From Desert to Eden with justice for all

When you see a rooftop bustling with activity, it’s usually because something is under construction. On this sunny Oakland roof, a group of young people working with soil and seedlings is indeed building something: food security, healthier communities, and a sustainable economy. They’re volunteers for Oakland-based food justice organization Planting Justice, a young group founded just this year.

Cofounder Gavin Raders is fastening a wooden leg to what turns out to be a potato tower under construction. Raders tests the leg and then turns around, sporting a beard and a smile. Appearing just a couple years older than the young men he is teaching, he’s wearing jeans and a bright orange T-shirt. Armed with a staple gun, they begin to stretch and fasten wire mesh around the legs. “The potatoes won’t need much more than some straw and a bit of compost,” Raders explains.

Raders makes the rounds among the others who have come to help plant the rooftop’s container garden. Some from the volunteer group West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered are busily transferring amaranth and vegetable plants into larger containers. So far this evening’s rooftop work party is turning out to be part education, part fun, and part community-building.

Launched in June, Planting Justice aims to make affordable, nutritious food more accessible by helping urban residents grow their own food; the group also hopes to offer jobs as nursery specialists and community organizers. Planting Justice works with a variety of institutions—
from East Bay schools and San Quentin State Prison to the newly opened Mandela Foods Cooperative in West Oakland—to address health and income disparities in the East Bay. “Planting Justice is a unique but simple model: Plant seeds, train people, grow food, work with existing institutions like schools, churches, stores, and prisons,” says co-founder Haleh Zandi. “We want it to be a replicable model here in the Bay Area and in cities across the country.”

Raders and Zandi have backgrounds in social justice organizing and anthropology. Raders has been a political activist and community organizer since he was eighteen; he organized on campuses and has knocked on more than twenty thousand doors throughout California, New Mexico, and Colorado, working on a range of antiwar, anti-nuclear, and pro-environmental
issues. When Zandi moved to Berkeley in 2006, she joined Raders as a grassroots organizer for Peace Action West. During their time canvassing together, they brainstormed how the block-by-block community-organizing model could be used to address issues of social justice and community empowerment. They later took some time off to study—Zandi earned a masters degree in cultural anthropology from the California Institute of Integral Studies, while Raders practiced permaculture as an intern at the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas. When Raders returned to Oakland, the pair realized that by combining the tactics of community organizing with urban food projects, they could make edible landscaping affordable to those who lack healthy food. Thus Planting Justice was born; the two recently applied for nonprofit
status for their fledgling organization.

How has such a young group forged so many links? Its founders attribute their success to being out in the community, actively seeking to work with others. The group is currently funded thanks to the pair’s garden design business, the Backyard Food Project, as well as donations collected through canvassing, and a couple of small grants. Now they are hoping to sow the idea of fresh, local food far from their Oakland rooftop.

Food deserts
Lack of access to fresh, nutritious food is linked with a host of health problems including obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, but according to the USDA, more than a fifth of households in low-income urban areas are as much as a mile from a supermarket
and have no access to a vehicle. This forces residents to rely on corner stores or fast food restaurants for less nutritious food. In fact, certain urban and rural areas have been dubbed “food deserts.” Oakland-based think tank Food First defines these as areas without supermarkets that sell fresh produce, which “primarily form around low-income populations where families live on tight budgets and lack a reliable means of transportation.”

For many Bay Area residents, grocery budgets are indeed tight: A 2005 UCLA Center for Health Policy Research study concluded that about 33 percent of Bay Area residents are “food insecure,” meaning they cannot afford healthy food. That figure is higher for the area’s black, Latino, and Native American populations.

But the Bay Area may also be part of the solution, as Oakland has begun to take a leading role in the national discourse on a green economy and locally sourced food. With Van Jones—cofounder of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights—now serving as President
Obama’s special advisor for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation, Oakland is on the map as a leader in sustainable efforts.

Raders and Zandi believe that green jobs involve actually working with the soil. “Too often, ‘green jobs’ are thought of as futuristic industrial technologies needing millions and millions of dollars in capital input, started mostly by major corporations that control access to these funds,” says Raders. “The dominant focus is on high-tech ‘clean energy’ jobs. We will provide a much
different model for creating green jobs in our neighborhoods, one that can and should be replicated in any US city with comparatively little money. All you need are people, seeds, sun, water, some space, and a little guidance and inspiration.”

