In the last decade, organizations such as People's Grocery, Phat Beets Produce, and City Slicker Farms have emerged to create a more equitable food system in Oakland. But while the growing urban agricultural movement has led to an increase in urban homesteading and farming, the issue of land security remains a top challenge, because most people lease or rent the land they farm on. Now, the nonprofit City Slicker Farms (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I have volunteered for in the past) hopes to change that dynamic.
On January 31, representatives from the California Department of Parks and Recreation and Senator Barbara Boxer's office will gather to celebrate the development of a new community resource for fresh produce in West Oakland — the transformation of a vacant industrial lot at 28th and Peralta streets into an urban park and farm. A project of City Slicker Farms, the West Oakland Park and Urban Farm will reside on a 1.4-acre lot and plans to include lawn space for running and playing, a vegetable growing area, a community garden, a fruit orchard, a chicken coop, a beehive, and a dog run.
In addition to growing and distributing 9,000 pounds of produce a year to West Oakland residents at its weekly community farm stand, City Slicker has installed more than two hundred backyard gardens since its inception twelve years ago. But the nonprofit has had to abandon some farm sites that have been loaned to it after owners decided to use their land for different purposes, said executive director Barbara Finnin. That pattern, she said, has created tension within the community: People grow to rely on the farm, only to have the resource taken away.
"We want to ensure that urban agriculture has a future," said Finnin. "For people to trust us, we need to have land security."
The West Oakland Park and Urban Farm is being funded by Proposition 84, the California bond initiative approved in 2006 that authorized more than $5 billion to be spent on initiatives such as safe drinking water, water quality and supply, flood control, state and local park improvements, and public access to natural resources. In November of 2010, City Slicker was awarded a $4 million grant to implement the project, and the purchase of the land was finalized several weeks ago after a year of extensive review.
The plan for the lot was developed with extensive input from local residents over a three-month period in 2010. Finnin estimates that the new farm will, at the very least, double the volume of produce City Slicker is able to grow.
"Before we applied for the grant, we wanted to make sure there was overwhelming support for the project," said Finnin. "In order to address some of the really big problems in our community, like health disparities and access to affordable food, there has to be equal power share. As an organization, we're not there to say what the community needs or wants — we're there to figure that out."
She stressed that the next phase of the project — which may last through 2013 — will focus on re-engaging the community in the planning process. In addition to conducting a series of outreach meetings, the process will include identifying and forging partnerships with local organizations that might benefit from being able to access a permanent outdoor recreational space, like youth groups. Because the funds awarded are allocated specifically for the purchase of the land and construction, the nonprofit plans to intensify its fundraising campaign to cover the project's operation costs.
Audree Jones-Taylor, the director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Oakland, believes that the close relationship City Slicker has formed with the community it serves and its long history of "genuine commitment and passion" led to its selection as a grant recipient.
"People believe in them," she said, adding that the inclusion of a dog park and play area emphasizes the space's intention to be used as a livable space. She often uses City Slicker's transformation of Fitzgerald and Union Plaza Parks — once a "blighted area filled with derelicts, the homeless, and illegal use" — into a community farm as an example of the successes the city has achieved.
In addition to distributing the fresh produce grown at its five community market farms and installing backyard gardens, a priority of City Slicker's mission has been to empower residents through education by providing classes and apprenticeships. Focusing on food literacy and education — in addition to providing immediate access to fruits and vegetables — is crucial to changing the culture of food consumption in West Oakland, said Esperanza Pallana, the coordinator for the Oakland Food Policy Council and a City Slicker Farms board member.
"I've observed and experienced that when people have hands-on experience growing food, their behavior shifts," Pallana said. Karen Williams, a longtime farm stand customer and resident of West Oakland who had her own backyard garden installed in September, echoed her agreement.
"You're more inclined to eat the food you grow," she said, listing tomatoes, okra, kale, strawberries, onions, cabbage, bell peppers, and broccoli as crops in her garden.
Jones-Taylor wrapped it up simply. "Really, they're allowing people to feed themselves and their families. It doesn't get any richer and better than that."