By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- In most places in West Oakland, it's easier to get a 40-ounce bottle of beer and a candy bar than a fresh tomato.
But urban gardens and small farms are experiencing a growth spurt on vacant lots and backyards, the product of a slow but persistent effort to bring in more fruits and vegetables to a vast food desert and teach people much needed business skills and healthy eating.
"It's no secret that West Oakland is one of the premier food deserts in the city," said Bennie Patterson, community programs manager at Alternative in Action's McClymonds Youth and Family Center, which reopened a school garden at McClymonds High School this month. "It's difficult for students to go to one of these corner stores and have access to quality produce. They should have as much access as anyone else."
The relaunched school garden, which started in 2009 and died out after a key staff member left the school, now grows pumpkins, herbs, scallions, tomatoes, kale, bell peppers and zucchini.
Patterson said students work in the garden and learn concepts like "tomatoes don't just come from Safeway." The food it produces is distributed free to students, parents and staff whenever there is a harvest, he said.
Probably the largest growing concern in West Oakland is City Slicker Farms, which is breaking ground next month on a $5 million public park and farm at Helen and Peralta streets, courtesy of a grant from the state of California.
The organization has been growing food at a variety of borrowed locations and selling it on a sliding scale for 14 years now and building backyard gardens -- 250 free of charge so far -- for area residents.
After years of moving from one plot to the next as arrangements changed, the organization will have a permanent grow space it will call the West Oakland Urban Farm and Park on a 1.4 acre lot.
Funded with a $4 million grant and donations, the site will include a kids play area, a grass field, a picnic area, farm stand and a community garden that will allow it to double its current harvest to about 20,000 pounds of food a year.
"The park is going to be a part of everyone's lives here," said Ariel Dekovic, interim executive director of City Slicker Farms. "You'll be a kid going to the park and there will be a food forest there. That's what excites me about that site."
Dekovic said the park is slated for completion at the end of this year. Organizers still need to raise another $500,000, but will begin construction with the money they already have.
Patricia Johnson, executive director of Game Theory Academy which launched in 2009, said her two plots of land in West Oakland produce flowers and vegetables that students sell to restaurants and florists.
The idea of running the two farms -- one at 7th and Peralta streets and one at Wood and 16th streets -- is not so much to get fresh produce to the people of West Oakland, but to educate youth on how to become business people. Along the way, students learn the importance of access to fresh produce.
"We call our farms a laboratory for job skills," said Johnson, who works with about 30 high school kids a year. "They learn the importance of showing up to work on time, filling out a time sheet, communicating professionally with adults, reading marketing plans and filling out invoices. It's also about financial and economic literacy, money management and strategic thinking."
Another garden that sprouted last fall at 7th and Campbell streets is the Oakland & The World Enterprises project run by Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther Party leader who works for Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson.
Brown is renting a three-quarter-acre lot from the city of Oakland for $1,100 a month, she said.
That project currently employs formerly incarcerated area residents at $20 an hour to grow vegetables and flowers that they sell to restaurants and florists. She has been selling beats, kale, lettuce and onions to Picán restaurant and selling the flowers to Everett and Jones barbecue.
"While we figure out what to do with the rest of the property we have a deal with the Oakland Food Pantry to distribute free food," Brown said.
Carson has funded the project to the tune of $350,000, he said. But that is just a "drop in the bucket," for the bigger plans Brown has for the site.
She wants to build affordable housing for people coming out of prison and open a grocery store, a shoe and clothing manufacturing business and maybe a juice bar; a place where former prisoners can live and work.
"There is no real pathway for people coming out of the joint," Brown said. "You come out, get $200 and good luck. If you are black and have a sixth-grade education and you come out of prison, you can kiss your life goodbye. You are not going to get a job."