Raders picks up a hose and begins to water the hundreds of container plants surrounding him. “We are going to hire local youth to work at our nurseries in retail and as nursery specialists,” he continues. “After training in permaculture design and implementation, we’ll also hire Planting Justice team leaders, who will each oversee a crew of a few urban gardeners, all of whom will have also gone through our training.” Raders envisions these teams planting edible gardens
both for the group’s nonprofit projects as well as for private clients.

Their Temescal-area rooftop nursery serves as the main incubator, providing most of the vegetable starts and serving as a training site where volunteers learn how to produce food from seed. From these small beginnings they hope will sprout a movement that will change thousands of lives.

Branching out
On a clear Saturday morning in June, workers are about to cut the ribbon on West Oakland’s newest grocery store, the Mandela Foods Cooperative. Located across from the West Oakland BART, the co-op is worker-owned and -operated. While small compared with typical supermarkets, the store carries foodstuffs that until recently had been hard to come by in West
Oakland: grass-fed beef and lamb from local family farms, free-range chicken raised without hormones, produce grown in Northern California, organic canned goods. The bright orange awning above its doors proclaims “People – Food – Power.”

By 10:00 am a small pool of excited people begins to form. The co-op’s eight worker-owners all wear Mandela Foods T-shirts, as well as expressions of excitement and anxiety. Many of them have waited years for this moment. Despite Oakland’s growing reputation as an eco-aware city, West Oakland has long been a food desert. Before the co-op opened, a single grocery store
served the area’s 25,000 residents. To put things in perspective, the nearby Rockridge neighborhood has a grocery store for perhaps every 4,000 residents.

Many West Oakland shoppers made do at corner markets, where canned and processed food is abundant and fresh vegetables rare. When these corner markets do carry produce, it is often expensive. A healthier—yet less frequently available—option is the Saturday Farmer’s
Market near the West Oakland BART parking lot.

As the opening ceremony finishes up, a blessing is given by a local imam invoking the image of Adam as the original gardener, and urging the community to sustain the food collective. Then one of the co-op staffers picks up a pair of scissors and smiles widely while people cheer and snap photos. She cuts the bright orange ribbon across the doors, and people rush in. Within
minutes the store is full of shoppers.

Just inside the door stand shelves of green starter plants—tomatoes, kale, zucchini—that Planting Justice grew from seed and sold to the co-op for $1 each. The group hopes that people will plant them at home. “Before Mandela Marketplace opened in West Oakland, there was no grocery store, and there was no commercial nursery,” says Zandi. “We are making plants available to residents who may then harvest their own kale, artichokes, broccoli, tomatoes.”

The store hopes to give the community more than seedlings, says Dana Harvey, executive director of Mandela MarketPlace, the nonprofit partner that helped provide technical assistance and funding to open the store. The co-op also holds nutrition education and cooking classes. “Part of the culture of the store and setting it up was to be a community resource and not just
a grocery store,” she says.

Shoppers don’t have to go to the store to find Planting Justice in their neighborhood; sometimes the organizers come to them. A central pillar of Planting Justice is canvassing. A few times a week, Zandi and several volunteers spend their evenings going door-to-door.

“No other food justice organization has a canvass program,” says Zandi. “It is a great way to build community. We provide educational materials, informing people about food justice issues and letting residents get to know our work. This might be the only way some people are able to find out about what is going on regarding these issues.” It’s also a way to alert residents to volunteer opportunities like the rooftop work parties, and to ask for donations that will be used to buy materials for projects such as the garden that they’ve started at Oakland’s Explore Preparatory Middle School.

On one of the first hot days in July, we start our rounds in a neighborhood above Lake Merritt. Zandi is wearing a long Iranian-style shirt and wears her hair down the length of her back; like any good canvasser, she is equipped with a binder of factsheets about permaculture
design and colorful pictures of students involved in recent projects. She is as concrete as she can be with details at the door, telling people how many plants or fruit trees their donation will buy, and how many pounds of food they will produce.

It’s slow-going at first. At most houses, no one answers the door. Others wave us away through their windows. “Oh well, let’s just keep at it,” Zandi says. After a few hours, she’s collected about $75, which she says is pretty good, considering that Planting Justice is a new organization without much name recognition.

Finally, an elderly African-American man opens his door with a smile, noticing Zandi’s canvassing binder. “I’m looking to speak with folks about a school garden project in East Oakland I am working on,” she says, and then asks him if that is something he finds important. “Of course,” he says.

