By: Pearl Stark
Having grown up in the Bay Area and more specifically Oakland as a white, middle class citizen, I have been handed certain privileges (1). One of those being access to healthy, nutritious food. I grew up running through farmers markets and picking fresh vegetables and fruits at Berkeley Bowl. Due to the fact that I was not living in a food desert like in West or East Oakland, I never had to worry about whether or not I would be eating hot chips and soda for breakfast, or that diabetes would sneak up on me (2). I was never aware that this was some children’s reality until I started public school at thirteen. This was a difficult realization for me to have, it had never even crossed my mind that some children would not have access to the same type of food that I did (3). Seeing children munching on hot chips for breakfast, microwaved Cup ‘o Noodles for lunch, so on and so forth which made me wonder, “why did only certain children have access to healthy food?
This is what initially inspired me to start a community garden. Ten years later my dream was becoming a reality due to the generosity of my dear friend Ms. Beverly.
It was a hot summer’s day in Oakland, heat waves rose off the pavement creating mirages. From my apartment I could see a group of children outside of a liquor store eating takis, or was it flaming hot cheetos (4). At the age of 25 I was working on starting a community garden in the neighborhood I was living in. I wanted to give lower income children the access to healthy fruits and veggies for free. As farmers markets are not an option for many families due to the high prices, and the fact that they are located in places such as Piedmont and North Berkeley. Many low income families were also living in subsidised housing. Many were apartments leaving them no option to start their own garden even if they desired (5).
When I moved to my new apartment, I met my neighbor down the street named Ms. Beverly who was born and raised in Oakland. She was a small woman, strong and proud. She lived as a single mother of two and always did the best she possibly could for her son, Andre and her daughter Imani. She had lived here her entire life, and now owned a lovely old victorian that was connected to a empty lot that used to be filled with plants, and animals she and her family had carefully tended to during her childhood. Now she was 86. The lot was overrun with weeds, vines and little animals that inhabited this crazy little bit of wild in West Oakland. A shed at the back was collapsed from being left to the elements and no up keep.
A few months into our friendship, we discussed our visions over a cup of coffee. I told her my idea, “I want to cultivate a community garden to provide eggs, produce and other fresh foods to the people living in our neighborhood. Grocery stores are absent, and in turn liquor and convenience stores (6) are taking their places.” Ms.Beverly chuckled and took a sip of her coffee before setting it down with a slight kinking noise onto the glass table. She looked at me and said “I know what comes next. You want to use my lot for your garden. I will consider your offer and get back to you.” She continued to tell me that two of her grandchildren were suffering from type two diabetes (7), they both live in West Oakland, and the only local stores, are 7elevens and a CVS.
It was a choice between paying for rent or healthy food. The choice was an easy one to make. “With soda being drunk like water, chips and candy being eaten three to four times in a day, it’s almost inevitable” (8) I could tell she didn’t want me to see the hurt in her eyes or hear it in her voice, but I did and it hurt me too. We sat in silence for a long time. The cool breeze drifted from the bay and flowed through a blue tinted window in Ms. Beverly’s living room and fluttered through her now curly grey hair. She reached out and placed my hands in hers. Her skin felt like paper under my palms. “okay” she said “okay, I have a lot to think over. Come see me soon.”
A few days later I walked over to her house. She met me at the door, walker in hand. “Coffee honey?” she asked. She moved faster than usual, I could tell she was excited about something. We sat down on her red couch that was missing patches of its velvet due to years of wear. “I’ve decided I want to join you on your mission to make this garden happen” (9) she smiled “you can use my yard.” I was overjoyed that we could finally get started.
We began that very day. We went around the neighborhood to all the people who I had mentioned my idea to, and who were interested in participating. I first ran into Tata and her family. Eric, her husband and their four children: Christina, Eric Jr. , Santiago, and Hugo were all ready to put their hands in some soft soil. On our way back, we also met up with Noosha and her daughter Sima. Ms. Beverly’s daughter Imani and her two children met us at Beverly’s plot of land. And my friend Zandra decided to come at the last minute. We had a good team to get started. We all decided to begin the next day. “Wear clothes you can get dirty in” I stated with a smile.
We began with coffee in Ms. Beverly’s living room, then headed out. Tata and her children were in charge of weeding. Imani, Eric and I worked on clearing away the shed, and Imani’s children and Zandra also helped clear out all the dead plants and weeds. We rented a dump truck to remove all the debris. At 6, the sun began to sink from the sky under the bridge, radiating yellow light from dark red that reflected off Ms. Beverly’s windows. We were all dirty and tired but felt accomplished.
