My efforts to bait someone involved with the Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland into a direct debate have failed miserably. But, I have had the opportunity in the past few weeks to visit the recently opened store around six times.
Each visit I've seen the same sort of scene inside the place -- enough so that I think I can authoritatively say that I have some knowledge of the store's current level of failure.
For those new to this issue, the Mandela Coop received several hundred thousand dollars in funding from the City of Oakland a few years ago. Its aim was to provide residents of the generally poor West Oakland region with organic foods.
For over a year, the store pushed back its opening date. Meanwhile, its supporters managed to force the nearby 99 Cents Only store to reduce the amount of produce it sells. The claim was this was not an effort to reduce the number of produce options for local residents. Instead, it was some sort of effort to allow Mandela to compete once it did open.
Well, the store opened a month or two ago, and I am here to report that, as expected, the prices are sky high and the number of shoppers is so low that my guess is most of the produce winds up in the garbage can.
On a recent Friday, I spent a few minutes in both the Mandala Coop and 99 Cents Only, observing shoppers and comparing prices. I noticed that there were about 30 people shopping in 99 Cents Only, including about 10 people purchasing significant amounts of produce -- lettuce, tomatoes, eggs, milk. I also noticed that the clientèle was mostly black, with a sprinkling of many other ethnicities.
Needless to say, prices at the 99 Cents Only store were excellent. It looked to me like a family could eat a nutritious meal for under $5. And, if you wanted to, you could buy something like Top Ramen for $0.29, which may not be so good for you, but it will keep you going in a pinch.
Turning to Mandela Foods, every single shopper I've seen in that store has been a middle-aged white woman. This is across six different trips, staged so as to be at different times of day. In fact, I believe I saw the same woman shopping there on two different occasions.
Each time I went to Mandela Foods, I saw exactly one shopper, as against between three and four employees manning the two cash registers, shelving products and whatnot. The employees seemed lonely, and in one case the man behind the counter tried to strike up a conversation with me. I felt almost sorry for him, as it's not really his fault that he's involved with this ridiculous venture.
The shelves at Mandela Foods were arranged very nicely -- almost as if no shoppers ever come in and move things around (that's a hint).
Prices at Mandela Foods were predictably preposterous. I'm going to try and do a comparison between them and Whole Foods at some point, but it's actually difficult to write down prices, seeing as I am usually one of only two shoppers in the store -- I don't want to draw too much attention to myself.
Generally speaking, it looks to me like a family would need to spend about $20 to buy a reasonable meal at Mandela Foods. This estimate might actually be on the low side of things, but I'm trying to be at least somewhat generous.
I suppose it's too soon to call Mandela Foods a failure, but I'm willing to do so. It just makes no sense to locate a small grocery store with prices like those at Whole Foods in the middle of a poor neighborhood right next to a completely viable discount store.
And, as expected, residents of the neighborhood are voting with their feet -- picking up goods at 99 Cents Only right and left, while they leave Mandela Foods high and dry.
I have no doubt that the Oakland city government will find some reason or another to pick up the tab for the losses that Mandela Foods must be taking. The only advantage of such a decision, as far as I can see, is that it might encourage more middle-aged upper-middle-class white women to move into the area -- a gentrifying force.