A simple way to support food justice
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
Sara stands in my garden holding a lettuce start. She is wearing a T-shirt and jeans, her brown hair pulled back, the sun reflecting off her lightly toasted skin. Slender, agile, young, with the freshness of a newly emerging stalk of corn, she is the sole employee and proprietor of all edibles (www.alledibles.com/), an independent company that helps city people convert their yards to organic vegetable gardens. I met Sara three years ago when I attended a fund raiser for a film on urban gardening. (The film, “Edible City,” was being produced by the son of one of my friends, and I had attended the party in the role of volunteer caterer. Contact@ediblecity.net) The event had taken place at an imposing house in the Berkeley hills, where the entire backyard had been converted to an urban garden with rows of neat raised beds and paths of crushed gravel in between. The beds, bursting with tomato reds and salad greens, were bounteous and beautiful. They spoke of wealth, but of wealth well-used, of a life well-led.
I couldn’t afford those gardens but I began to think about a smaller space. I had a terraced side yard choked with weeds and rogue patches of iris, a legacy of the previous owners. For months after the fund raiser, I thought of trying to dig that yard myself, but then in January I had surgery on my shoulder. Double, or even single-digging, clay soil was out of the question for quite awhile. So in March I called all edibles. Sara double-dug the side yard, amended the soil, planted starts, and then came every other month or so for maintenance. I felt guilty at first about not doing the maintenance myself, but the shoulder took a long time to heal and by the time the zucchini had colonized the garden, I had begun to understand that in hiring Sara I was, in a very modest way, helping to sustain a whole food justice network.
All edibles helps mainly middle-class people like me convert wasted space into vegetables for their families, but the lettuce starts I was paying for came from a green house run by City Slickers Farms, a nonprofit that is devoted to helping under-serviced people in West Oakland. Sara sits on the board of this nonprofit (http://www.cityslickerfarms.org/) and helps train its interns as a volunteer. City Slickers runs seven community farms on vacant or unused lots in lower- income neighborhoods and sells or donates produce to members of the community by means of its Farm Markets. Its Backyard Farm program also encourages low-income families to begin gardens of their own. City Slicker interns work with residents to plan and install a backyard garden. They provide mentorship to help residents maintain their gardens for two years, and then they recruit seasoned household gardeners to mentor newer members of the program. This system of mentoring has produced 100 backyard gardens in West Oakland.
City Slickers also works with the Oakland Food Policy Council which drafts and proposes policy around food justice. The overall goal of the Council is to improve access to fresh, organic, sustainable food for the most impoverished groups in the city. Three of the Council’s proposals have been considered by the Oakland City Council. One called upon the city to change zoning regulations so that urban farmers could avoid paying a $1000 fee in order to sell surplus produce. Oakland changed its laws in the fall of 2011. A great thing, a series of small things brought together. Even I, in supporting all edibles, was doing more than supplying our family table with organic cilantro and Swiss kale. I was acting as a small part of a system that sustained food justice in poor communities.
I asked Sara some questions.
J: Do urban gardens hurt farmers markets?
S: I think they help farmers markets. When people have their own gardens, their food standards are raised. They begin to appreciate fresh produce. They are more conscious about food and they want to shop at farmers markets. Some fruits and vegetables aren’t cost effective to raise yourself.
J: Why do your clients want urban gardens?
S: Many of them have children, and they want their children to have that connection. Some think the food will be cheaper. I try to talk them out of that.
J: what effect does having an urban garden have on your clients?
S: It’s a gateway to their thinking about other ecological issues. They begin to have conversations about ecology and they become supportive of other ecological projects.
J: What are the most important things people can do to promote food justice?
S: They can donate to food justice groups, volunteer time working with hands in the dirt, have thoughtful conversations with others. But the most important thing, I think, is to vote with your dollars. Patronize farmer’s markets and also restaurants that pay their staff well and use organic foods. Just asking them how they pay their staff makes a point.
J: What effect has starting all edibles had on you?
S: I learned that I’m passionate about food systems.
My organic backyard garden produces modestly. I live in Kensington, after all. The air is cool, the sky often cloudy, and my neighbor’s trees block a lot of the potential sun. This is a neighborhood in which tomatoes turn fat and red at the beginning of October. But it is worth maintaining a garden for fresh herbs and salad greens and for the tiny contribution that it makes to a woman, a company, and a larger network that is passionate about food justice. Great things. A series of small things brought together. Small, simple steps becoming larger and more complex.