We continued in this manner for three days until the lot was completely cleared. Ms. Beverly would sit on her porch swing, watch us, or take a nap. By the fourth day we began to build a new shed for our tools that had been donated to us by a myriad of different people from the neighborhood and elsewhere. Everyday we had people stopping by to help and even some stayed all day long, and many decided to come back daily. We posted flyers all over the neighborhood to try to encourage people to come and make a difference in our community life.
We managed to get our garden ready for planting with the help of Eric, who built the vegetable boxes. Zandra who tended the soil with compost, and everyone else doing whatever else was needed to be done. This was the most fun I had had in awhile and it felt so good to go home caked in dirt knowing that I had made a difference.
We planted our first starter two months after we began. On that day the garden was filled with people from age 0 to 86. Music bumped through the earth and our bellies were filled with good food. Ms. Beverly sunk her hands into the earth heated by the sun and planted our first plant. Strawberries were her favorite. Everyone planted something that day from black beans to corn and sweet peas. At dusk after everyone had left, I took Ms. Beverly’s hand and told her that I wanted to show her something. We moved slowly to the back of the garden. “Close your eyes” I said, “okay open”. She looked up at the sign that read “Ms. Beverly’s garden”, her eyes lit up as she wrapped her arms around me and said “honey we did this together.”
Change is made by one person, or group at a time. The struggle to end food deserts is far from over. In fact it’s just beginning, but it’s a good beginning. Everything starts somewhere.
Creating awareness is the first step and from there anything is possible. This is what we need in low income communities surrounded by liquor stores. Gardens made by the people for the people.
Map of community gardens in Oakland
1.What is white privilege? It’s the level of societal advantage that comes with being seen as the norm in America, automatically conferred irrespective of wealth, gender or other factors. It makes life smoother, but it’s something you would barely notice unless it were suddenly taken away — or unless it had never applied to you in the first place. In 1988, the professor Peggy McIntosh used the paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack to describe it as a set of unearned assets that a white person in America can count on cashing in each day but to which they remain largely oblivious.
2.Food deserts are most commonly found in communities of color and low-income areas (where many people don’t have cars). Studies have found that wealthy districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do.http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/
3.Healthier foods are generally more expensive than unhealthful foods, particularly in food deserts. For instance, while the overall price of fruits and vegetables in the US increased by nearly 75 percent between 1989 and 2005, the price of fatty foods dropped by more than 26 percent during the same period. http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/
4.People’s choices about what to eat are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford—and many food deserts contain an overabundance of fast food chains selling cheap “meat” and dairy-based foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Processed foods (such as snack cakes, chips and soda) typically sold by corner delis, convenience stores and liquor stores are usually just as unhealthy. http://www.foodispower.org/food-deserts/
5.Tending flowers is beneficial, too; it is food for mind and soul. It reduces stress and anxiety, lessens the symptoms of ADHD, and boosts mental performance. It gives the residents something to work on and to feel proud of. It also provides a great way to get low-impact exercise and fresh air. http://www.treehugger.com/culture/public-housing-residents-told-tear-their-gardens.html
6.The 99 cents store. One of the few options for groceries and other necessities in West Oakland is set to close at the end of this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers the surrounding area a food desert — a low-income census tract where a significant number of residents are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket.Plans to open a supermarket in West Oakland have consistently fallen short, leaving the 99 Cents Only store as an important source of cheap goods like toiletries, paper goods, cleaning supplies and a small selection of food. http://hoodline.com/2017/01/west-oakland-99-cents-only-store-to-close-by-end-of-month
7.Type 2 diabetes in youth is more common among nonwhite populations, including African Americans, than among non-Hispanic white (NHW) populations. Nearly 60% of youth with type 2 diabetes lived in households with an annual income <$25,000. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/32/Supplement_2/S112
8.Living in poverty that can double or even triple the likelihood of developing the disease. Residents of lower-income neighborhoods also often find it difficult to access fresh, healthy foods and programs that promote physical activity. Raphael and his team found that insufficient income, inadequate or insecure housing and food insecurity were key barriers to managing the disease. According to their interviews, 72 percent of patients said they lacked the financial resources to follow the kind of diet needed to keep their diabetes in check. Many said they had to choose between paying rent or feeding their children and managing their disease.Experts need to advocate for more affordable food, better access to medications and supplies, and more community services to assist lower-income people prevent and treat diabetes. http://www.diabetesincontrol.com/poverty-a-leading-cause-of-type-2-diabetes-studies-say/
9.A community garden is any piece of land (publicly or privately held) that is cultivated by a group of people rather than a single family or individual. Unlike public parks and other green spaces maintained by local governments, community gardens are generally managed and controlled by a group of unpaid individuals or volunteers – usually the gardeners themselves. http://www.ecolife.com/define/community-garden.html