The west side of Oakland, California is not known for its gardens and green spaces. Site of the sprawling Port of Oakland, the neighborhood is surrounded by the warehouses, rail yards, and truck depots that are vital to the workings of the global economy. The area is also home to some 30,000 people, 70 percent of whom live below the poverty line. It is because of these challenges — not in spite of them — that Willow Rosenthal adopted West Oakland as the home for her innovate non-profit organization City Slicker Farms (www.city–slickerfarms.org). In just a few years, Rosenthal and a dedicated band of neighborhood residents and volunteers have transformed five formerly vacant lots into thriving gardens filled with annual vegetable crops, fruit trees, beehives, and chicken coops. In the process, Rosenthal has distinguished herself as pioneer in a growing urban farming movement. We caught up with Rosenthal just after she had finished one of the vital chores of farming — the bookkeeping.
City Slicker Farms
Where did the inspiration come from to start City Slicker Farms?
I wanted to be a farmer, and I didn’t want to just grow food for wealthy people. I really believed in the organic movement, and I had come up through that being mentored by some other farmers who were really amazing.
You say that you don’t want to just grow food for rich people. Is that your perception of where the organic industry is right now?
I think it has changed since I started, which was seven years ago; it is changing. But for the most part I think middle-class people and lower-income people really have to do some soul searching when they’re standing in the grocery aisle and they’re contemplating which purchase to make — an organic purchase or a conventional purchase. And so even for people who philosophically really believe in local food or organic food, it’s so tough when you have to weigh that against all of the other financial needs of your family.
I think the reason it’s like that is not because organic farmers are trying to swindle people. It’s because the macro-economic conditions of our food economy dictate that the only way for them to survive is to charge full market rate, as they are unsubsidized by the government. You know, conventional farmers are subsidized. I don’t think that organic farmers are charging these high prices just because they can. In my experience, it is because they have to.
And yet if you look at historical facts, we’re spending far less on food than we have at any time in American history, as measured as a percentage of people’s income. If that’s the case, then why does this soul searching still have to happen?
That’s a really good question. I think there are a lot of influences on us in terms of the media and advertising — just the idea of what’s important in life has changed over the decades. But I also think it dovetails with the change in the way people eat, and their diets, and how they prepare food. I always call it the “gap generation” of people — people who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when prepared foods and industrial foods and restaurant foods became associated with a higher status way of life. So I think a lot of kids who grew up then don’t even understand how to prepare food. I think it’s a combination of the high prices — or what seems like high prices — and then also a lack of knowledge of how to use those foods.
The situation ends up being that you can feed your family at McDonald’s for far cheaper than you can by purchasing fresh foods and cooking them. And that’s a 10-minute endeavor as opposed to an hour.
So when you do your neighborhood produce stands, is it a real challenge to get people to buy the produce, much less grow the produce, because they just don’t know how to cook it and use it?
There are definitely challenges in terms of bringing people’s skill level up. What we have found is that the “gap generation” is coming to us and saying, “My grandma had a garden and I saw it, but she didn’t teach me, and I really want to know.” And I think people are saying that because they have connected the dots to say that we are at the brunt of these larger forces, and when it comes down to it, we don’t know how to survive.
After what happened in New Orleans, I heard a number of times in our neighborhood, “If things get weird here, the government isn’t going to help us. We need to know how to help ourselves.” In spite of the fact that it’s a challenge to revive old cultural traditions, there’s an interest in that. And I think that a lot of people from all walks of life are really responding to this wholesome idea, and a beautiful idea of being able to grow healthy food, prepare healthy food, and share that in a community way.
We talk to people about how to prepare stuff. We have cooking events and try to expose people to food. It’s just kind of something that builds over time.
You say people are “connecting the dots.” What are those dots?
In the African-American community, I hear people say: “My aunt just died of cancer. My uncle was diagnosed with cancer. My grandmother had cancer, and my mother has breast cancer.” And the next thing people say is, “I think it’s because of the chemicals.”
There’s this perception, maybe, that the environmental movement is very white, and that people of color don’t understand what’s going on, and that’s absolutely not true. People of all different walks of life are very capable of understanding what’s being done to them, and what’s happening to them. And they see that our environment is completely inundated with toxins, and that in low-income communities there are more, because people aren’t as able to fight against industries that are polluting.
What I also hear is people saying: “You know, I got diabetes. And my mother always had these home remedies, and I started trying them. Now I drink water with garlic cloves in it, I drink herb tea, and I eat greens everyday. And I make juice.” I think that’s one part of that connecting the dots — that for our survival as people we are going to have to say “no” to the corporate food, which is killing us. We are going to have to use healthy foods to heal ourselves from all of the contamination in the environment.
There is perhaps this tension when it comes to the price of food. On the one hand, food should be affordable so that everyone has access to it. But if food is too cheap, then the farmers aren’t paid enough to actually live in dignity; there’s no social justice for the farmers. How do you think we can go about setting the price of food more fairly?
The US Farm Bill has an amazing influence on the price of food. I think it’s difficult to answer that question in a vacuum or in a best-case scenario because, as it stands, the price of food is completely determined by US policy around agriculture, and the fact that we’re in a commodity system. It’s really hard to come up with a utopian idea when that’s the way things are. Right now, the price that we pay for conventionally grown food is unbelievably low, and does not take into account the real cost of producing that food. That’s why organically grown food seems expensive. It’s not expensive actually; it’s that it’s not being subsidized. So that’s the first thing we can do on a large scale — influence what’s going on with the farm bill, and get some equity there.
The work that we do is all about bringing these foods to extremely low-income people. So our strategies will be different than those that need to be implemented for average, middle-class Americans — to try to value the work of the farmers, and not have these foods be too cheap, and have that be a reasonable system. But for really low-income people, we pursue a strategy of trying to take food out of the cash economy because of the fact that these folks are often on emergency food supplies. It’s a matter of whether they can afford to buy food at all; they are going to the food bank to get their food. It’s somewhat of a different situation. They may be able to afford conventional food, but there’s no way they are ever going to be able to pay organic prices.
So are you giving the food away, or do you sell it?
We have a farm stand, and it’s by donation only. We have customers from all different economic backgrounds, and we offer three different price categories. The first one is called “Free Spirit,” and if you look at that column on the price board, it’s all a row of zeros. Our next price category is “Penny Pincher,” and we have an explanation that says, “You’re waiting for your check to come in. You may have something, but not a lot.” And that’s essentially conventional food prices — 89 cents for a bunch of greens or something. The other column says, “Sugarmomma/daddy,” and that is for those who have enough to pay a little more and help subsidize someone else who can’t pay.
Do you feel folks are fair and honest?
Yes, I feel that they are, because they see what we are doing. The interesting thing is that people don’t like to take handouts. So for the most part, even people who are in the first category will give whatever change they’ve got. Or they’ll say, “I’ll catch you next time.” Which is kind of going back to the old days when people had kind of a line of credit at the local store with the grocer.
We don’t recommend this strategy in areas where people are middle-income. We’re doing this because of the conditions we are in, because we want to make sure that the folks who really need this food are able to get it.
This organic movement is wonderful, but it’s still leaving out people who are at the bottom economically. So I really want to see more — not just lip service paid to the idea of equity — but more actual commitments financially and in terms of resources.
And those commitments would come from whom?
I think we need to pressure our government to commit to doing this work. The government is already paying for poor health, and the price that it pays is very high when people go to the emergency room. Many of the diseases that people show up with in the emergency room for treatment — for instance, when they’ve got high blood pressure, or diabetes, or the cancers — all of these things are nutrition related. I really believe that our public health sector, and our local governments, and our state governments, and the federal government should see this as a strategy for solving a lot of problems that they’re already dealing with.
Do you think that increased urban food production offers a mechanism for economic development in communities that have often had extractive industries, or no industries at all?
It absolutely does. I think there’s a lot of promise for that. For instance, a small producer or grower of food in an urban environment using intensive techniques can maybe not earn an entire income, but they can earn a significant supplement to their income, and they can do it being very self-sufficient and self-directed. The inputs are relatively cheap. Small-scale animal husbandry is a huge area that could really improve access to high-quality protein.
I think the challenge is there’s no infrastructure for any of this. We’re at the stage of trying to build the initial infrastructure to support people to be able to do that. And at some point we really need to integrate that with government expenditures.
We are also just looking at self-sufficiency. There is a big difference between going to a food bank and getting your food as a handout, and either growing your own food in your backyard or coming to a community food stand where you’re treated as a customer. I think that really stimulates people to feel more pride in their own knowledge, their own skills, and their own community.
What’s your fondest memory or story from your time in West Oakland?
Some of the times that have really made me feel that there’s a point to what we’re doing have involved our backyard garden program, where we bring in supplies, planter boxes, and plants and we help people grow their own food. Just the gratitude that people have shown. You can really see that people are very excited to be gardening; you can see that this is something that will improve their life. It’s not just the food. It’s being involved in a life-affirming activity. And then hearing the knowledge and the information that these people have already. One of the women that we built a garden for — Corazon McKinsey, she’s Filipina — we were at her feet listening to what she had to say. Her knowledge of growing medicinal herbs and vegetables was so astounding. And she was isolated in her own life, and would never share that with anyone otherwise. I felt incredibly lucky to be receiving that wisdom from her.
Another thing that I experienced years ago that was very touching for me is that when I was first building one of our gardens there were kids who would be out there with me every week. And I just got the feeling that the garden was a very safe place for them to be, kind of like an oasis, where they would be treated respectfully and would have something to do with their time. A lot of kids are just so bored, so it was something they could do with their time that was meaningful. They could actually help, you know, planting something. It was a help to the adults. I just saw how much kids need a place that is nurturing, and to feel valued. They’re some of our best, most efficient workers,
So what are you going to have for dinner tonight?
Probably leftover soup from lunch. We eat a lot out of the garden. I mean, basically we just get the cream of the crop, as they say.
City Slicker Farms