Strategically placed wooden signs served as markers guiding the way to an assortment of bright green vegetables and shiny peppers stacked near a basket of berries and stone fruits. The smell of cilantro in the mid-morning sunshine scented the air at the entrance to the farmers market situated in the middle of the block at Stanford Avenue and Lowell Street.
Saturday’s celebration combined the re-opening of Phat Beets Produce farmers market at its new location, plans for the opening of a new on-site community kitchen collective and the observance of Juneteenth, a US holiday honoring African American heritage and commemorating June 19, 1865, the day many slaves in Texas learned they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
“We honor different cultural traditions,” said Max Cadji, a founding member of Phat Beets Produce. “We think it’s a way to bring people together around food. Each culture has its own history, its own story around food. So what better time than the beginning of summer and Juneteenth?”
Phat Beets Produce creates farm stands, farmers markets and urban youth farms for minority farmers. They also support a community edible garden, offer workshops to teach people how to operate small farming businesses, teach heart healthy programs for teens and host community wellness forums designed throughout North Oakland. The group is trying to inspire a social movement related to creating a healthy food system, making healthy food affordable, and eliminating processed food and other ingredients that contribute to diabetes, heart disease and obesity, Cadji said.
“We support small farmers of color and connect them with urban communities,” Cadji said. “Juneteenth speaks to a lot of people about ideas of freedom and liberation. We see healthy food as a liberating factor. It’s connected to housing, clothing and all those things but we see food as a core piece in collective liberation.”
Once it is opened, the kitchen collective will offer members a space where they will prepare food to sell to the community. Phat Beets Produce will occupy an office in the space and use the commercial kitchen to operate two food related businesses, Cadji said. (An opening date for the kitchen has not been set yet.)
The members of the kitchen collective said that the Juneteenth celebration for the freed slaves is a symbol of freedom for farmers and other small business owners. Most of the people participating in the farmer’s market and kitchen collective had previously faced the loss of employment and other challenges before finding a new way to generate income with farms, community gardens, the sale of home baked goods and organizations created to teach families about healthy food options, said Michele Lee, one of the founding members of the kitchen collective.
“We wanted to create an inclusive, sustainable environment,” said Lee. “A lot of us have been displaced from the current job market and come with a lot of ‘degrees.’ Some are experiencing age-ism and [others] not enough skills as young people, so we came together collectively to lease the space and create an environment like you see here and provide economic opportunity.”
During the Juneteenth festival, Phat Beets Produce and other businesses sponsored by the collective offered a variety of selections for new and old customers. Jessica Watson lives two blocks away and regularly shopped at the market in its old location. “I love the organization and I really support its values,” Watson said. “The farmers are great people, the location is convenient for me and I was excited to come by for the Juneteenth festival.”
Winter of Sweet Sensations baked three kinds of cake including German Chocolate, plus carrot and peanut butter cookies for the day’s event. Vang Produce had a line in front of their booth from the moment the market opened—their green onions were a popular item. “I like to buy my vegetables from local farmers markets,” said Allie Sherman, who lives nearby. “These are about eight times as plentiful as any other bunch of green onions I’ve ever seen in any store. Look how big they are!”
Firme Farms almost completely sold out of its collards and kale before noon. People’s Grocery sold fresh items like Portuguese sea kale and pumpkin plants using a sliding scale of prices to accommodate those from low to high income ranges, while Hummus Heaven provided a mixture of flavors and textures from the basil and sundried tomato to a tangy chipotle with black bean hummus and fresh pita chips.
In the tradition of true bartering, there was a booth set up for customers to take a fruit or vegetable and leave one, and some of the vendors accepted trade as well. This was Yavette Holtz’s first day at the marketplace offering massages to customers. She is part of Earth Exchange, a group that promotes trade-for-trade business. “Although I will accept cash, I prefer trade or barter,” Holtz said. “I am really working to encourage people to mind their internal skillset and to bring forth what they have that they can trade. Whether it produce or retail or jewelry, car mechanic or whatever.”
In addition to the goods for sale, the event featured vocal performances by hip-hop artists SunRu and Markese, a video mashup in honor of what would have been rapper Tupac Shakur’s 41st birthday, cooking demonstrations featuring pancakes and tacos and a buffet that included traditional African American staples such as collard greens and black-eyed peas.
At the start of the day, Luisah Teish, a storyteller and former choreographer who described herself as a Yoruba priestess, performed a blessing for the vendors and the new kitchen collective location. As part of her ritual, she pouted water from a jug onto the ground in memory of the ancestors and in honor of the new space.
“The business of pouring water onto the ground while asking that the Earth be cool, that the road of life be cool, that the memory of the ancestors be cool, means that we want to say connected to all of that,” Teish said, explaining the purpose of the ceremony.
People of African descent have contributed to the agriculture of America and the cuisine of the world. Combining a celebration about food with the celebration of the freedom of those people makes the ritual that much more important, Teish said.
Toro Hill has been with Phat Beets Produce since its beginning. “I mean before B.C.,” he said laughing. He helps the group with whatever is needed at the time. On Saturday he was taking pictures and making a video recording of the musical artists while selling organic vegetables. “We were two blocks away at the [previous] location,” Hills said. “It wasn’t like some of the other farmers markets where people come and go. Here, everybody knew everybody. We became a part of the community. When we moved they came with us.”
Those old customers were present at the celebration as well as several new people from the neighborhood came over to look around. This was the market’s first Juneteenth celebration, although in the past Phat Beets has organized a Cesar Chavez Day celebration and a Martin Luther King Day of service.
“Hopefully this will be an annual event,” Cadji said. “We will be able to go deeper and deeper into the community, have more and more people share their stories and bring more people out to share together in the struggle for a healthier more resilient Oakland.”
The marketplace is open every Saturday at 10 a.m at 942 Stanford. For more information visit the website at firstname.lastname@example.org.