Victory Garden Watch: Day 10 | Civil Eats

Victory Garden Watch: Day 10

As the founder of City Slicker Farms, a non-profit urban agriculture organization in West Oakland, my mission in life has been to bring “slow food” to the least served. Ten years ago as an aspiring farmer it didn’t seem exciting to me to grow more beautiful specialty vegetables for rich people. I didn’t think it was fair that good food was limited to those who could pay farmer’s market prices. At City Slicker Farms we have developed ways to subsidize the price of the organic foods we grow so that we can offer sliding-scale prices and free organic backyard gardens to those who lack funds.

We have been blessed to be a co-creator, along with Garden For the Environment’s Victory Garden Program and Slow Food Nation, of the San Francisco Victory Garden being built as we speak in front of SF City Hall. Our role has been to grow all of the seedlings for the project and lend our gardening and community building expertise, developed over seven years of building productive urban farms and backyard gardens across the bay in Oakland. Our staff will be on hand in the next few months on Sundays and Mondays to show the garden, give advice and lead community groups.

Our impetus for getting involved in this exciting project was and continues to be our mission to bring slow food to everyone, not just the wealthy. In order to lessen our ecological footprint and provide food security for ourselves we have set a goal in our community of West Oakland of growing 40% of our fruits and vegetables right in the city. Although we’ve only reached a small percentage of our goal we know this is possible. It’s just a matter of developing the infrastructure for a productive urban agriculture system. We believe in beginning to build that infrastructure in the least-served communities, such as West Oakland, first. Otherwise, as usual, working-class folks are forgotten.

Our first urban farm was built on an empty lot in 2001 and we started putting produce out on a card-table later that year. A few short years later, City Slicker Farms now has a network of five Community Market Farms that supply over 8,500 pounds of urban-grown organic produce each year to our community. In 2005 in an effort to more deeply involve community members who were busy making ends meet, we began a Backyard Garden Program. Our motivating question was, if people lack food why aren’t they already growing their own? We found that although gardening is the number one American hobby, the expense of the materials is too great for working-class families. It just doesn’t make sense to spend a dollar to buy a cabbage seedling when you can buy a cabbage for a dollar in the store. The other factor was that the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers never learned the skills that Grandma and Grandpa knew.

Our Backyard Garden Program took off, and we were soon sadly turning away families from throughout the Bay Area—even San Francisco. City Slicker Farms sets each family up with a planter-box garden with all the seeds, seedlings, soil and information they need to grow their own food. We continue to provide all the necessary supplies and seedlings as well as mentoring visits from experienced gardeners to support them to be successful growers. They are then encouraged to recruit and mentor new families. We are really just bringing out the skills and abilities that are already there in the community and the results are astounding. In three years we have built over 80 backyard gardens and in 2007 participants grew over 10,000 pounds of produce. As we work towards an equitable food system on the regional, national, and global levels, the home-gardening solution can be easily implemented and sustained right now with resources we already have in our communities. We don’t need huge bureaucratic systems or vast sums of money, all we need is funding for a few program coordinators, a greenhouse, soil, and seeds, and people.

Collectively, we have the choice to build such an infrastructure now, rather than waiting until necessity requires it. The difference will be in the amount of suffering we experience when the price of petroleum and petrochemicals begins to be factored into the price of our food. As the price of fuel increases, the price of food goes up—we’re already seeing this. People living in poverty are already suffering from food insecurity, but at what point will middle-income families be impacted to the point of relying on emergency food sources? Supporting emergency food programs requires an ongoing subsidy, while stimulating urban agriculture programs creates self-sufficiency and stimulates local economic development and small-scale entrepreneurship. It’s up to us. At least on the city-government level we can make a difference by beginning to advocate for funds for urban agriculture development. The fact that San Francisco is supporting this beautiful and productive garden right in front of City Hall is proof that we can motivate at least our local elected officials to care.

Contrary to the popular belief that California is the bread-basket of the country, our state is actually a net-importer of food. Since most people live in urban centers, urban dwellers need to take some responsibility for their own food needs. Will we wait until people are suffering even more or will we begin the process of creating the necessary infrastructure for a sustainable urban food system now?

