Salad Days

The 580 freeway sideswipes West Oakland just a few blocks away, but you might not notice its hum once amid the explosion of greenery at 3032 Linden Street, where the Paul and Inez Jones Neighborhood Garden sits, tucked behind two Victorian houses. A jet flies over, or a stereo booms across the road, but once the noise diminishes you notice birds’ chatter in the neighboring treetops. A breeze drifts through, carrying the light fragrance of the white alyssum flowers growing next to the Southern curled mustard. In one end of the garden, a patch of red-veined chard soaks up the strong sun.
Any afternoon at the garden, the scarecrow hanging from the fence  might see a group of children picking spearmint for hot tea or learning about the nutritional value of the cabbage they’ve just harvested. Kindergarten students up through eighth graders walk to the site from nearby schools to work in the dirt, an unusual curriculum in a neighborhood more accustomed to aisles of corner store junk food than rows of vibrant greens.
West Oakland, the industrial gateway to the East Bay, is boxed in by freeways, rattled by the continual rumble of thousands of trucks blazing through, and infused with the smells of emissions from local industry, like Red Star Yeast [see “Red Star Falls,” p. 14 ] and ED Coat, a metal finishing company. Its roughly 30,000 residents share one grocery store, the government-subsidized Gateway  Grocery on 7th Avenue. The 30-odd liquor stores and corner shops in the neighborhood offer a plethora of alcohol and snacks, but little in the way of fresh foods.
According to People’s Grocery, one of a handful of non-profit organizations aiming to bring fresh produce to West Oakland, half of the money spent on food by local residents is spent outside of West Oakland. This means that not only are people unable to find nutritious food locally, but the community reaps no economic nourishment from food profits.
But there’s plenty of room for gardens. About 500 parcels of land in West Oakland are vacant or unused properties, representing about 7% of the total acreage of the neighborhood. “That’s a significant amount of the local land that has been marginalized from community use and serves no economic or social benefit,” says People’s Grocery co-founder Brahm Ahmadi. “We believe that it’s possible not only to transform those lands, but to create viable food-producing farms in urban communities, and that’s really a key foundation for revitalizing a local economy and increasing open green spaces in urban neighborhoods.”
The Jones Neighborhood Garden is just one of the community gardening projects sponsored by Oakland Butterfly and Urban Gardens (OBUGs), a non-profit neighborhood gardening organization. OBUGs gardens are managed by hired neighborhood residents and feature educational programs for children both at the Linden Street garden and at nearby Lafayette School.
OBUGs founders Margaret Majua and Dorothy Noyon, friends of 30 years, started the Jones garden in the fall of 2000 with money from the Northern California Land Trust. Noyon and Majua transformed an abandoned lot and two ramshackle Victorian buildings into four low-income units, which were purchased by four families who moved in last September. In the back of the lot, OBUGs created a garden with food-producing beds and space for programs and events.
All the surrounding homes have views of the garden; all the neighbors have access to it. Anybody who is interested is encouraged to water, weed, and harvest. “The primary aim is that the food gets to the community,” says program coordinator Susanna de Angelo.
OBUGs has a 99-year lease on the garden, says Majua. “I hope it’s still feeding the people in the neighborhood until then,” she says.
By providing education for children and work for teenagers and adults, the Linden Street garden has created a social structure for the area. “Neighbors talk to each other more,” says Dana Harvey of the West Oakland Food Security Council. “At least on a micro-scale, it’s really helped to build a sense of community.”
“It has brought a lot of services, keeps kids off the streets, and keeps elders busy,” says Ted Dixon, a gardener and self-described jack-of-all-trades who has worked at the garden since its inception.
Majua would like to see more intercultural activities at the garden. “Right now it is used primarily by African American kids and families. We want to integrate some of the Hispanic families in the neighborhood, which is not going to be that easy,” she says. “There’s a lot of distrust and lack of understanding between blacks and browns. You can’t change that overnight.” Recently OBUGs held a neighborhood potluck where both African American and Hispanic families congregated over food. “We just think that kids and food are the way to change the world,” says Majua.
City Slicker Farm is just a mile away from the OBUGs’ Linden Street garden; you’d have a hard time missing it in this residential neighborhood dotted with old cars, abandoned lots, and faded storefonts. Inside a chain-link fence, a dome-shaped gun turret, salvaged from a ship and donated by a neighbor, is painted with a mural and serves as a garden shed. The surrounding 4,000-square-foot jungle has it all: “We’ve got tons of snap peas, pod peas, chard, kale, collards, beets, lettuce, and three beehives which a neighbor tends. The bees basically stay in the gardens — it’s the only green space around — and they pollinate all the flowers,” says Malaika Edwards, a co-founder of People’s Grocery. Edwards is also a site manager for Farm Fresh Choice, an Ecology Center project that promotes and distributes fresh produce in south and west Berkeley, and she’s well versed in the art and science of urban greenery. Stacks of old tires clustered near the City Slickers entrance contain potato plants. “As potatoes grow, they need to be mounded,” explains Edwards, “so we keep putting tires on and filling them with dirt. Some of our potato plants are six feet high.”
