As I witness food injustices in Oakland, California, I am filled with a deep sense of urgency. People of color suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Youth in Oakland have little access to fresh produce in their neighborhoods and their schools are surrounded by liquor stores that offer highly processed and nutrient-deficient food. Where organic produce is available, the high costs are too much for a family in this school’s district, where the median household income is $33,152 per year. As youth of color in Oakland face multiple oppressive structures of injustice, even their basic right to food remains a struggle — without access to affordable, nutritious food; little knowledge of the health consequences from eating highly processed foods; few opportunities for economic ownership in the food system; and diminishing cultural experiences of traditional plants and recipes.
A non-profit organization in Oakland, Planting Justice, works to empower youth to resist the corporate-controlled and toxic industrial food system and become young leaders in the burgeoning urban food justice movement. Using a self-developed Food Justice and Culinary Arts curriculum, Planting Justice leads a weekly training program at Mandela High School giving 25 youth of Latin-American, African-American, and Asian-American descent the opportunity to engage in sustainable practices of urban agriculture that promote community health, re-connect students to nature through food, and expand access to fresh produce in this under-served urban community.
While building a garden on their school campus, students are trained to maintain vegetable beds and fruit trees, cook from the garden, develop a garden-to-market program, preserve traditional foods, recipes, and heirloom varieties, and explore local, national, and international food issues. Working in the garden and observing the plants as they grow provides a space for these youth to cultivate practical skills, nutrition awareness, a connection to the earth and life, environmental awareness, relaxation and comfort, gratification, personal growth, patience, and motivation.
Developing skills in critical thinking, community organizing, public speaking, and ecological entrepreneurship, these youths are changing the way they identify with the food they consume and becoming leaders to other students on their high school campus and in their after school programming. Using arts, music, cooking, cultural folklore, digital media, and international people’s histories, Planting Justice encourages students to look at food issues through a global and structural lens that engages cultural differences and builds cross-cultural alliances. Drawing connections between the students’ experience in the garden and relations to their ancestry, cultural heritage, and family traditions, students learn about examples of local and historical community organizations, such as the United Farm Workers movement, the Black Panther Party, and the South Central Farmers, to situate their participation in the garden within broader social structures. These youth are demonstrating how sustainable and organic urban agriculture can spur local economic revitalization and play a vital role in the construction of a new food system that honors the principles of ecological regeneration, sustainability, and equal access to affordable healthy foods for all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Beyond the empowerment that comes with this experiential learning process, this educational program is a part of the green jobs training taking place at Planting Justice which equips low-income East Bay residents with marketable hands-on skills and paid opportunities in the urban sustainability sectors of local and organic food production, edible landscaping, greywater installation, rainwater harvesting, and ecological design. Planting Justice has been able to create 7 transitional living-wage jobs in the Transform your Yard program, including employment for one man who paroled from San Quentin State Prison who had participated in the Insight Garden Program in the medium security unit and two job opportunities for youth who graduate from our Mandela High School program. Since 2009, Planting Justice has constructed more than 80 innovative urban permaculture gardens across Oakland, at cost for full-paying clients and for free for low-income families and communities.
These highly integrated and beautiful gardens harvest rainwater, recycle indoor greywater from the laundry and shower to water fruit trees, reuse free cardboard and food wastes to build soil, incorporate composting systems, bee hives, chicken coops, and worm bins where appropriate, and have produced thousands of pounds of fruits, veggies, berries, herbs, eggs, and honey in our community. By designing for maximum yield and minimum input and work, and by using mostly perennial plants, deep mulch, and automatic drip irrigation, many of these gardens produce half of a family’s food needs with less than 1-2 hours per week of labor in as little as 250 square feet of space, while others produce far more than the family’s food needs and is shared with neighbors. By diverting surplus income from the Transform your Yard fee-for-service landscaping program into low-income community garden projects, Planting Justice is able to operate without relying upon grants from foundations, which often come with strict stipulations that limit grassroots movements for social justice.
As I struggle for food justice as both an Iranian and American woman, I find meaning in the participation of worlds that matter. Communities with whom I work save seeds grown in Iranian soil and bring them to their grand-children in the Bay Area to be planted, harvested, and eaten together, demonstrating that local acts of resistance counter global systems of domination. Practicing freedom, in the words of Rumi, we “bury our seeds and wait. Winter blocks the road. Flowers are taken prisoner underground. But, then green justice tenders a spear.”
Planting Justice is a non-profit organization based in Oakland, CA dedicated to food justice, economic justice, and sustainable local food systems. They are the first organization of their kind to combine ecological training and urban food production with a grassroots door-to-door organizing model that vastly increases their educational community outreach, help them to recruit volunteers, decentralizes fundraising sources, and provides local jobs that also train young community organizers.