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Throughout the Third World the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is spreading a system of support for home gardening and small-scale agricultural cooperatives in both urban and rural areas. These systems are implemented through national agriculture departments. In the U.S., since the Farm Bill and Department of Agriculture almost exclusively support large-scale rural agribusiness, real hope lies in municipal and county governments to provide the supports for urban agriculture.

So what are the possibilities in San Francisco? Because of our long growing season in the Bay Area, intensive urban agriculture can provide from one to three pounds of produce per square foot per year. Each person consumes approximately 300 pounds of fruits and vegetables per year. That means a space of 10’x10’ to 20’x20’ (100-300 square feet of growing space, not counting paths) would be needed to grow ALL of the fruits and vegetables for each person.

An average San Francisco backyard (25×40), if cultivated intensively could grow all of the fruits and vegetables for one person. A goal of growing 20% – 40% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in San Francisco could be achieved through a combination of backyard gardening, community gardening, school gardens and increasing urban agriculture on currently unused municipal land (if we assume each household has five members that means the backyard could grow 20% of the household food needs; since not all households will grow food, add to that other urban farming lands)

Current City resources could easily be redirected to support such an effort and are an extremely cost effective way of improving the sustainability of our food system and eliminating food insecurity. What’s necessary is to collectivize certain aspects of food production such as materials sourcing and plant propagation. Compost can be made through municipal programs, mulch from tree care can be used for pathways. Centrally located greenhouses can also serve as pickup locations for plants, compost and mulch. Current university and non-profit resources can be developed to provide urban agriculture technical assistance advisors for home producers, urban gardens and entrepreneurial gardens.

So, what are we waiting for? I encourage everyone in San Francisco to build on the success of the Victory Garden and work with the City to ensure that community resources are allocated to this simple solution. City Slicker Farms will continue to advise the GFE Victory Garden Program so that by sharing our experiences and learning we can contribute to it’s success. We hope to spread the backyard gardening system we have developed to other communities as well and encourage you to get started in your community.

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We need ongoing support to continue our work of bringing organic urban-grown produce to low income Oaklanders. If you would like to send contributions to support our work, please send them to:
City Slicker Farms
1724 Mandela Parkway, Suite 5
Oakland, CA 94607

Willow Rosenthal is the founder of City Slicker Farms. Read more >

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  1. I just wanted to applaud you all in the work you are doing to provide everyone in your community access to healthy, organic foods! I wish you continued success and growth.
  2. Terra Koerpel
    read your entry and applaud your persistent efforts. am writing an essay on students gaining business experiences/skills during school classes... so they are better equipped to be successful when they graduate. Have any tips or good advice? thanks.
  3. Ana Maria
    " an aspiring farmer it didn’t seem exciting to me to grow more beautiful specialty vegetables for rich people."

    Yes. The issue here is facilitating ACCESS to amazing, life-giving food for all people--those with bulging bank accounts, and those with empty pockets.

    Thank you for your important contribution, and for reminding us all of our power to affect change.
  4. karen
    Nice "work" Willow. Best Wishes in the future
  5. Mus
    Hi Willow,
    I really wanted to tell you that I think you are doing extremely important and visionary work. On many levels- health, environmental, and social. I strongly support your efforts. However, I was really shocked to see several references on the city slickers website to what you called "environmental racism". Why would you imply that racism is what causes unhealthy food? I can see poverty as a cause, and lack of access to information. But racism? I don't follow. I'm caucasian, and I can't afford farmers market prices, either. I love healthy and good food, so just like the people in your backyard farms, I have joined a community garden project (I am not in the lucky position to have a back yard) and grow some of my veggies. I want and encourage every person to do the same thing if they choose to do it! I am frankly offended that, as you write, you welcome the contributions of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians only. Caucasians are perhaps not so welcome? What's up with that? If you don't welcome me because I'm white, then, last time I looked, that is racist. I think we have a lot of important work to do to promote urban agriculture, health, social justice, and sustainability. Our energy is best invested in other things than being racially divisive. No one needs that. I encourage you to remove the above references from the city slickers website.
  6. sarah
    Mus, I'd venture to say you've got some reading and some eye-opening to do. You could start with an exploration of the concept of "environmental justice" (basic description and list of resources here:, which speaks directly to your confusion over the connection between racial inequality, poor physical health, and environmental issues.

