TFT Interview: Barbara Finnin of City Slicker Farms
Every Saturday on a sleepy side street in the industrial neighborhood of West Oakland you’ll see an unlikely site: a farm stand bursting with fresh, organic produce. Cabbage, collards, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, and cilantro spill out of oversized tin buckets; fresh eggs—from the hens who live not three yards away—are tucked in cartons, ready for sale. At first glance, this looks like your typical farmers’ market stand. Yet, look closer and you’ll see a bright yellow sign describing the farm’s unique sliding scale. If your unemployment check hasn’t come or “for whatever reason, cash is not flowing in” you should help yourself to veggies, no explanation needed. If you’re “Just Getting By”—money is tight and if it weren’t for this affordable farm stand you’d be searching for deals at Safeway—then you can pay the lower tier price. (A head of lettuce is $1.25; a bunch of carrots, .75 cents.) If you can afford to shop at Whole Foods or the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, you’re a “Sugar Mama” or “Sugar Daddy” and should pay the higher price. (Higher in this case is still reasonable: that same head of lettuce is $2; carrots are $1.) Eggs are priced at $2, $4, and $6 a dozen.
City Slicker Farms was founded ten years ago by Willow Rosenthal when she moved to West Oakland and discovered a dearth of fresh food. Residents without cars had no choice but to buy their groceries at corner stores or liquor stores—where produce, if it’s sold, is more expensive than it would be at a grocery store. But then, as now, this historically impoverished neighborhood didn’t have a single full-service grocery store. (Though it does have a small worker-owned co-op, and thanks to People’s Grocery founder Brahm Ahmadi, a larger grocery store is on the way.) With money borrowed from a friend, Rosenthal bought a vacant garbage-strewn lot on Center Street for $11,000 and worked with community members to create a lush garden. This small but fecund plot has since become City Slicker’s best known farm, home to the twice-weekly donation-based farm stand.
Today, City Slicker Farms is thriving: it has seven “farms” scattered around West Oakland that together yield nearly 10,000 pounds of produce a year. The small nonprofit—it has just three full-time staffers—was just was awarded a $4 million grant from California to buy a 1.4-acre plot of land, its largest farm yet. The organization also has a hugely popular backyard garden program—staff and volunteers build raised beds and provide seeds, seedlings, compost, and even hen coops (and hens) to low-income West Oakland residents so they can be self-sufficient, relying on the food they grow themselves.
Last month, I met with City Slicker’s Executive Director Barbara Finnin to talk about the challenges of farming on vacant lots, West Oaklanders’ love of collards, kale, and eggs, and the importance of “culturally- appropriate food” when building a just food system.
The organization started around food access and community building. The folks that started City Slicker Farms lived here in West Oakland, and they were looking around and saying, “OK—where is the food access? There are corner stores, liquor stores. We know that they don’t provide the best food. It’s calorie sufficient and not nutrient dense. It’s really difficult to get produce.” So the idea was, “How can we build the community’s own capacity to grow food?”
We looked at the community’s assets. We had vacant land and we had plenty of folks here who had come from gardening and farming backgrounds. We work with a lot of people who have immigrated from the south, particularly African American folks, who gardened and farmed. So we have a lot of rich resources when it comes to knowledge.
Talk to me about City Slicker Farms’ two main programs. And what is the difference between a “market farm” and a community garden?
There is a crucial distinction. We have a community market farm program and a backyard garden program. The community market farm program is for small farms—1 acre or less—that are growing food for some kind of market. In this case, a farm stand. All the food that is harvested on Fridays at all the farms is distributed through a farm stand at donation-based prices.
You can see the community gardening philosophy in our backyard garden program. We’re meeting people where they are—at their homes—to grow their own food. I feel in all honesty that we can reach way more people that way. If all of our community market farms were community gardens, how many people would actually use them? Do they have time to walk down the street to garden?
People are more motivated when they garden at their own home. It’s also a great teaching tool. We work with grandmothers who are taking care of their grandkids all the time, so it’s a really great way to pass the knowledge down.
Recipients of backyard gardens can also sell their extra produce at the Center Street farm stand. Do a lot of people take advantage of that?
Not at all. They donate it to the farm stand or to others in the community. We’ll have neighbors swapping or people give it to family members. We advertise it: we’ll buy your produce. But most people want to give back or they want to swap.
West Oakland was and still is an industrial neighborhood—do you have to import soil?
It depends on the site. We test all the soil. But all of our locations are residentially zoned, so we don’t have to worry about industrial contaminants from old factories. We do find issues with lead, and we find that everywhere here because of old housing stock. Where houses burned down, there was lots of lead that accumulated into the soil. If there’s a low-to-medium level of lead, then we’ll build raised beds and import the soil.
When I was at Center Street Farm the other day, I heard a rumor that it’s going to be transformed into an orchard.
