Willow Rosenthal noticed a paradox when she moved to West Oakland eight years ago: There was an abundance of vacant land in this urban landscape, but a scarcity of fresh produce. West Oakland has only one grocery store for 30,000 residents but dozens of convenience stores where canned and processed foods are the mainstay and prices are 30 to 100 percent higher than at the supermarket.
In 2000, Rosenthal purchased one of the vacant lots at auction and turned it into an urban farm. She and volunteers tended the garden. Impressed with her work, other landlords loaned their vacant lots, allowing her to create a nonprofit network of small farms called City Slicker Farms.
Rosenthal found allies in Brahm Adhmadi and Malaika Edwards, who had founded People's Grocery to get youth involved in growing food on a city-owned empty lot in North Oakland. The two helped Rosenthal set up a produce market at City Slicker's original lot.
But getting to the City Slicker lot was a challenge for many. Only half the residents of West Oakland have cars. So in 2003, Adhmadi and Edwards took the produce on the road with a solar-powered grocery store on wheels, made from a recycled postal truck. Their mobile market travels through West Oakland neighborhoods twice a week selling fresh produce, bulk food, and healthy snacks. People's Grocery trains and employs youth to sell the produce from the mobile market.
West Oakland has become a hotbed of organizing around food. Numerous food organizations—including Oakland Butterfly and Urban Gardens (OBUGs), a non-profit neighborhood gardening association, and the West Oakland Food Security Council—have sprung up and are continually improving West Oakland's access to organic produce.
In 2002, a lot across the street from the West Oakland BART station gained the weekly Mandela Farmers Market. Low-income residents of West Oakland can use food stamps and county vouchers at the Mandela Market, which sends coupons to residents offering them discounts on produce. People's Grocery also purchases produce at this market.
“[These groups] have separate projects because we all need to be good at what we do, but we have a shared vision,” Rosenthal says. “We are trying to develop and model methods of creating a sustainable future in an urban environment.”
Jodi Helmer is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.