    You could even take a step back and look at the connections between poverty and race, which are so numerous (as are the number of resources, studies, articles, and books on the subject) that you could spend the rest of the year on them before even getting to the food connection.

    It's a pretty simple equation: race and poverty are correlated; poverty and unhealthy food are correlated; voila: race and unhealthy food are correlated.

    As you say, "we have a lot of important work to do to promote urban agriculture, health, social justice, and sustainability." It's great that you are part of a community garden project. Unfortunately we haven't reached the point in our progress toward establishing equality and justice in America where it's fair or reasonable to take offense about someone promoting the active involvement of people of color in improving their own urban food landscape.

    I'd encourage you to spend some time learning more about this connection. If you are dedicated to the causes you mentioned, it's a crucial one to understand. Here are some people and organizations you might want to look into:

    Majora Carter and Sustainable South Bronx (
    Van Jones, Green for All and the Ella Baker Center (,
    People's Grocery (
    Added Value (
    Community Food Security Coalition (
    Center for Health, Environmental & Justice (
    Bryant Terry (
  7. Mus
    Hi Sarah,

    thanks for your reply. I was a little bit concerned when I wrote the post that people might read stuff into it that I didn't intend to say. Maybe let me try to say more clearly what I meant.

    I see crystal clearly that there is racial inequality in this country. I am very much aware of the correlation between racial inequality and poverty, and the correlation between poverty and bad nutrition, leading directly to poor physical health.

    That is why I am absolutely thrilled about the city slickers project. As I wrote, I think it is extremely important, even visionary. And as I wrote, I absolutely endorse the effort!

    I agree 100 % with your statement; "race and poverty are correlated; poverty and unhealthy food are correlated; voila: race and unhealthy food are correlated." It's undeniably true, as many studies show.

    Where I think you missed the point I was trying to make: "correlated with race" is NOT the same as "racism". Racism, if I understand correctly, is something that involves people and their attitudes/actions towards each other. I don't see that here causing bad nutrition.

    Correlation means that there is a connection. Correlation does NOT mean there is a causal connection.

    If one just reduces the problem to "racism", I think that one misses the chance learn whatever the true reasons may be, and do something about it. My guess would that the problem is more complex. Also, it just ends up perpetuating racial division, which is the last thing anybody needs.

    As I said, I see the correlations as much as you do. I really agree that we need to change these unfair and deadly realities. I just don't see how it is fair, correct, or helpful to say "this is racism".

    Oh, and I didn't "take offense about someone promoting the active involvement of people of color in improving their own urban food landscape." It's the exact opposite! As I said, I want and encourage every person to grow their own food to improve their health. I took offense at not being welcomed as a caucasian. I think the "lack of progress toward establishing equality and justice in America" is awful. But welcoming people based on race really will only perpetuate the problem. Two wrongs won't make a right.

    I hope this makes a bit more clear where I am coming from. BTW thanks a lot for all those links- Looks like there's some interesting reading ahead for me!
  8. Willow Rosenthal
    Dear Mus,
    Thank you for your post and concerns. I liken being white in the U.S. to being a fish in water. The fish can't see the water it's just what surrounds it all the time and it takes it for granted. If all of a sudden that water were gone, the fish would start gasping--it would notice.

    What surrounds us white folks all the time is unearned privileges, relatively safe environments and media geared towards our culture, language and assumptions. When something is geared towards another audience we gasp--how dare they not think of us!?!?

    City Slicker Farms' mission is to serve everyone starting with the least served, and that means we reach out first to folks who are often left out. In spite of all our efforts we never do a perfect job--more white people are involved in our organization than are present in the West Oakland population by about 10-20%.

