Oakland Food Policy Council fights for access, an equitable food system
on April 12, 2012
Like many urban areas, Oakland is home to a great divide between its privileged neighborhoods in the hills and the lower lying flatlands. The divide is visible in the median income, but it’s also striking when it comes to the issue of food, and more specifically, the availability of fresh food. According to a 2009 survey put out by the HOPE Collaborative, in the hills there’s one supermarket for every 14,000 residents. In the flatlands, there’s one to every 93,000 residents.
Working alongside groups like the HOPE Collaborative and the government, the Oakland Food Policy Council is an organization dedicated to developing a local food system that can feed all citizens of the city in a healthy, sustainable way. The 21-seat council, which was established in 2005 with seed money from the city, meets monthly to work on initiatives that address some of Oakland’s most pressing food concerns, like poor nutrition, access to fresh produce and antiquated laws.
Esperanza Pallana, who serves as the council’s coordinator and only paid employee, says that she and her colleagues—who include food industry workers and government employees—are currently focused on 10 central initiatives. Nutrition and access to food are the symptoms we are responding to,” she said. “We look at symptoms of a larger problem, and then try to figure out what the most feasible actions for us to take are.”
Supporting urban agriculture features prominently on the action list. Thanks to collaboration between the council and the Planning and Zoning Department, residents of Oakland can now grow food on any land they own. “A year ago, there were some zones of Oakland where it wasn’t legal to grow food for consumption,” Pallana said. “We made sure that changed during a zoning update, and now you can grow food anywhere on your property.”
The OFPC also worked to allow people not only to grow the food, but to sell it. Pallana described an excess of red tape for home-based businesses in Oakland—before the council stepped in, Oaklanders had to purchase a $2,800 conditional use permit. Now an inexpensive home business permit allows for a wider variety of people to grow and sell food.
“Urban agriculture has been practiced forever in Oakland,” Pallana said. “We have very strong immigrant communities here who’ve always grown their own food. Now, we want to expand that interest, and we are, thanks to places like City Slicker Farms that are training people to grow food in their own backyards.”
Pallana herself has a serious home garden called Pluck and Feather—you can watch a video produced by Oakland North on her operation here. Pallana grows fresh vegetables for her family, runs educational workshops, and also keeps chickens, bees and rabbits. But keeping animals is one area where there is still work to be done as far as regulation goes, Pallana said— the laws around livestock are fuzzy and make it difficult for people to understand proper animal care.
According to Pallana, the laws the OFPC suggest would make life better not only for livestock owners, but for the neighbors, and for the animals themselves. “We need detailed guidelines on what you can do, which haven’t existed before,” she said. “You can’t, for example, have 100 chickens in your backyard—these regulations would protect the community from issues like that.”
Another major push from OFPC has been to deregulate mobile food vending in Oakland, which until recently was only allowed in district five. The OFPC recently earned approval from the city on a pilot project that will allow mobile food vendors—a term which applies not only to food trucks, but to fresh produce vendors—to gather as part of a food “pod” in a particular, permitted place on a certain date. The events will be advertised, and residents of particular neighborhoods, such as West Oakland, will be able to take advantage of both healthy premade food and fresh produce all at once.
Pallana and the OFPC also led an initiative to create guidelines for environmentally friendly purchasing at the city level. The City Council has outlined exactly how the city can select vendors that are local and use sustainable practices in growing, harvesting and distributing their food—and hopes the selection practices will be phased in over the next five years. In the end, this healthier, locally grown food would end up on tables at places like schools and other public institutions. And of course, practices like this would mean a boom in sales for local food producers.
Pallana said she hopes the OFPC is doing whatever it can to establish a strong, local food economy in Oakland, and to keep lines of communication open between the city and activist food agencies. “We focus on making direct ties with our City Council members to keep the dialogue open,” she said. “That’s the only way we’ll establish a new and local food economy and in turn, build an equitable food system.”
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