In backyards, vacant lots, parks, and on rooftops, Oakland farmers are working to increase access to healthy food in the city’s most food-insecure neighborhoods.
City-specific data on food security is limited because Oakland doesn’t have its own public health department. But what we do know is that affording a healthy and well-balanced diet can be challenging for many working-class people in Oakland.
Research from the Alameda County Food Bank shows that it takes a family of four $92,267 annually to meet their basic household needs in the Oakland metro area, while 65% of their clients have incomes less than $28,290.
According to the nonprofit Healthy Alameda County, neighborhoods in West and East Oakland demonstrated the highest need. And Elizabeth Esparza, co-director of the nonprofit organization Hope Collaborative, told The Oaklandside that her organization estimated the food insecurity rates in 2019 to be somewhere between 35-60% in West Oakland, and 20-40% percent in East Oakland. By comparison, they found the rates to be 12-20% in the Oakland hills.
Esparza, who leads the Hope Collaborative’s food justice work, believes that urban farming can help address the problem. This is why the group is currently working to help Oakland residents establish home gardens.
“One thing we could definitely use is more spaces to grow,” she said.
The four farms profiled below are doing more than just feeding Oakland’s residents—members are invoking Oakland’s history of radical food justice work, spearheaded by the Black Panther Party in the late ‘60s, by rethinking conventional food systems and returning land to marginalized communities.
This is not an exhaustive list of farms in Oakland, but rather a representation of just a few that are working to feed, educate, and unite Oaklanders through plants.
Near the foothills of deep East Oakland, seven and eight-foot tall sunflowers hang over a steel fence along 106th and MacArthur Boulevard. While cars whizz by, a sense of calm resides within the boundaries of the Homies Empowerment Freedom Farm.
Kenyata Dibiase, the farm educator, rides his bike five blocks every morning from his house to the farm to tend to over 20 garden boxes full of kale, spinach, tomato, onion, and more.
Dibiase says that farming isn’t a big part of the culture in his neighborhood, so he and other employees at Homies Empowerment, a grassroots, community-led organization, use the Freedom Farm as a tool to increase access to healthy food and set an example of what kinds of foods can be grown and how.
“Not only do we give away free food, but we love to give away the knowledge of how to grow food really cheaply, where to find it, and why it’s good for them,” Dibiase said.
In response to high rates of food insecurity in East Oakland, Homies Empowerment, which provides social services to youth, started the farm a little more than a year ago in May. The farm has 28 wooden boxes that anyone can use to grow food, and can provide soil, seeds, and water. The lot has a fire pit and an outdoor classroom, and an outdoor kitchen is in the works.
At separate locations in East Oakland, Homies also operates a care center that offers clothes and other household items, and the Freedom store, which distributes food, including produce from the farm. The Freedom School, an independent high school designed for youth affected by systemic oppression, opens this September.
Two long rows of boxes are tended by families from Central America who use the space to grow culturally relevant plants. Florentina Mendoza, who works for Homies Empowerment and is part of the indigenous Mam community from Guatemala, uses her boxes to grow corn, chayote, and other plants native to her country.
“We have a lot of people who are recent immigrants,” Dibiase said. “They see the box as a total benefit and want to come immediately and use them.”
But most of the boxes are currently being planted by Homies employees and others who don’t live in the neighborhood. Dibiase said it’s been difficult to attract members of the East Oakland community, which is a USDA-designated food desert, to use the boxes.
“This is a really big part of food justice,” Dibiase said. “How do you get people to know that they need some justice?”
He hopes that the large sunflowers will attract folks from the neighborhood into the garden, which was a vacant lot for 20 some years before Homies leased the land from the city.
“I think if we just keep displaying a really nice place to come and hang out,” he said, “they will eventually come.”
The Homies Empowerment Freedom Farm is located at 10451 MacArthur Blvd. For open hours, visit the farm’s website.
Acta Non Verba
Founder and Executive Director Kelly Carlise started Acta Non Verba in 2010 to address high crime, drop-out rates and food insecurity in Oakland. The organization operates four farms—two in East Oakland and two in West—with the hopes of educating the city’s youth about food systems, getting kids outside, and increasing access to healthy food.
According to the organization, 99% of students at two of the schools where Acta Non Verba has programs—Acorn Woodland and Encompass Academy—qualify for free or reduced lunches.
“I recently learned that…I too could grow food with just my hands,” Carlisle said. “I started Acta Non Verba so kids could feel the same level of excitement, like ‘Oh shit, I grew something!’”
Acta Non Verba operates a six-week summer day camp, and while it’s designed for kids ages five to 15, people of any age are welcome. The organization also runs an after school program, a leadership program for middle and high-schoolers, and open farm days for anyone to volunteer.
The group’s farms in East Oakland’s Tassafaronga Park and another in West Oakland that it shares with City Slicker Farms, are open to the public. Aaron De La Cerda, Acta Non Verba’s deputy director, said they are looking for more consistent volunteers, especially at Tassafaronga Farm. They also run Wow Farm, a one-eighth acre plot next to the West Oakland BART station, and another plot of similar size at the Oakland Coliseum.
All farms are open for harvesting by the public on a “take what you need, leave what you can” basis.
While the farms operate as classrooms and models for how to grow food, De La Cerda emphasizes the need to use them as efficient engines of food production.
