Food on the Front Lines

The Occupy movement overlaps with food in interesting ways.

For the last few weeks, I’ve joined much of the world in following the galvanizing events at Occupy Oakland. And while it’s clearly a vital service to inform the public of their hot dog options in Alameda, food writing shouldn’t exist in a bubble.

Victory Gardens Dig in

It’s safe to assume that when the Oakland PD raided Frank H. Ogawa Plaza on October 25, few people were thinking about vegetable destruction. Call it collateral damage: A group of Occupiers and community allies had been working to create edible gardens at the encampment, all of which were destroyed.

Since then, Occupy Oakland gardeners have redoubled their efforts, planting hardy greens like kale, Swiss chard, and a variety of lettuces in city planters and raised tables around the periphery of the plaza. Starter plants have also been pouring in from around the East Bay, including herbs, peppers, peas, and even strawberries (winter weather be damned).

Planting edible crops takes a long view of the camp’s presence at City Hall. Like generating electricity or digging a well, it’s a move toward building a lasting infrastructure. Though it may be more symbolic than pragmatic (the plaza has far too little land to become a self-sustaining food producer), I love that there’s room for gardeners under Occupy Oakland’s big tent.

On Saturday morning, I met volunteer Khalid Shakur while he replanted some chili peppers. Shakur, who has been camping at the plaza for a couple weeks, believes the gardening efforts send an important message. “We’re going to be here long enough to harvest all of this,” he said. “Don’t expect us to disappear.”

Bobby Valentine is a wild-eyed young man who has been coordinating all of the camp’s gardening. He acknowledges the fragility of his efforts, as evidenced by the destruction of the camp’s raised planter beds. Volunteers show up sporadically, donated supplies are sometimes insensible (“Why would they give us strawberries right before winter?”), and Valentine was down to his last shovel after one got stolen earlier this week. Still, he sees much to strive for.

“We need to show that it’s possible to produce our own food here,” he said. “I’m trying to make connections so we can reclaim some abandoned lots in the spring, but for now, we’re making it work with what we’ve got.”

While we talked, a red pickup truck arrived with a bunch of donated shovels and an old wheelbarrow. The driver, Nora Schourd of Ashby Community Gardens, looked like everyone’s favorite Berkeley grandmother. “There’s space at Occupy Oakland for everyone to do what they know best,” she said.

If you want to help, the Occupy gardeners could still use soil, gloves, shovels, planters, starter plants (think winter crops), wood, and hardware. Home base is on the outer edge of the 14th Street side of the plaza. Look for mounds of soil.

Small Rewards for Solidarity

Last Wednesday, Don Harbison, co-owner of B Restaurant and Bar in Oakland, distributed a list of local restaurants and bars that would go cash-only on the day of the general strike. It was a way of showing solidarity with the movement (read: no dollars to big banks and credit card companies) without punishing local businesses that are already feeling the burn.

Harbison said his business has improved considerably since he helped organize the cash-only day through Old Oakland’s business association. Located a few blocks from Ogawa Plaza, B had been suffering some Occupy-related losses before the strike. “We’d been getting a decent number of cancellations before Wednesday,” Harbison said. “Then people saw me on the news talking about our support; we’ve ended up with a lot of goodwill business.”

Nearby Pacific Coast Brewing Company closed completely on the day of the strike. Manager John Campau said reaction to that decision has been positive, but business hasn’t picked up considerably. “We got a lot of thumbs-ups through the window on the day we closed, but it’s been pretty quiet otherwise,” he said.

Grand Lake hotspot Camino also shut down last Wednesday. Owner Allison Hopelain even joined a team of Camino-shirted workers to march in the strike. Hopelain said customer support has been overwhelming. “I don’t think we’ve had more positive Facebook comments about any single issue than us closing,” she said.

Food Conference Occupies Oakland

This weekend kicked off the fifteenth annual Community Food Security Coalition conference at the Oakland Marriott City Center. When deciding upon the location for this year’s event, organizers couldn’t have known how well their timing would dovetail with the local Occupy movement. Yet it was clear on Sunday that speakers and facilitators capitalized on themes playing out down the street (e.g., “Overturn the one percent that control our food system!”).

Much like the 99 percent movement is a large umbrella for many different causes, the food justice conference brought more than one thousand people together, all with individual (yet interconnected) concerns: child consumption of junk food, pesticide usage, urban agriculture, etc. The urgency and excitement could be felt in equal measure. “We’re here to occupy Oakland!” said organizer Eric Holt-Giménez.


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