Civil Eats TV: Planting with Purpose at Urban Tilth

How Doria Robinson, the force behind the community-focused urban farm, transformed a ‘food desert’ into verdant farms, gardens, and open spaces in Richmond, California.

Doria Robinson in the fields at Urban Tilth's North Richmond Farm

Doria Robinson in the fields at Urban Tilth.

“Hunger is a choice we make as a society. There’s no reason, with the amount of food that we grow, that people should be hungry or [get] sick from food,” says Doria Robinson, the executive director of Urban Tilth, a community-based urban agriculture organization in Richmond, California, that takes vacant public land and transforms it into vibrant, living spaces.

And it’s needed, because Richmond is one of many cities impacted by “food apartheid”—also called “food deserts” or “food swamps.” In other words, it’s difficult to buy affordable, good-quality, fresh food there.

Trained as a watershed restoration ecologist, Robinson’s lifelong commitment to environmental justice and food sovereignty is exemplified in Urban Tilth’s North Richmond Farm, a once-blighted three-acre parcel, now home to a multitude of row crops planted in rich, black soil. The organization also offers educational and environmental programs, runs six community and school gardens across Richmond, two community supported agriculture (CSA) programs serving roughly 500 families a week, and several weekly free farmstands.

An overhead view of Urban Tilth's North Richmond Farm.

An overhead view of Urban Tilth’s North Richmond Farm.

Since 2005, Urban Tilth has hired and trained Richmond residents as changemakers in transforming the food system for themselves, with the goal of producing 5 percent of the community’s own food supply. Robinson wants to give people skills to “grow healthy, whole food that other people don’t want to bring to this community, because we don’t click their boxes,” and also the deeper understanding of the “larger causes in our society at play that we need to resist or transform, so that we can move toward real liberation through food.” In addition to getting healthy food to Richmond residents, her work is also about helping people reconnect with soil and the land.

In the heart of an industrial area, the North Richmond Farm was a vacant lot for 40 years before it was transformed by Urban Tilth in 2016. It took four years to clean it and another two to build up the soil. Today, its rows are full of cabbage, kale, mustard greens, collards, onions, as well as a hoop house, a greenhouse, and a chicken coop. A team of BIPOC employees, some of whom started volunteering in high school, manage the fields, pack the weekly boxes, and run the farm stands. And there is a steady stream of elders who are dedicated volunteers.

Tania Jacobo, a co-manager at the North Richmond Farm, says that because North Richmond is in an unincorporated area, it doesn’t receive the same resources as the city of Richmond, or other nearby towns, including wealthier, whiter Berkeley. “We don’t have a police station or a grocery store; there are only two liquor stores and no healthy food,” says Jacobo. “As a low-income community, we have a lot of health issues. We want to be the resource to help improve people’s lifestyles and eating habits.

As a resource, Urban Tilth has long-term plans to buy the land and transition it to community ownership—and create an agricultural park featuring outdoor classrooms, community commercial kitchen, a café, an amphitheater, and a watershed learning center.

Transforming Richmond

Long cited as one of the country’s “most dangerous cities,” Richmond is shadowed by its conjoined and complicated history with the local Chevron refinery, which has a long history of accidents and environmental harms, including a recent leak. A third-generation Richmond resident, Robinson’s childhood bedroom window looked out at the refinery; as she grew up, she realized that not every community has a major source of pollution in their backyard, and that environmental injustices are experienced primarily by poor, Black, and brown communities.

“With that, you get tons of underdevelopment, white flight, and redlining,” says Robinson. Most of her childhood friends were involved in gangs and drugs; every single young person she grew up with on her block was killed.

“It’s kind of the love of my life,” she says of Richmond. “It’s also a lot of heartbreak and loss.”

She was exposed to nature early in life through her grandfather, a Southern minister who moved to the area and, with his extended family, collectively purchased a 350-acre parcel of land in nearby Fairfield. Robinson grew up going there, learning how to grow vegetables and collecting eggs from the chickens. “I realized that everything I loved about the ranch was under my feet in Richmond—it was just covered up,” she says. “Nature is everywhere and is healing and sometimes we just have to break up the concrete.”

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An Urban Tilth volunteer workerin the fields at urban tilthat the market table for urban tilth

Robinson has seen a real transformation in Richmond in her 13 years at the helm of Urban Tilth. The organization has helped to restore the Richmond Greenway, a large stretch of previously abandoned railroad property, into both a local and regional transportation route and open space resource. Growing up, it was the path Robinson took to get to her grandmother’s house, but it was also a dividing line between central and south gang territories. Robinson felt it was a place that needed healing, and spent five years building it out. Today, instead of being a dividing line, it has become a gathering place.

“On opening day, we were in a place that used to be a big, open lot with tons of trash, and now there’s an 84-fruit-tree urban orchard, a playground, and picnic areas with barbeque pits,” says Robinson, overcome with emotion. “So many people said we were stupid for trying, and we did it anyway. A child rode by on his bike and asked his parents, ‘Can I go to the park?’ And I started crying . . . and said to myself, ‘Yeah, you can now.’ That’s what gives me hope—we’re creating a new norm for the kids coming up now. They have a park, they’re growing up where there’s food growing, there are islands of sanctuary. I didn’t have that; a lot of us didn’t have that.”

COVID Hits Home

Like other communities of color, Richmond was hit hard by the pandemic, and many staff members lost immediate family members to the virus. For Robinson, COVID also made visible how food-insecure people are, especially in her community. “We can’t un-see the impact of food swamps, food deserts, on our people. We can’t un-connect that cause from the death toll,” says Robinson. “It has made it so clear how important what we’re doing is.”

Last fall, as the pandemic was worsening, Urban Tilth’s waitlist for food aid also continued to grow. It expanded its network of regional BIPOC farmers and women-owned businesses to support the community, and set up a pop-up free farmstand that provides roughly 120 Richmond families with free fruit and vegetables every week.

Loading up produce for the farmers' market from Urban Tilth.Handing out free produce from Urban Tilth.

Urban Tilth also launched its Farmers to Families program in May 2020 to specifically ensure that families in financial distress due to the pandemic, or in general need of support, would have access to free, healthy whole foods. Originally funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program has received ongoing financial support from Growing the Table. As of October 2020, Urban Tilth delivered almost 5,000 free produce boxes to those most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, including those living in public housing, veterans, elders, and low-income families.

Their paid CSA, the Farm to Table CSA, offers a pay-it-forward option, making it possible for a lower-income family to join the CSA and provide the fresh healthy food necessary for their family to thrive.

Despite a roller coaster of a year, that included the uprising against police brutality and for racial justice and a fourth year of catastrophic California wildfires, Robinson remains optimistic about the future.

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“When I look around and see all we’ve been able to do in just 16 years, if it inspires others to do the same,” she says, “the breadth and depth of the transformation could be astounding.”

Photos and video by Mizzica Films.

The Civil Eats Editors

Since 2009, the Civil Eats editorial team has published award-winning and groundbreaking news and commentary about the American food system, and worked to make complicated, underreported stories—on climate change, the environment, social justice, animal welfare, policy, health, nutrition, and the farm bill— more accessible to a mainstream audience. Read more >

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