“We definitely differentiate between urban farms and community gardens,” De La Cerda said. “We’re not doing this for leisure, we’re pursuing a mission to educate and feed.”
Acta Non Verba‘s farm in Tassafaronga Park is located at 1001 83rd Ave. and the West Oakland Farm Park is at 2847 Peralta St. Both are open to the public Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2-5 p.m.
On a quiet block in Fruitvale, residents at the intentional community, Canticle Farm, are expressing their own unique pursuit to educate and feed.
Beyond a small wooden fence, wild lettuce and elderberry share space with patches of Swiss chard flourishing near fig trees. A sign labeled “community offerings” hangs above a basket full of green beans.
Canticle Farm, which lies in the middle of ten houses, is as intentional as it is wild. Oona Valle, one of some 40 residents who call the farm home, says Canticle celebrates itself as a place for people to engage in their own “soul work.” Valle, a Latina gardener and herbalist who has lived on the property on and off since 2019, describes her soul work as “building bridges and welcoming newcomers.”
Valle uses Canticle to coordinate a sanctuary program for new immigrants and asylum seekers looking for support in their transition—offering retreats on the land to heal from the migratory process, English classes, and more. She connects her work with migrants to her role as a gardener and herbalist at Canticle by transforming ideologies around invasive species.
“In terms of land tending, a lot of what I do is welcoming newcomers,” Valle said. “Supporting people who are also coming from diaspora or people who are not native to these lands, and supporting us to be in a deeper reckoning of what it is to come from settler lineages.”
Instead of removing weeds or spraying pesticides, she runs a monthly workshop, “Transforming Invasives,” centered around learning the story of non-native plants and how they can be useful to the community. Valle gave the example of wild lettuce, a plant with unknown origins that grows everywhere from people’s backyards to the cracks in a sidewalk, as a species not commonly recognized as medicinal.
“Wild lettuce is a medicine that is really good for supporting sleep and chronic pain,” Valle said. “Harriet Tubman leaned heavily on that plant when she was liberating formerly enslaved people from the south.”
Valle describes the whole property as an apothecary. In addition to wild lettuce, they cultivate a vast array of medicinal plants including elderberry, which is known to support immunity, comfrey, which has been used to treat bruises, burns, and inflammation, and mullein, which is associated with skin health. Canticle distributes herbal medicine to members of the community upon request for no charge.
Canticle also distributes food that would otherwise be in the waste stream every Thursday, in addition to giving away excess foods from the property, like oranges, tomatoes, and plums.
In addition to cultivating food, medicine, and community, one of the main goals at Canticle is to acknowledge trauma associated with farming and to decolonize relationships to land.
“A lot of first-gen folks coming from Latin America, from Haiti, from different parts of the world, from East Asia, are subjected to working in the fields in an extremely extractive environment that is based off and still replicating the model of slavery that is the foundation of the system in this country,” Valle said. “Having the opportunity to grow and interact with land in a way that’s not extractive…I think that’s going to bring so much healing.”
Canticle Farm is located at 1972 36th Ave. and it is open to volunteers Sundays from 11-2 p.m.
Deep Medicine Circle
Atop a Rockridge apartment building with a Whole Foods on the first floor, the nonprofit organization Deep Medicine Circle is operating Oakland’s largest rooftop farm under a similar framework as Canticle—to de-commodify and decolonize food systems by empowering Black, Indigenous, and Latinx farmers, and making nutritional produce available to all.
The Rooftop Medicine Farm is part of a greater project they call “farming as medicine,” which addresses health disparities among BIPOC communities by growing organic food in biodiverse soil. Rupa Marya, the organization’s founder, said that growing food from an agro-ecological framework can help address injustice.
“If we want a food system that works for the people, we want one that creates a healthy climate, a healthy environment, creates clean air, clean water, and clean soil,” Marya said. “That is agro-ecology.”
Marya is also a physician at the UCSF Parnassus campus and co-author of the book Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice with Raj Patel.
The Rooftop Medicine Farm provides food to several different organizations, including POOR Magazine in deep East Oakland, which distributes free food every Thursday at noon, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, and The People’s House in West Oakland, which is run by the Anti-Police Terror Project.
Last year, the farm grew and gave away 18,000 pounds of food, and this year, they expect to give away between 20,000 and 25,000 thousand pounds. They grow around 50 different types of culturally specific crops, all requested by the communities they serve, including fenugreek, bok choy, okra, and several varieties of squash from different countries.
Marya believes that the city of Oakland should prioritize urban farming as a tool to address high rates of food insecurity, and she recommended daylighting water bodies like Temescal Creek to support a system of farms.
“I’d love to see Oakland create a fully city-run network,” Marya said. “Along the way to the Bay it [Temescal Creek] could be irrigating a network of beautiful farms that could feed the people of Oakland and help heal the ecosystem.”
Deep Medicine Circle is working on policy tools to advance universal basic nutrition and lift the reliance on food banks, which Marya said perpetuate food injustice and health disparity by offering mostly processed foods grown with pesticides.
“Let’s feed our people, let’s stand on the shoulders of the Black Panther Party,” Marya said. “This is the moment to do that.”
The Rooftop Medicine Farm is located at 5110 Telegraph Ave. and it is open to volunteers every Thursday from 1-4 p.m.
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly identified the Acta Non Verba farm in West Oakland as “Wild Farm.” The correct name is “WOW Farm.”