The foreclosures have affected us as well. We had been getting water from our neighbor, but that house got foreclosed upon, so we lost our access to water. Just to get a city water meter costs between $20,000 and $40,000, depending. It’s hard to rationalize spending that much when water doesn’t cost that much over time. Not to mention that we don’t have the funds to pay for it. We’ve been gardening there for 10 years and we wouldn’t even get close to $20,000 worth of water.
It’s intense to see the change: a site that was once abundant. Now we’re transitioning to an orchard and are wheeling in buckets of water from other neighbors. Once the trees are established, they won’t need ongoing water. We need more fruit anyway.
City Slickers was just awarded a $4 million grant. Where did it come from and what are you going to do with it?
It was from Proposition 84—a grant to get parks and recreation centers and parks into poor communities. We got this money to purchase land and construct a farm and park. It is very exciting, because, with the exception of Center Street Farm (which is owned by our founder, Willow), we don’t own any of the land we’re on—we’re land insecure. We’re basically at the will of whoever owns it. For instance, the owners of one vacant lot we were on wanted us to leave so they could turn it into a parking lot. It’s heartbreaking! People who work in urban farming and gardening deal with this all the time.
How big is the new plot—and where is it?
We’re hoping to buy a piece of land that is nearly an acre and a half—just down the street from Center Street on Peralta. Even though some of it will also be lawn, and a place for children to play, it’s definitely the biggest plot we’ll have—and we’ll be able to grow at least double what we’re growing now.
City Slicker Farms focuses on “high-yield” crops. Can you explain?
I think the best example is corn vs. collards. Think of Center Street Farm. If the whole thing was planted with collards, we’re going to get a higher yield than with corn. Meaning, each corn plant only gives you a certain number of ears. With collards you get more per plant and it’s ongoing. They’re more like perennials. So you can harvest from it, pulling leaves from the outside, and then the plant will keep giving you more. We have to think in those terms because we don’t have that much land.
When you’re planning crops, do you take into account nutrient density?
We do. So we look at yields, nutrient density and how easy it is to grow and harvest. For instance, if we did all berries, they are very difficult to harvest. So we have more fruiting trees instead.
Do you consider the heritage of people in the neighborhood, as well?
Every year we survey folks. We’re not going to grow things that people don’t want to eat. So we ask everybody, are we getting you what you need? Is there something you’re not seeing? People want to see more fruit.
What sells out at the farm stand?
Cooking greens and eggs. Collards are probably the most popular, then kale. Kale is tied with mustard greens. People also like chard, but it’s not as popular as collards or kale.
How many backyard gardens does City Slicker plant a year, and would you say that most residents stick with it?
Currently we have 100 backyard gardeners in our program. When someone enrolls in our program, we help them build a garden and partner them with a mentor who checks in on them four times a year for a two-year period. Since the backyard garden program launched in 2005, we’ve planted 170 gardens.
We ask people what they want to grow, where they want to grow it. And then on a Saturday we come and build a garden with the family—we ask them to invite friends and family or a neighbor. If we know there’s another backyard garden family near there, we’ll invite them over as well, it’s all about community building.
There’s an assumption out there that low-income folks don’t want to eat healthy foods—that those of us who can afford to eat fresh, organic produce are pushing our values onto a community that doesn’t share them. What do you say to that?
I want to start with this: America has a problem. Low-income people don’t have the problem. It’s everyone. In most places, it’s easier to get fast food then it is to get fresh, healthy produce.
Although food deserts aren’t everywhere.
But there are McDonalds everywhere. We’re talking about actual choice here. People don’t have real choice or real options. People select our program because they want real choice and options for healthy food in their neighborhood.
This idea of, “Let’s help those low-income people eat better” is elitist. I say, “No, let’s help everybody eat better.” The real barrier is access. And real choice.
We don’t push the agenda. Our programs exist and people self-select into them. I think that’s really important. We’re here to normalize food and the act of gardening and get young children seeing it and becoming a part of it.
If you’re used to cereal that’s fortified, that’s food. Say you’re not used to having fruit for breakfast. So if you want to normalize food like berries and fruit, then you have it in abundance in your home garden or neighborhood and you’re eating it. That’s huge! It becomes part of your environment.
I’m not here to bang on your door and say, “eat healthily!” People know that already. And I think that it would be very insulting to a low-income person, “Oh, you don’t know how to eat healthily.” Instead, we should be asking, “Do you have healthy food in your neighborhood or do you want to learn about preparing healthy food or do you want to share with others how you prepare healthy food?”
Right. It’s not like anyone is claiming to have a perfectly wholesome diet. The other day when I was at Center Street Farm, some neighborhood kids pitched in with the weeding. Later in the day, they walked by eating Cheetos. It’s hard not to be disappointed. But at the same time, who doesn’t have a Cheeto or Oreo occasionally?
Look: I love donuts. I loooove donuts. I want to be real about this. And the real is this: we are surrounded by junk food. Everybody has junk food. It’s pervasive. It’s about harm reduction in my mind. Let’s reduce harm.
