The Urban Farm Program Educating and Uplifting East Oakland Kids

Acta Non Verba aims to bring fresh food, urban farm skills, and educational opportunity to communities that have long been lacking them.

Food Justice, Urban Agriculture

It started with a lemon tree. Kelly Carlisle didn’t grow up gardening. She didn’t have a windowsill herb garden. She knew about farming, of course, but in her mind there was a disconnect: food just sort of showed up at the grocery store. She worked a corporate job, wearing fancy clothes and heels to work. But she had gotten laid off during the recession, and one day a few years ago, she ended up at a Bay Area nursery with her daughter. They bought a lemon tree, and as it slowly started to flourish, so did Carlisle’s interest in gardening.

Around the same time the, she found herself reading more and more articles about Oakland, where she spent her childhood: about its status as one of the country’s most dangerous cities, the high rate of teen prostitution and dismal school dropout statistics. She wanted to do something that combined a concrete way to help Oakland’s kids with her newfound love of gardening.

So in 2010, she started Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project (ANV), a nonprofit that introduces low-income East Oakland children to the joys of gardening while contributing financially to their future. Local children farm a small plot at Tassafaronga Recreation Center and sell the produce through farmers markets and a CSA. All the proceeds go into individual savings accounts for each child, earmarked for their education. There’s also an eight week summer camp, camping and field trips, and community farm days. Since their founding, they’ve served over three thousand local kids.

“For generations, our communities have been told that farming is not for us,” Carlisle said. “When we talk to our kids about what a farmer looks like and where farmers live, it’s very abstract. Nobody knows a farmer, it’s all what they’ve seen on TV. There are no 4-H clubs in the flatlands.”

The financial aspect of the program was inspired by San Francisco’s San Francisco Kindergarten to College Program, where every kindergartner entering a public school is given a savings account with $50, with incentives for families that regularly contribute. (Research has shown that children are more likely to attend college if there’s money set aside for it.)

But the money is just part of the way Acta Non Verba (Latin phrase meaning: actions not words) prepares children for the future. Most of the kids Carlisle works with want to be athletes, musicians, actresses–or cops, so they can carry a gun. The program allows them to explore the sprawling agricultural industry, to show them a field and a future that could be theirs.

Acta Non Verba founder and executive director Kelly Carlisle.

“If you’re not into getting dirty, not into planting and harvesting, there’s all these other things that you can do,” Carlisle said. “There’s being a soil scientist, being an entomologist, pest management. That, to me, is as important as STEM.”

It hasn’t been easy. Like Carlisle, many of the kids have grown up disconnected to where their food comes from. And in East Oakland, where most kids grow up with acute food insecurity (most qualify for reduced lunch), an emphasis on pesticide-free local produce can seem precious or irrelevant. Once, the garden yielded a bumper crop of collard greens. Carlisle offered some to a woman in the neighborhood. The woman was suspicious, unbelieving that the park’s small garden could actually yield something and that Carlisle had grown it.

The greens were safe, Carlisle said. She had farmed them herself. “She’s like ‘Why would you call yourself that? No girl, we’re not farmers, you’re a gardener,’” Carlisle remembered. “I was offended, but it’s something to think about; trying not to sound superior. The farm-to-table movement doesn’t always feel like it applies to folks in my community. But to grow culturally relevant produce like collard greens and mustard greens, the community is starting to come around and see that, like with me, food is grown, it doesn’t just show up at the grocery store miraculously.”

To help share her message, Carlisle involves parents, both as volunteers and paid positions so the children’s healthy eating education is reinforced at home. She also makes it fun: she talks about a local boy named Jordan, who’s always thrilled to share his new knowledge about plant biology, or a pair of sisters whose eyes light up when it’s time to sing camp songs.

Things could be easier, Carlisle acknowledges. She’d like to be able to afford more employees. She’d like there to be a grocery store near the farm, a nice one emphasizing healthy options. She’d like to only focus on food issues. But the more time she spends in East Oakland, the more she’s forced to confront other issues, like the area’s high rates of child asthma, or the giant crematorium that’s slated to be built near her farm. But Carlisle, who served in the Navy and whose parents also started their own nonprofit—“Service is probably ingrained in my DNA,” she said—isn’t going to give up anytime soon.

“One thing that we don’t think about in these high tech days is that we’re all here because somebody cultivated and worked with land,” she said.

“Even every single culture has some kind of agriculture going on. For me, farming is not only something that soothes my soul and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something in a day, it’s also a connection to something bigger than myself, to a community and something innate: trying to improve my community through hard work and cultivation of land.”

Photos courtesy of Acta Non Verba. A version of this post originally appeared on Bay Area Bites.

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  1. Dinara Baymurzaeva Stansberry
    Sunday, March 19th, 2017
    As a nutrition scholar at Texas State University, it brings joy to my heart to see people like Kelly Carlisle, who advocate for nutrition education geared towards children. Recently, I was looking through the website of Texas Department of Agriculture and asked myself why don’t we promote local programs such as Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project to aid with Farm to School and Farm to Summer initiatives. In my nutrition scholar opinion, such programs not only provide food for nutritionally insecure children, but also educate them about food itself, food choices, and the array of professions in farming, agriculture and nutrition. Such projects as Acta Non Verba provide with enormous investment in the future of our country. According to ChildTrends.org: “In 2015, more than 1 in 6 U.S. children (18 percent) lived in households that were food-insecure at some point during the year, and 0.7 percent experienced the most severe level of need, where food intake is reduced and regular eating patterns are disrupted”. (https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/food-insecurity/). The need for programs that not only provide children with food and nutrition, but also educate them and allow them to grow the food they consume is vital for the future if our nation. Most certainly we still need the state and federal nutrition supplementation programs, but giving children the knowledge of food they consume and the skill to be able to grow it is a crucial aspect for our nation.
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