“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.
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.
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.
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