We’re not going for perfection. That’s what splinters groups and sabotages relationships. Again, if all you had were Cheetos, that’s one thing. But now you have Cheetos and you have collards. You have Cheetos and Plums. That’s better.
One of the challenges of eating fresh produce, of course, is finding the time to cook it. (And knowing how to cook.) City Slickers does a lot of farming education, but do you do any cooking education?
We don’t do a lot. People’s Grocery and OBUGS do more of that—we don’t want to replicate services. OBUGS will send Chef Mo to the farm stand at Center Street, and he’ll do some cooking demos. They were popular: smelling cooking food—that always draws people in.
We do share residents’ recipes. All the healthy recipes in our West Oakland Healthy Eating Guide are from folks in the neighborhood. Or we’ll photocopy a recipe and have it at the farm stand. We did that at Thanksgiving.
Do a lot of kids get involved at the market farms?
Center Street probably has the most action when it comes to kids. Chickens help.
At Fitzgerald and Union Plaza park we’d really like to get more youth involvement. We’re working with the City of Oakland on shared programming and will be giving stipends to youth to work there, so it becomes more of a youth hangout.
Have you ever had a kid who has volunteered and then become a formal apprentice?
We’ve tried. I’ll be very honest and say that our apprenticeship positions tend to be people who come from privilege. It’s a big risk to go through our program—and be like, “do I have to leave my neighborhood to become an urban farmer? Where is that job besides at City Slicker Farms?” OK, there are landscape jobs, or you could work at a nursery. But there aren’t that many jobs in this arena in the city. Though it’s changing. More and more people from the neighborhood are interested in gardening. So in the beginning, we attracted the type of youth who would go WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), who had had other farm apprenticeships. We’d like to do something along the lines of Americorps, where we recruit folks from the community and give them stipends but they’re also provided with an education voucher and job training skills.
What is the apprenticeship stipend?
The stipend is $500 a month. We also provide housing and pay all utilities, including Internet.
You do all this with only five staff members—two of whom are part-time—and four apprentices. So, when you get the grant $4 million grant, will you be able to scale up the staff?
This is the beauty and downfall of the grant—people are like, “you have $4 million—you’re doing great!” But the money does not go to programming or operations. It’s for the sale and construction, and the pre-construction. So I could hire a temporary person to run the construction, but it’s not for staff.
I’m hoping to get that out loud and clear. We need to double our budget over the next few years to meet the new demands.
What’s your definition of food justice?
It’s so long! The idea of food justice to me is that everyone has equal access to fresh, healthy, affordable food that’s culturally appropriate. Meaning this is the food that I want to eat, not that someone is telling me I’m supposed to eat. This is based on peoples’ food traditions.
Food justice also means that the people in the food chain are getting good paying jobs and they’re not in harm’s way: meaning working near pesticides and herbicides and such.
Food justice also means that the land we’re using is well taken care of. So what kind of practices are we using in our farming? Are we actually adding to the health of the earth and not taking away from it? Food justice is being able to provide jobs.
It is also very much calling into play that we don’t have a just food system now. The current reality is that if you’re in a low-income community of color, you don’t have equal access to fresh, healthy food. The food in your community isn’t health-promoting. There’s probably a lot of other stressors in your neighborhood like pollution, industry. So food justice means calling out the bad—institutional racism and class inequalities—and then fighting to ensure that we all have equal access to health-promoting food.
I’m particularly interested in the culturally appropriate part. Fried chicken could be culturally appropriate. Or Popeye’s for that matter. So is that undermining a larger food justice goal? Most food deserts are full of this kind of fast, unhealthy food.
It’s complicated because if I have fried chicken sometimes, that’s fine. If I have fried chicken from Popeye’s all the time because that’s all I have, that’s different. It goes back to choice and it goes back to harm reduction.
When my grandma cooked with lard, it wasn’t that big of a deal because it was all fresh food. And you weren’t cooking with lard all the time. That’s also what you had. And you had the balance of the fresh food from the garden, the healthy chicken you were getting that weren’t full of antibiotics.
And I don’t think it does much good to abolish certain foods. Whole milk is one of my culturally appropriate foods. But at public schools across the country, whole milk has been banned from cafeterias in the name of health. As if our kids are getting fat from whole milk!
Yeah, that’s not where our problem is. I totally agree. I also want to get back to the cultural appropriateness. I want to use myself as an example: I grew up with casseroles. In those casseroles are things like chicken, tuna, noodles and vegetables. I could have those ingredients be more healthy or less healthy than others. But it’s still the idea that that’ s what I grew up with, that’s what I’m used to. That’s what I want. It’s comforting and I can find healthy fresh ways of preparing that food.
What do you say to the naysayers who say about urban agriculture, “That’s great, but it won’t feed the whole city.”
We believe that urban agriculture makes a difference. We’re very realistic. We’re growing produce and eggs. We’re not growing field crops. We’re not growing wheat. This is a complement. And it’s about normalizing fresh fruit and vegetables. You see Cheetos, but you also see this.
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