Saturday, July 14, 2012

Growing corn and justice in West Oakland

I knew I arrived in the right place when I saw a crowd of what looked to be local West Oaklanders playing music, eating locally grown fresh corn on the cob, barbqued sandwiches and beans spilling into the side walk of one of the busier corners in West Oakland.  At the edge of the freeway, The People’s Grocery was having a celebration of the completion of a very impressive mural (alas, I forgot my camera - but some local journalists did not) that celebrated food justice, grassroots efforts, art, and healthy communities.

People’s Grocery has been on the forefront of sustainability solutions since its founding – and it now looks they are once again pushing boundaries into what it means to create real change.
Over a decade ago, back when ‘food justice’ was far more of an idea than anything that resembled reality, a few young social entrepeneurs/change makers decided to tackle one of the chief challenges of sustainability (people-led, planet-centered, profit-making) challenges head on.   The people of west Oakland – a neighborhood in California known for its drug dealing, violence, low education levels and general poverty – had no local stores to buy fresh vegetables and fruits. Agricutlural markets did not exist. In most of West Oakland, the only ‘food’ stores are liquor stores.  Local knowledge about making yummy, nutritious meals for young families on small budgets was minimal.  KFC, French fries, potato chips, coca-cola and liquor dominated people’s food-choices in areas with few trees, flowers, gardens or other signs of life outside of pavement, cars and run down ware houses.
The original model entailed producing organic food for community-led enterprises. Marketing of enterprises was done through nutrition and food education, including cooking classes.  These urban agricultural programs developed three pieces of land in the City, including a three-acre peri-urban farm. Their ‘Grub box’ is a modified Community Development Agriculture programme, and their Mobile Market was a unique program that has since been copied elsewhere.  Their nutrition education programmes collaborate with public hospitals and health clinics, meaning that they can reach vulnerable communities with what one might call ‘specific cultural needs’.  Much of their work is non-profit, but they also have always run a for-profit grocery store. Both have expanded: the People’s Community Market should open a 15,000 square ft store in the midst of West Oakland in 2012. They kept good records on what they were doing, meaning that their data has been able to inform the broader discussions on the need for diverse food systems for low-income communities.
Now that they’ve done the work of creating  a successful model that has been nationally recognized, they are working on larger issues of community development and systemic change while keeping the focus on food. It’s always a tricky question: how does one create systemic change, and get to the real needs of the community, which are many and diverse? How get to the root of the problem while addressing ongoing crises and ‘superficial’ but very real challenges? Their recent move closer to the more centralized parts of West Oakland (right off the highways), not so far from downtown, may be seen as a symbol of this effort of growing and deepening their already substantial network. They are calling their academy a ‘Growing Justice Institute’: for leaders who are seeking community-led issues to food insecurity.  Over two years, local leaders get mixed forms of support to develop projects that enable income-generating, local food security.   Doing so collectively builds overall social network capacity and what we in international development describe as ‘social capital’ that is critical for learning for social change.

To be selected for the programme, they had to answer not only why their proposed project was worthwhile, but how it dealt with some of the ‘deeper issues’ of food injustice. Browsing the website gives some insights into how local leaders are conceptualizing the deeper challenges. These include, eating habits, breakdown of person-to-person exchange and racial oppression and injustice.  Projects range from setting up sliding-scale restaurants to increasing nutrition classes. 

From my research, there is little doubt that setting up learning communities is a key element of enabling systemic change.  Some of these are political; some are not. They raise questions about how much the projects get to the ‘root causes’ of injustice that are far larger than a small community in California. I wonder, as they go forward, how much the participants in these programs will themselves change their analysis and praxis. Like others in the wider global community of food justice and sustainability in the midst of a changing climate, they face the same challenges of siloization even as they are aware of and trying to become more connected to the inter-related dynamics behind poverty in order to enhance health and wellbeing. 

After chatting, mural-admiring and eating an excellent mixture of beans, salsa and tortilla chips, I helped build a raised bed. Shoveling some ‘local’ manure (cow, horse and something else I didn’t recognize) with wood chips and layering it with various forms of dirt, I was struck by how high the beds were: nearly up to my thigh.  Was the soil on which we stood really poor enough that it needed such high quality dirt?  

We were building on soil that has been long-impacted by heavy metal.  Being right next to the freeway, they’ve gotten deposits of lead in the soil. There’s some concern about air pollution getting onto the leaves – or the heads of different vegetables. The constant movement of cars and trucks creates additional levels of wind. But it’s got good sun exposure.  Raised beds are accessible to everyone.  There’s talk of growing flowers. Personally, I hope they grow beets, corn, squash and beans. – a colorful, nutritious and ancient mixture of some hardy vegetables in an area and a community that needs the health and beauty of such food as much as it needs leadership that can take the promise of growing food and bring it to the people who hunger for real change. 

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