    What I've noticed in our work in the community is that people of privilege (whatever their ethnicity may be) are very good at getting their needs met by advocating for themselves and availing themselves of what they feel could be of benefit. We don't have to reach out to these people, they just come. They have what's called "cultural competency"--knowing how to navigate the system. However, when there's a history of oppression such as in the African American, Hispanic and Asian communities, there is much more hesitancy in terms of taking what's rightfully theirs. In the field I have found that low-income people, especially people of color needed to be invited many times to participate before they felt welcomed. Think about it. If your ancestors were persecuted, punished and even killed just for trying to satisfy their basic needs, might there be justified fear and caution even generations later? Even if that weren't the case, current examples of insensitive behavior coming (mostly unconsciously) from white culture would be enough I think to make people of color test the water with a toe before jumping in.

    As an organization that has had difficulty raising enough money to hire staff members we have had to rely on mostly white volunteers (they're the ones with the economic privilege to volunteer their time instead of working for money), so extra efforts are required to make our organization accessible to all ethnicities and class backgrounds.

    Just because I'm white I have privileges in our culture that others lack. Believe me, I don't look at this simplistically. We're all "different" and we all suffer and we're all individuals with a unique personal story. We can never assume. But rather than feeling guilty or angry about my unearned privilege (after all I didn't choose to be born white) I decided to just try to use some of my privilege to bring resources to West Oakland and even out the score just a tiny bit and that's what I really encourage all others who feel pained by how things are to do in their communities.

    A note about the word racism and why it really can't be applied to discrimination against white people is in order. Racism is where a group with actual power oppresses another group of a different race. Since white people have the most actual power in our culture, there can't really be racism against us. Discrimination, hate speech, meanness, etc. can happen towards whites just as towards anyone and is deplorable and horrible on a personal and human level. But I have never experienced what it's like to have my freedom limited and my destiny determined based on the color of my skin. If an individual says something mean to me about being white, that's mighty different than nearly constant discrimination.

    And finally, in terms of the connection between food and racism, I think it's clearly causal. Our neighborhood is historically 60-70% African American. When the Alameda Health Department did a study they found that African American's are dying seven years earlier than whites of diseases that are all nutrition related. If you can't stomach the fact that race determines health, then I guess you could just chalk it up to class, but if you look into class you will find that although there is poverty among all ethnicities it's highest among people of color. So, I'm just chasing my tail here, and for me it always leads back to the fact that most people of privilege, even "liberal", "left" or "radical" people, really don't want to give up their privileges even a little bit.

    I am really glad you brought up these issues and were brave enough to voice your thoughts. My conclusions have been arrived at after years of questioning and talking about my own assumptions, not of hiding them.

    Think about how you felt when you read our website--I imagine you felt left out. It doesn't feel good to feel left out, and I am sorry for that. Now multiply that feeling to everything you see all day every day and I don't think you'll feel too bad about having that feeling once or twice here and there so that people who are often left out are focused on for a change.

    And...there's too much big stuff to work on to split hairs over absolute fairness. Just get out there and get your hands (and ego) dirty. It's what I've done and boy have I learned a lot in the process--all through risking my own comfort zone.

  9. Mike
    Racism and racists exist, but the term has so much opprobrium attached it's become as much a weapon as a description. Calling someone a racist has real political impact, a bit like calling someone a communist in the 50s. So labeling someone or something racist demands care, which may be lacking in Willow's use of the term. I grew up in an urban public school where white and light skinned kids, in the minority, had to run home after school or get beaten up by black kids. That certainly felt like Willow's definition: "Racism is where a group with actual power oppresses another group of a different race." But what if the white kids didn't get beaten up, but were still terrified of black kids, and as a consequence skipped school, dropped out, and sunk into poverty? In this case, black racism really was not a factor. What if the white kids didn't get beaten up, were still terrified, and their parents moved to the suburbs where the kids got a better education? Are the whites racist? It comes down to volition. Are the white parents trying to oppress black kids by leaving town? More likely, they're concerned about their own children. Now, in West Oakland, African-Americans lack access to groceries that sell healthy, reasonably priced food. If grocery chains or other food distributors decide to underserve West Oakland, is it because of the residents' skin color? Or is it because of sales potential, cost of doing business, competition, and other ordinary business factors? If you believe that food companies deliberately underserve West Oakland without these business factors, then racism may be valid charge.

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