Grow Local: Urban Agriculture and the Fight for Food Justice

by Aaron Lehmer-Chang, Co-Founder, Bay Localize

In November 2014, the Oakland City Council unanimously affirmed everyone’s right to grow and share food. This was a hard-won victory by the Oakland Food Policy Council, Bay Localize, and many groups who worked for years to reduce barriers to urban ag.

In the spring of 2011, famed author and urban farmer Novella Carpenter was threatened with $5,000 in fines by the City of Oakland for growing and selling food in her backyard without a “proper” permit. Alarmed, community gardeners and food justice advocates began organizing to support changes in the city policy to support urban farms and local food growing. Given Bay Localize’s mission to promote local production, we joined local community organizations to help forward these efforts at City Hall.

East Bay Urban Ag Alliance’s Esperanza Pallana speaks before the Oakland Planning Commission.

At the time, the city was updating its zoning code, which provided the perfect opportunity to break down outdated legal and financial barriers to urban agriculture. In partnership with the Oakland Food Policy Council, East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, and other urban farming groups, Bay Localize helped convene residents and advocates to push for policy changes that support local food growing and selling, as well as humane, neighbor-friendly, and safe standards for raising animals for personal consumption.

As a first step toward easing the rules for local food growing, our coalition advocated for changes to the City of Oakland’s “Home Occupancy” rules. On June 15th, Bay Localize’s Aaron Lehmer and East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance’s Esperanza Pallana spoke at an Oakland Planning Commission meeting, where changes were approved to allow home-based gardeners to pay only a nominal permit fee to sell produce and generate revenue from their harvests. This development received excellent local coverage in Oakland North magazine and the East Bay Express.

People’s Grocery California Hotel garden beds.

By breaking down barriers and creating clear operating standards for urban farmers, we sought to encourage more community gardens, local food enterprises, and affordable, healthy food options for Oaklanders.  Moreover, we argued that community gardens would open up more safe and welcoming spaces for neighbors to come together, learn hands-on gardening skills and nutrition, and reconnect with the land.  Expanding urban farming would also help slash carbon emissions as called for in the city’s Energy and Climate Action Plan by cutting the need to transport food, boost the local economy by encouraging food dollars to stay within the community, and create local green jobs in urban agriculture. Indeed, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition explicitly embraced this idea by adding it as a central plank to its advocacy platform and establishing a local working group on land access, urban agriculture and food justice.

Meeting of the Oakland Cross-Coalition for Urban Agriculture.

Thankfully, Oakland already boasted an incredible cross-section of community leaders who were demonstrating by example the power and potential of urban farming, including Kelly Carlisle of Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, Victory Lee of Victory Garden Foundation, Barbara Finnin of City Slicker Farms, K.Ruby Blume of The Institute of Urban Homesteading, Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders of Planting Justice, Max Cadji of Phat Beets Produce and People’s Grocery, Grey Kolevzon of People United for a Better Life in Oakland (PUEBLO), Jason Harvey of Oakland Food Connection, and many others. Under the umbrella of the Cross-Coalition for Urban Agriculture, we became a force to be reckoned with at City Hall, opening the door for many of us to join an official task force to help draft new rules for urban agriculture in Oakland.

Bay Localize’s Aaron Lehmer speaks at a City of Oakland-sponsored community meeting on urban agriculture.

On July 21, 2011, the City of Oakland hosted a community meeting on urban agriculture, where over 300 interested residents, food justice advocates, and urban farmers packed the North Oakland Senior Center. At the meeting, the Oakland Food Policy Council, Bay Localize, and our allies unveiled Seven Key Recommendations to the city outlining our collective vision for a more humane, ecological and neighbor-friendly urban ag sector. Bay Localize’s Aaron Lehmer addressed attendees, and urged participants to get involved in shaping Oakland’s evolving urban agriculture regulations (see video above).

In the months that followed, media coverage and community interest in urban agriculture grew considerably. The Oakland Tribune published an op-ed from Bay Localize, in which Lehmer and Bay Localize intern Kay Cuajunco called on public officials to update the city’s outmoded zoning laws and help residents build their local food economy. “Let’s take a stand together for a strong, integrated, and locally resilient food economy where everyone can take part in growing their future,” they wrote. “In the process, we can make Oakland a national model for urban sustainability and local self-reliance.” Other encouraging pieces included a video montage of the local urban farming movement in Oakland North and a feature story on urban agriculture in the East Bay Times.

Over the next couple of years, the city continued to develop draft zoning rules for urban agriculture, soliciting ongoing feedback from local food justice, public health, and community gardening advocates. Under the new leadership of Esperanza Pallana, the Oakland Food Policy Council played an increasingly central role in facilitating policy discussion as the new regulatory proposals were being crafted.

Bay Localize interns Jenni Perez and Rachel Ortega helping to launch a rooftop garden in East Oakland.

By November 2014, local planners had significantly pared down their earlier proposals, and introduced amendments to the city’s zoning code that removed the expensive and burdensome permit process from community gardens and farms in Oakland. The proposed changes also designated certain activities like growing and selling fruits, vegetables, and herbs and keeping up to three beehives, as permissible “by right” to all Oaklanders. The new rules were passed unanimously by the Oakland City Council, serving as a powerful testament to the hard work and vision of hundreds of concerned residents and dozens of organizations who came together to take a stand for local food sovereignty and food justice (see article published in the San Francisco Chronicle).

Despite the passage of zoning reforms in Oakland, considerable barriers to urban agriculture remain. Foremost among these is the challenge of securing accessible land suitable for urban farms and community gardens, much less the infrastructure, ecological know-how, and labor power that such efforts demand. Advocates continue to dream big, knowing that our commodity-based, petro-chemically-driven food system won’t stand the test of time. We will need bolder, longer-term investments in the restoration of our soils and public lands and the rebuilding of our skills and agrarian sensibilities, especially among those of us willing to roll up our sleeves and reforge our local food system, one farm at a time.

Victory Vickie Lee
September 7, 1949 – February 4, 2016
Berkeley, California

The Bay Localize team was honored to count Victory Lee among our most cherished of friends and allies. We had the pleasure of collaborating on a number of her famed garden projects, most notably the Temescal community garden and the Lake Merritt gardens. Lee was an Alameda County Master Gardener, a skilled teacher, and most importantly, a beautiful soul who was always willing to lend a hand, share a story of encouragement, or pass along some seeds. Thankfully, Lee lived to see some of the hard-fought changes in Oakland that will help encourage urban farmers and community gardeners for generations to come. Thank you Victory for all your love and dedication!