Zandi runs through the mission of Planting Justice, telling him briefly about the garden projects and the importance of creating green jobs in Oakland. The man nods in agreement; it turns out he used to be a grassroots organizer. He recalls the organizing he did through churches for social justice, and he mentions how many families in his neighborhood are radically affected by the dwindling economy. When Zandi asks him if he is able to sponsor the Explore school garden, he turns back inside and comes back with $20. He mentions that his granddaughter loves to spend time in the family’s vegetable garden, takes the Planting Justice flier, and signs up for their e-mail list. Zandi thanks the man for his support and leaves, eyes smiling.

Planting new seeds
Not every would-be gardener can be reached by canvassing; some aren’t free to come outside. One of Planting Justice’s more innovative projects joins with Beth Waitkus of the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State Prison, which has served over 500 inmates since 2002. This program aims to rehabilitate prisoners through organic gardening, teaching the men practical skills like garden design, soil amendment, and plant propagation that they can one day use on the job. Through the act of caring for plants, Waitkus hopes the inmates will also learn responsibility, discipline, and mindfulness. “We definitely see a transformation,” she says. “Over time, you see shifts in their frame of thinking. We really believe nature can heal.”

The 1,200-square-foot organic garden is in the corner of the medium-security area. From purple echinacea and geraniums to bright sunflowers and roses, the flower garden is a relief in such a monotonous environment. “It’s the only place on the prison yard where men mix freely without stigma from their racial groups. Nature tends to break down barriers,” she says. “Many of the men have described it to me as a sacred space.”

The garden is exclusively flowers, but it is being expanded to include a vegetable garden that Planting Justice is helping to create. The new garden will be built in a fenced-off area at the edge of the prison yard. There will be several 10- and 25-foot raised beds, arranged in a semi-circle. In addition to working in the garden, inmates may take classes. Raders will lead vegetable gardening skills, permaculture, and sustainable food systems workshops.

There are several challenges to the program. First, there has been a change in prison leadership. “Anytime there is a new warden, you have to adjust to a new culture,” Waitkus says. Second, the prisoners who grow the vegetables will not be able to eat them—state prison rules require all inmates to have access to the same food. “It’s a fairness issue,” Waitkus says. “So we looked for the silver lining. The men will be able to cultivate, nurture, and even harvest the food. Then we all collectively decide what community programs we want donate the food to. It is a very positive way to bridge the divide between the inside and outside.”

The organizers envision a post-release employment program, so that the men can use the gardening skills gained inside prison to get nursery, landscaping, or other green jobs. “There is a high recidivism rate in California, with about seventy percent of men returning to prison within three years,” says Zandi.

Waitkus adds, “Even if a handful of people who participate in this program don’t return to prison, this is saving taxpayers tons of money. It costs about $40,000 a year for each inmate. … We are helping to create a safer, more humane, more efficient society—all the while saving
taxpayers’ money.”

Putting down roots
A few weeks after my first rooftop visit, Raders and Zandi host another work party. The seeds planted earlier have sprouted. The raised beds are full of robust tomato plants, flowering borage, and aromatic herbs. The produce will be used for their own kitchen as well as for projects across the city.

Some of Planting Justice’s other efforts are also blooming. This spring, in collaboration with volunteers from West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered, they transformed a two-acre lot at Explore Preparatory Middle School in East Oakland into what Raders and Zandi call a multi-layer “edible food forest.” They dug water-harvesting swales and planted over thirty apple, pear, plum, pluot, peach, persimmon, and nectarine trees. This fall, edible shrubs, herbs, ground cover, and root vegetables will be planted under the trees.

They are working with a science teacher at Explore to make the project part of a curriculum that will include composting, nutrition, and ecology. Students will maintain the garden as part of an after-school program. Not only will they be learning food-growing skills, but the food forest will be a perennial source of thousands of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables for the students and the surrounding community.

The next step for Planting Justice is to buy a vacant Oakland lot to serve as the group’s headquarters and an ecological training center. Not only will they be able to grow more food and provide more vegetable starts, they will have space to train more people as nursery specialists
and urban farmers. Raders hopes to plant larger, high-yielding gardens that will become “living classrooms.” But for now, they’ll keep tending to the potato towers and potted kale plants on an Oakland rooftop that just might contain the seeds of a more sustainable urban future.

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