Bernard Scoggins, who has lived in West Oakland for 40 years, describes City Slicker Farm as “a place of serenity.” It has beautified the corner, he says. “It was nothing but weeds before.”
Before it could transform weeds into produce, City Slickers had to deal with a common urban blight: lead-tainted soil.
Although lead-based paint was banned in 1978, it’s still a problem for urban gardeners. Lead makes its way into children’s bloodstreams through paint particles in old houses or lead-contaminated soil that kids ingest. Once there, it can have tragic effects: lead has been linked to mental impairment, cancer, and damaged nervous and reproductive systems.
“Lead is a big problem in abandoned lots,” says Edwards. “If the lot is abandoned, it’s probably because the house burned down, so the lead paint  is concentrated in the soil.” Our bodies can mistake lead for calcium, which is why it is a significant risk for those — particularly small children who are developing rapidly — who lack nutritionally sound diets.
City Slicker Farm is developing  methods to address the issue locally. The group has experimented — with limited success — with growing mushrooms and other plants known to take up soil contaminants. Another strategy involves food. “If you get leafy greens out into the neighborhood and the children eat them, their bodies absorb calcium as calcium, instead of lead,” says Willow Rosenthal, City Slickers’ founder.
For almost two years, the garden has hosted workshops for neighborhood residents on topics such as permaculture, composting, and soil remediation. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the farm sets up a produce stand onsite selling pesticide-free foods — black-eyed peas, collard greens, and other  seasonal vegetables that the farmers feel are “culturally appropriate” to the neighborhood.
“We try to grow produce that people in the neighborhood want,” says Edwards. “So we probably grow a lot more collard greens, for example, than we would in a different neighborhood. We also grow a lot of peas and raspberries, munchy things that kids like.”
People’s Grocery’s Brahm Ahmadi agrees. “On a community-relations level, we feel it’s more respectful to prioritize what residents do actually like as opposed to growing something that we might like but they might not,” says Ahmadi. “It’s not just a matter of making food accessible, it’s creating the desire for it.”
On a recent Friday at City Slicker Farm, Malaika Edwards asked a group of students from Berkeley High, “What does ‘food security’ mean?” One senior volunteered an answer: “When everyone is fed now, and they know that they’ll be fed in the future.”
That’s what these urban gardeners are aiming for. “Linked together, these community-based food systems can begin to make a real difference in the way food is produced and distributed in this country,” says Andy Fisher, executive director of the non-profit Community Food Security Coalition, based in Venice, California.
People who grow some of their own food become more self-reliant and more connected to their food source as well as to the natural world, says Fisher. “Community gardens help to build social capital. The average food item travels 1,300 miles from field to table, so growing your own — or buying directly from a local farmer — has environmental benefits.” As to why a community resident might want to think twice about relying on a grocery chain instead, he asks, “Where do you want your dollars to go? To support a large corporation, or to a farmer you know?”
If urban gardens are a place to work for community self- sufficiency on the ground, farmer’s markets are where neighbors can come together to exercise their rights to healthful, affordable foods.
Since 1999, David Roach, founder of the non-profit Familyhood Connection, has been getting fresh foods into West Oakland with his project, Mo’ Better Food. Roach, formerly a teacher at McClymonds High School, has organized with a group of African American farmers in Fresno County, a major agricultural region, to bring their produce to farmers’ markets in primarily African American neighborhoods.
Most of the farmers “grow crops that traditionally have been eaten and prepared by African American people, for example okra and collard greens,” he says. “If they don’t have a connection to the community that normally eats those foods, it is hard for those farmers to make a living.”
According to Roach, African American-owned farmland has been decreasing at astounding rates throughout the last century: African American farmers owned about 15 million acres in America in the early 1900s; today, they own only two million acres. There are about 280 African American farmers left in California, many of them in Fresno County. “We’re trying to build resources for research and markets to assist them and keep them viable. We want to help them get food to the inner city,” Roach says.
Mo’ Better Food, West Oakland Food Security Council, and a host of organizations in Oakland and Berkeley, including the Ecology Center, recently got West Oakland its first weekly farmers’ market, which at least initially will be stocked with produce from African American-owned farms. The farmers’ market runs every Saturday at Mandela Transit Center next to the West Oakland BART station.
Often projects like these take on a life of their own in the hands of the community. “Mo’ Better Food,” says David Roach, “doesn’t even belong to me anymore, which is a beautiful thing. We planted a seed with the farmers’ market, and people came out and supported it. We have youth creating our flyers, putting out posters on the streets, and helping the farmers sell their produce. The market really became a community food project.”

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