Walk through the art studio adjacent to Githinji Mbire’s West Oakland home, and you’ll find yourself in a small concrete plot transformed by greenery. In a wooden box high above the cement, surrounded by multimedia pieces in the shape of the African continent, the artist and his partner grow chard, carrots, and celery. Peas and other vegetables climb a trellis made of wooden framing and rope. To the right, there’s another, smaller planter box containing parsley, cilantro, chard, and arugula — all of which were built in September by City Slicker Farms, a four-year-old organization whose main site is just four blocks from Mbire’s homestead.
Mbire grew up in a farming community in Kenya, where he learned the importance of growing his own food. “There, no one asks you if you garden,” he laughs. Now, thanks to City Slickers, he no longer has to buy produce, and with beans and rice, his family’s pantry is well stocked.
His garden was the first of four the nonprofit has installed so far. City Slickers’ backyard garden program is just the latest effort in founder Willow Rosenthal’s fight to make organic, healthy food available and affordable to her West Oakland neighbors. “We have a subsidized conventional food system that supports chemical companies,” she explains. Her group subsidizes its own programs through grants, donations, and volunteer help, which allow it to peddle its produce, honey, and eggs dirt cheap. The one hundred to two hundred pounds of vegetables and herbs grown weekly at City Slickers’ five farm sites — four in West Oakland, one in Emeryville — are for sale at its main site at 16th and Center streets. Every Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m., or whenever they sell out, a steady trickle of West Oakland residents — from hip white kids in Converse astride beat-up bikes to ancient black men with walkers — roll up to the stall, not just to buy the wares, but to mix and mingle, too. A recent Saturday’s table was loaded with snap peas, basil, and thirty pounds of chayote Rosenthal had purchased from a neighbor at $1.25 a pound. As a volunteer meeting progressed in the garden, local kids came by to feed the chickens and ducks, and neighbors dropped off food scraps for compost. By late afternoon, the vending table was mostly empty.
Through internships and apprenticeships, Rosenthal and her staff of thirty to forty volunteers are making inroads toward getting the neighborhood involved in its farms. But the backyard garden program is just getting started. So far the participants, all low-income Africans and African Americans, are educated activists already predisposed to healthy eating. But City Slickers hopes to spread the love. It wants to install fifty backyard gardens by next summer, each with two fruit trees of the participants’ choice and the promise of regular follow-up visits by expert gardeners. These follow-ups, Rosenthal says, is how City Slickers’ effort differs from a similar project administered by Portland’s Growing Gardens program: “If we’re going to be putting the effort into creating this program, we want it to succeed.”
Another neighborhood effort, the West Oakland Greening Project, put benches with planter boxes throughout West O some years ago. One of them now sits in Githinji Mbire’s backyard. It used to sit outside his front door, but Mbire grew tired of people stealing the plants, smoking cigarettes under his window and, in what was the final straw for him, hiding rocks of crack cocaine in the soil.
But Rosenthal considers the uphill battle worthwhile. “There’s going to come a point in time when everything changes overnight,” she says, “when fuel costs rise and cross a threshold where the productivity of using fuel is going to go way down,” making transport of even nonorganic food unaffordable. City Slickers — whose neighborhood compost pickup program uses bicycle rickshaws, and who hopes to receive a donation of a dump truck that can run on biodiesel — wants to prepare for that future. “It’s already a situation where poor people can’t afford food,” Rosenthal says, “but it’s going to get to a point where middle-income people are going to be budgeting for food.”
One backyard gardener cited the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes as a worst-case example of what can happen to inner-city neighborhoods under dire conditions. “If anything happened like New Orleans, in the inner city, we’d be jacked,” says Amana Harris, whose husband and two daughters help tend the family’s seven collard plants, broccoli, peas, celery, kale, and cucumber. This situation can be averted by taking green matters into the neighborhood’s own hands.
“Imagine if we had a farm on every corner,” Githinji Mbire says. “We’d have so much food.”