery store.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Project Rebirth- Documentary on Ground Zero Scheduled for August Release


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 6:15 am

I know what you mean, Jane. Of course, it took a lot of hard work on the part of many people to get this co-op up and running but they’re proof it can be done with the right resources and folks on board.


Solomon Sweeting May 6, 2011 at 5:35 am

I lived in Oakland as a young man and remember vividly all the corner liquor stores, crammed full of booze, candy, and processed food. There wasn’t many healthy options, although i don’t remember many people talking about food justice in those days. It’s very compelling to see a generation of young people taking it upon themselves to better the community they live in without waiting or relying on someone or some government entity to come in and present it to them. Good story Sarah.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 6:16 am

Thanks for sharing your experience, Solomon. And I’m with you: Many in the next generation exhibit a D.I.Y. sensibility that, I think, will stand them in good stead.


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable May 6, 2011 at 10:46 am

Love, love, love reading about this success story. Thanks for sharing, and kudos to James. What an outstanding young man!
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..A More Sustainable Mother’s Day


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Thanks for weighing in, Kris, glad this profile resonated with you.


Ruth Pennebaker May 6, 2011 at 1:03 pm

what an inspiring story — and what a pleasure to read. thank you.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Almost Speechless


Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm

You’re welcome, Ruth, and kind of you to say so.


merr May 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Believe in something, make it happen. Nice story.


Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Succinctly and well said, merr.


Sheryl May 8, 2011 at 9:46 am

There’s a real difference between people who have opportunity staring them in the face but don’t recognize it and those who see it and grab it and run. Great story here!


Sarah Henry May 10, 2011 at 6:02 am

Interesting insight, Sheryl. And I think that’s often the case. In this case, I think it was a question of a gnawing need or hunger (literally) for something good and the chance to try to make a difference over the long haul.


melissa May 27, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Good article! Mandela Foods and all the worker/owners are so awesome. If you’re in the area, shop there!


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