August 12, 2015

Cultivating Food Security in West Oakland

Cynthia McKelvey

Cynthia McKelvey

Freelance Journalist

Oakland, California

mcKelvey-cityslickers-3Take the seven-minute underground train ride from San Francisco to Oakland and you’ll emerge in West Oakland. The historically low-income neighborhood has a long record of industrial development and racial tension. Now it’s become the face of gentrification on the West Coast. But despite the influx of artists, coffee shops, and an ever-lengthening wait for soul-food brunch at Brown Sugar Kitchen, West Oakland is still lacking one major signifier of urban investment: a grocery store.

“We can say West Oakland is gentrifying but there’s still no grocery store here. It’s still very difficult to get access to affordable food that’s fresh and healthy,” says Ariel Dekovic, interim director of urban agriculture nonprofit West Oakland City Slicker Farms. “The effects of gentrification haven’t actually benefited the people we’re trying to serve.”

City Slicker Farms is on a mission to bring fresh and affordable food to the residents of West Oakland. Started by community members in 2001, the organization made use of a plot of land donated by West Oakland resident and avid gardener, Willow Rosenthal. They began leasing the many public and private vacant lots to develop community farms and start a weekly farm stand. People can come and buy food on a sliding scale depending on their needs—paying anywhere from full-price to nothing at all.

mcKelvey-cityslickers-2Blossoming into success

Over the last 14 years, the nonprofit has grown to include several community farms and backyard gardens that serve around 1,300 people in Oakland. By the end of 2015 the nonprofit hopes to expand that number by 3,000 with a new 1.4 acre plot of land that will be a combination of community farms, gardens, and a playground. The plot will also house chicken coops, honeybees, and an orchard.

“It’s not just the capacity to grow food,” Dekovic says about the benefits of the new space, “but it’s the visibility and the kind of community cohesion that comes about when you have a space like this.”

Engaging the community is one of the many factors that led to City Slicker Farms’s success. But there are more factors. Weather in Oakland generally stays between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit year round, with abundant sunshine in the summer and abundant rains in the winter—current drought conditions notwithstanding. City Slicker Farms also attributes its success to the patchwork of cultural backgrounds in West Oakland.

According to data from Brown University’s American Communities Project, Oakland ranks seventh in the top 10 most diverse cities at the neighborhood level. Dekovic says that West Oakland is home to many transplants from Southern states or from abroad, where some of their families had a rich history of gardening and subsistence farming.

Such is the case for Dilma Epruill, a lifelong Bay Area resident, West Oaklander of six years, and—full disclosure—my next-door neighbor. Epruill told me that her family used to have a vegetable garden they would regularly harvest and cook from while she was growing up. She is now an employee at the post office and frequently bought her produce from the nearby City Slicker farm stand. In 2014, she enrolled in the backyard garden program and now keeps two raised beds and a small lemon tree in the back yard. The beds grow chard, kale, peas, tomatoes, and more.

“And I can always get more,” Epruill says as she and her gardening mentor—a volunteer from the organization—tie twine around the raised boxes. City Slicker Farms provides seedlings from their greenhouse at a sliding scale to the participants of the backyard garden program. They also rent out tools to the gardeners and assign them mentors to help them cultivate their produce successfully.

Epruill and her husband, Jack, who is diabetic, eat a lot of vegetables. They often supplement their food from the farm stand and backyard garden with produce from the 99-cent store a couple blocks away, but Epruill complains that the vegetables are often not very fresh.

“I don’t think they’re doing us right in West Oakland,” she says.

The right to [growing] food

mcKelvey-cityslickers-1According to Oakland’s own demographics data, as of 2009 the 7-square-mile neighborhood is home to some 410,000 residents with a median household income around $49,000. However, other estimates suggest both the populations and median incomes are much lower. And while there are still no proper grocery stores in West Oakland, some changes are looking to favor urban farming.

In September 2014, the Oakland City Council approved new zoning laws that eliminated the need for “conditional use” permits—permits that some prospective gardeners would need to grow food and raise livestock on their own property. Both City Slicker Farms and the Oakland Food Policy Council generated significant support to help change the legislature.

Urban agriculture is one of four main initiatives of Oakland’s FPC, says director Esperanza Pallana. As such, the Oakland FPC works with City Slicker Farms to help develop, maintain, and protect urban agriculture and the work they do in West Oakland. Their collaboration to change the zoning laws and remove the need for conditional use permits in urban agriculture was a huge step forward in achieving a mutual goal of changing food from a commodity to a right for the residents of Oakland.

Visibility in the community and beyond

Pallana attributes much of City Slicker Farms’s success to their ability to engage with the community, but also their visibility beyond West Oakland.

“While [City Slicker Farms] may not have been the first group to do [urban farming] in West Oakland, it was the first group to do it that had access to resources that could get the word of the organization beyond west Oakland,” Pallana says. “I think Willow [Rosenthal] is someone who gets seen, and I think a lot of our low-income communities of color are invisible.”

And while that visibility is good for gaining support and momentum, it may also be a driver of gentrification, Pallana warns. She says she’s met many people who have come to Oakland specifically to participate in the activist culture.

“I think people are frequently coming from places of privilege and they feel guilty, and they want to give back,” Pallana says.

But in doing so, they can also be a part of the problem. As younger, wealthier, and generally whiter populations flow into Oakland, rents rise and less wealthy community members get priced out.

“When we were here 14 years ago no one was really talking about [gentrification],” Dekovic says. She says that focusing on projects that allow for community ownership, such as the purchase of the new plot of land, may help longtime West Oakland residents hold onto their stake in the community.

Dekovic says the next push is to change the legislature in Oakland to seeing food as a public good. As West Oakland gentrifies, the once plentiful vacant lots are getting bought up and developed. But if food is defined as a public good, then property developed for urban agriculture will be a part of a food security project and be owned by the community.

Images by Cynthia McKelvey, 2015.

Creative Commons License
This work by Cynthia McKelvey and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on work at Images in this post are included in the Creative Commons license.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *