As food justice advocate Joy Moore pointed out to a room full of mostly white folks in food and farming: When you hear "urban" and "youth" in the same headline it's never good news. It's usually something negative associated with drugs, violence, and crime, right?
But at the annual EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar in Pacific Grove on Friday Moore, who teaches cooking and gardening to Berkeley youth, moderated a panel where young city dwellers received top billing to showcase some of the positive programs they're helping to run in their communities.
So we meet Tenise Murphy, a farmers' market coordinator for Farm Fresh Choice, a program of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, begun by Moore and other food activists, to get fresh, organic, sustainable, and affordable food to low-income residents.
We meet Jamila Chandler who walks us through a slideshow of the work done by Urban ReLeaf, a non-profit that has planted and maintains 8,500 trees along median strips and public sidewalks in otherwise barren neighborhoods in Oakland and Richmond.
Chandler gives a shout out to fellow panelist (and her mom) Kemba Shakur, a former corrections officer, who started Urban ReLeaf because she wanted to find ways to both beautify and improve the health and environment in blighted urban enclaves surrounded by freeways and pollution — as well as employ black youth after seeing so many of them in jail in her former job.
And we meet Paul Walker, the self-appointed smoothie maker who helps run the Purple Lawn Cafe in Oakland. Heads up: it’s not purple or a cafe but it is a mobile food booth serving hot, healthy, affordable eats in an an area not known for such offerings.
Walker works with ex-Air Force man Jason Harvey’s non-profit organization Oakland Food Connection, which builds school and community gardens in East Oakland and runs a farmers’ market every Saturday on MacArthur Boulevard in the Laurel District.
Harvey provides a personal perspective on African Americans' roots in both farming and food production. Harvey was raised among elders who knew how to grow food and canned and preserved. And he notes that the Black Panther Party of the mid-1960s and early 70s introduced a free breakfast program for children, which helped spawn the federal government’s school breakfast program that continues to this day.
Fast forward a couple of decades and many urban, low-income communities of color are riddled with corner stores selling mostly junk food or liquor — and their residents are struggling with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, while also dealing with hunger and malnutrition.
Oakland Food Connection, working in collaboration with like-minded groups such as People’s Grocery, Mandela Marketplace, and City Slicker Farms, is part of a growing movement to bring good grub to so-called food deserts in East and West Oakland.
Murphy is part of an umbrella organization known as Rooted in Community, a national grassroots network that seeks to encourage youth to take up leadership positions in food and farming in their neighborhoods. Kim Allen, the garden program manager for Berkeley Youth Alternatives, was on hand to spread the word about the worthy work of Rooted in Community.
There’s nothing like the enthusiasm, optimism, and idealism of the young to make a room full of adult conference attendees sit up and pay attention.
This is the second conference I've attended in the past few months where urban youth wowed the crowd.
In October last year the Community Food Security Coalition Food, Culture, Justice Conference held in New Orleans highlighted the food and farming work of youth in the town devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We took a tour of school gardens in various stages of development, including a local Edible Schoolyard affiliate where gumbo is on the menu and a line on the kitchen classroom wall marks how high the water rose during the storm.
At a panel discussion we met poised and articulate students from The Rethinkers, who pushed to improve lunch in cafeterias in several schools. And we also heard about a novel education experiment from youth living in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward who are part of an inspired garden program run out of a former corner store known as Our School at Blair Grocery.
There, Nat Turner and his small team of staff work with youth in an alternative school setting to grow micro-greens that are snapped up by the town’s leading chefs, including John Besh, who owns culinary hot spots Luke, August, Domenica, and La Provence.
It's not just Oakland, Berkeley, and New Orleans. Across the country — as the national membership of Rooted in Community reveals — innovative food and agriculture projects created for and run by the next generation of farmers are sprouting up all over.
And collectively they have a simple message they want to convey about what we eat: Everybody has a right to good food.