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Volunteers get hands dirty for school’s rooftop produce garden

on October 25, 2009

The buckets of nails, the long planks of wood, the truckloads of soil, and the barrels of compost in front of E.C. Reems Academy this weekend were the tools needed to produce one thing: vegetables.

Two dozen people gathered Saturday morning at the East Oakland middle school to help build more wooden beds and get the rooftop vegetable garden at the school ready for the winter season.

The incentive to start a rooftop garden was simple for Jason Harvey, founder of the Oakland Food Connection, which helps fund the effort at the school. He wanted to get people thinking about food. And in a part of Oakland where liquor stores, nail salons, and fast food restaurants run the gamut for what’s available to residents, motivating people to rally around the topic of healthy eating might be easier said than done.

The E.C. Reems garden was initially planted three years ago, but until earlier this year, when Maria Cepeda, 23, was hired to be the gardening teacher, the effort to maintain the area fell by the wayside.

“People stopped looking after it,” Cepeda said. “When I came at the beginning of this year it was just beds, there were no plants, and the soil was poor.” But since Cepeda’s arrival, the garden has started to come back to life. Popsicle sticks that jutted out of the soil mark budding plants, like oregano and collards. A small greenhouse was built to cultivate more temperate species.

“I’m just bringing more to the table,” said Cepeda, who got her degree in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz, as she described the impact she hopes to have on the lives of the students she’s teaching. “You get them started, and they’ll start to bring up these questions about their diets, and they really take it from there. They’ll ask things like, ‘Why are we eating this and not that?’ Then they start to share what they’re learning with their families and their communities. And that’s really how we can bring about change.”

The E.C. Reems garden effort is another example of the increasing interest in the Bay Area for locally grown food, urban farming, and better access to fruits and vegetables. Case

4-year-old Elijah helps fill garden beds with soil.

4-year-old Elijah helps fill garden beds with soil.

Garver, one of the Saturday volunteers, said he hopes to emulate Harvey’s Oakland Food Connection with Garver’s own organization in San Francisco, Urban Share.

“Jason has a model, a model that works,” Garver said. “So I’m here to take notes on how we can do something similar in the city.”

People began Saturday’s project by hauling plastic soil-filled bins up a flight of stairs and down a long hallway to the garden. The weight of dirt was on many minds that morning.

“This is so heavy!” one sweating volunteer said with a grin.

“It shouldn’t be too heavy,” another volunteer replied. “See, if you can’t have a casual conversation on the way up, that’s a sure indication that you’ve put too much dirt in.”

As the morning progressed, the temperature rose into the mid-70s, and by noon the hazy sky, empty classrooms, and warm temperatures made it feel like the middle of July.  The E.C. Reems kids are halfway through their fall term, though, and this fall Cepeda has been talking to students in her gardening classes about food accessibility. The school is in a neighborhood where grocery stores that offer fresh fruit and vegetables are few and far between.

So Cepeda has students map out the liquor and convenience stores in their communities to illustrate their own immediate access to healthy food. “The kids are always surprised by what they find, and want to know why,” Cepeda said. “But on the other hand they all love their Arizona Iced Teas, Hot Cheetos, and Now and Laters. We’re trying to teach them that they should only eat those in moderation.”

Red lettuce sprouts from one of the garden beds.

Red lettuce sprouts from one of the garden beds.

As the volunteer gardeners labored away, two nearby shopkeepers,  queried about their own shops’ food selection, said they’re not to blame for the absence of produce on their shelves.

“If people come in and tell me they want spinach, I will buy spinach,” said Joseph Alabi, whose shop Joseph’s Liquor is two blocks from E.C. Reems. “But it has to be more than just one person.” Alabi has one small rack of potatoes and onions in his store, but said he doesn’t want to spend money on items that will perish quickly and go unsold.

Another nearby shop owner, Abdul, who declined to give his last name, runs Jim’s Deli and Grocery Store, on 82nd and Macarthur, and said selling fresh produce is a complete waste of money. “Five and six years ago we tried to sell fresh produce to people,” said Abdul, who was surrounded by cases of liquor and cigarettes.  “But it went bad. No one bought it. So we had to stop.”

If access to foods that are healthy and sustainable are as limited as Cepeda’s students are finding, getting families engaged and implementing everything they’ve learned seems like a lofty challenge for a 12 year old middle-school student.

“Whatever we do here, the current diets our students have will perpetuate,” Harvey said. “But we’re creating a culture here that inspires our students to go home and talk about food. Our plan here is long-term.”

And Harvey’s plan is a specific one. “I’m trying to create a food system on Macarthur Blvd. between 35th Street and 98th Street,” he said.  “It’s very clear, when you pass a certain point on Macarthur, the organic coffee shops and grocery stores suddenly drop off and all you see are nail shops, liquor stores and churches.”  Those institutions are part of the neighborhood too, Harvey said.  “But we need more,” he said, “and it’s through food. Food is one of the key things we can use to bring people together.”

On that bright hazy morning, that’s exactly what Harvey did. Before getting to work everyone gathered in a big circle and Harvey asked people to go around and introduce themselves. And after running through the drill for the morning, Harvey led a chant. Half of the volunteers began whispering, “Food Justice,” and the other half followed with, “Localize.” The sing-along chant got louder and louder as each group took turns until everyone broke out into applause and laughter and got to work.

Jason Harvey consults rooftop volunteers.

Jason Harvey consults rooftop volunteers.

For one garden volunteer, Lia Barrow, effecting dietary change through teaching kids the basics of gardening and cooking is simple. “Kids are members of a larger family. If a kid says, ‘I want to grow our own tomatoes for our salsa,’ you listen,” said Barrow. “A lot of people see Oakland as being impoverished.  But if you have a house with a patch of dirt, that’s not poverty.”

Barrow said she believes children can have a powerful influence on their families routines. “Just the knowledge of knowing you can plant it, grow it,” she said.  “And eat it. That’s powerful.”

But for Barrows, who came out to help build garden beds with her husband, Sean, and 4-year-old son, Elijah, it’s about more than gardening and health, it’s about rediscovering the past. “African Americans have a long history of farming and the passing down of those farming traditions has been lost in recent generations,” she said.  “It’s  time to bring them back.”

By the time the Cybell’s pizza arrived at 12:30 p.m. people’s cheeks were flushed and their backs were soaked with sweat.  They put down their shovels and hammers. There was still plenty of work to be done, and it seemed the volunteers intended to hang in there until the beds were built and the work was complete.

And as far as getting adolescents interested in vegetables, Harvey said the vegetable-haters of the world will eventually come around. “Some of the kids will be like, ‘Eew, what is that?’” he said. “But over time their taste buds will start to change and they’ll be like, ‘Can you give me some more of that? That tasted different.’”


  1. Tammy on October 26, 2009 at 4:27 am

    If you want to get your children excited about nature….this educational product is sweeping the country. It’s called the TickleMe Plant and its a real plant that Moves when you Tickle It. The leaves close and even the branches droop when Tickled. Now it can easily been grown indoors year round. Who know a plant could move when Tickled. You can see the video and its even more fun to grow your own. My Students love it.
    Use Coupon code Plant for a $2.00 discount. Get back to nature!

  2. ken o on October 29, 2009 at 12:21 am

    nice work in east o, keep it up!!

    other initiatives worth a look:

    west o – people’s grocery
    west o – urban releaf (fruit trees)
    dto – “obugs” youth gardening
    guerrilla gardening
    “street jam”


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