It’s a foggy fall day at West Oakland’s City Slicker Farms in Union Plaza Park, but by looking at the lush and green garden boxes full of basil, Swiss chard, and collard greens it’s hard to believe the growing season is almost over. While volunteers are planting root vegetables for the winter and picking the last of the green tomatoes, some food policy advocates are trying to harvest change in Oakland’s City Council.
Last week, Oakland City Council first considered amendments to the city’s zoning policies that would make it easier and cheaper to start urban farms and gardens in Oakland. The first vote passed unanimously, and on November 18, there will be final vote for these changes at the council meeting. Food policy activists and urban farming supporters are confident this vote will also be successful.
With some exceptions, like farms that include chickens or other livestock, these new regulations would remove the expensive and burdensome permit process from community gardens and farms in Oakland. Previously it could cost up to $3,000 to apply for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), a process that could take several months without the guarantee of approval. The proposed changes would designate agriculture activities like growing and selling fruits, vegetables, and herbs; and keeping up to three beehives, as a right. It would also change the definition of a community garden from land cultivated by “more than one” to “one or more” persons.
“If you're just starting a farm, or basically or really just interested in growing your own food, to have that barrier immediately of a permit is such a stopping point,” says Ariel Dekovic, the interim executive director of City Slicker Farms. “ It really says as a city, ‘Oakland doesn't value people’s rights to grow their own food.’ So from our perspective and from our experience this is so important because it really just opens up that right.”
City Slicker Farms has been around since 2001 and already has CUPs for the 12 chickens they raise on site, but Dekovic says founder Willow Rosenthal probably faced barriers similar to the ones these new amendments are trying to get rid of.
“She saw the total lack of access to any kind of healthy fresh food in West Oakland. There just were no grocery stores, no place where you could get affordable healthy food easily,” Dekovic says. “That lack of access combined with a deep history in the neighborhood of residents who either had family members, family knowledge, or interest in growing their own food was the catalyst for City Slicker Farms.”
Aside from the community markets City Slicker Farms holds every Saturday, it still is very difficult to access fresh, healthy food in West Oakland. The nearest supermarket is the Pak N Save in Emeryville, and other local grocery stores can take a 45-minute bus ride to reach.
Other organizations have begun responding to this lack of access, and West Oakland is becoming a hub for community farming. For the past few years, an organization called the People’s Community Market has been working to build a full-service supermarket in West Oakland. The Oakland Unified School district is also working to create a central kitchen with an attached urban farm and education center.
However, in the meantime Dekovic says it needs to be easy for as many people as possible to start growing their own food.
“If you look at the report it mentions a goal that Oakland has about supporting community gardens that are multi-generational, multiethnic and welcoming to all. And this is the first step. If you are making it a right for people to be able to do this, this is really the first step to embracing that truly.”
Esperanza Pallana, the director of the Oakland Food Policy Council (OFPC), agrees.
"To acknowledge the right to grow our own food is particularly profound because the United States does not view food as a basic human right. It would be a significant statement for our city to not only view food as a basic right, but that growing it ourselves is a right. I hope Oakland can set an example for national food policy,” she says.
For the past four years Pallana and the OFPC have been working to form changes like the ones that will be decided on November 18.
“I think this policy is also important because the rate of hunger in Alameda County is higher than ever, Pallana adds. "We have a climate than enables year round production of food crops. There is no reason why we can’t be growing our own way out of dependency on a food system than doesn’t serve us."
Both Dekovic and Pallana agree that if and when these amendments pass, the work of the urban farming and food policy advocate isn’t over, it’s only the first step in an ongoing discussion. Dekovic says she would eventually like to see Oakland make the permitting process easier for urban farmers to raise livestock.
“Chickens are a pretty natural part of a produce farm, there’s a lot of beneficial systems going on there and so right now there are barriers to that.”
Land security is another huge issue. Dekovic worries about not being able to control the fate of farm space, which takes a lot of investment.
“How do we protect, enable and empower the residents who want to just have smaller scale community gardens?” One example, she says, is borrowing San Francisco’s idea for giving tax breaks to people who open up their land to urban farming.
Even more, there’s a larger discussion that needs to take place about the role of urban farms and community gardens in areas where gentrification is changing the character of neighborhoods and creating tension between longtime residents and newcomers.
Urban farming isn't new, Dekovic says. “My grandmother moved to the Richmond District in the 1950s from the Philippines, had a giant backyard and was growing her food there.”
“Our mission is really to empower residents of West Oakland typically who have lived here a long time and have been doing this for a long time, but when realtors advertise the urban garden as something that it's not, something hip and fashionable, something designed to sell property and rack up home prices, it raises some interesting questions.”