Planting Justice builds edible gardens for urban dwellers

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On a warm September day, a group of 20- and 30-somethings gathered just a stone’s throw from Oakland’s O.co coliseum and Oracle arena. They hadn’t come here to enjoy a lazy day watching football or baseball. They were learning how to tickle plants.

“Make sure you really tickle the roots,” Maya Salsedo, a young woman in a cut-off t-shirt, told five people standing around a newly-built herb bed. “Really get in there and give those herbs a good tickle so that they can open up in the soil.” The group obediently got to work gently massaging the exposed roots of several sage, mint, stevia, rosemary, and lemon verbena plants before gently placing them in the turned dirt.

The root-ticklers were here as volunteers, spending their free Saturday with Salsedo, Planting Justice’s gardener and educator, building a backyard garden for Ebony, a local resident who declined to give her last name, and her 2 year-old-daughter, Izzy. Nestled between a small shed and Izzy’s colorful play structure, the garden was planned to feature pear and lemon trees, two beds of vegetables, and an herb garden. “I’d been wanting a garden for a long time,” Ebony said, “and I happened to be talking to a gardener at a coffee shop and I asked him if there were any programs that could help. He told me about Planting Justice.”

Planting Justice is an Oakland-based grassroots organization that builds edible gardens in urban neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their mission is to grow healthy sustainable food, create green jobs, and build community in the Bay Area. Since its founding in 2009, Planting Justice has built gardens for a range of clients—local schools, community centers, public housing projects and private homes. In January, after several years of planning, Planting Justice completed a garden at San Quentin Prison. Ebony’s garden is one of more than 250 edible gardens that Planting Justice has built over the past 5 years.

The organization subsidizes the cost of many of their gardens in order to ease the burden on their clients, and some of the gardens are installed free of charge. To raise money to build free and subsidized gardens, Planting Justice operates landscaping and canvassing programs to generate revenue. Members of the “Grass Roots Canvass Team” work on street corners in the East Bay, engaging passersby on issues of food justice, urban gardening and green jobs, asking for small donations to support their program.

The landscaping program, “Transform Your Yard,” builds gardens for clients who can afford to pay full-cost, and then puts a portion of the profits from those projects toward subsidized gardens. “The goal is to make enough that for every 3 to 4 full-paying clients, we’re able to offer a free or subsidized garden for a family or community space in need,” said Andrew Chahrour, the program director for Transform Your Yard. “Our mission is to make our services available to everyone,” Chahrour said. “Someone might not be on government assistance, but they still don’t have enough money to hire us at full-cost. In that case, if they don’t fit the criteria to receive a subsidized garden, we have a sliding scale that we can offer for our labor—on a big project that can make a couple thousand dollars’ difference.”

Though significant discounts are made available to clients, Planting Justice usually asks that all clients pay for at least some portion of the garden. “We’ve found that folks often really want to contribute toward something they care this much about,” Chahrour said. “Our clients will say ‘OK, I can afford to pay $200 now, and $100 a month moving forward.’ That might only add up to 12 percent of the total cost of the garden, but it makes a difference. And we’ll do what we can to help them beyond that.”

Creating green jobs is a cornerstone of Planting Justice’s program. The landscaping team and canvassing team employ formerly incarcerated men. “Deep collaborating with the formerly incarcerated is central to our mission,” Chahour said. “Imagine you’re a 42-year-old man coming out of prison after several years because you stole $100. You have kinds of relationships to repair, and bills to pay, and you’ve got kids and it’s impossible to get a job. Those are the guys we’re working with.” Since its inception, Planting Justice has created 11 green jobs for formerly incarcerated men.

In addition to building gardens and creating green jobs, Planting Justice works with local schools to develop food justice curriculums, meant to teach the idea that all people should have equal access to healthy and affordable food, regardless of their class, race or location. The organization has an ongoing relationship with two East Bay high schools, Fremont High School and McClymond’s High School, where they built and maintain edible gardens for the students to use.

“Our educational programs incorporate health at every level,” said Haleh Zandi, the co-founder and educational director of Planting Justice. “The curriculum is designed around food justice, culinary arts, and ecological design. Each lesson is constructed so that students are doing a physical activity—either in the garden or in the kitchen—and we draw connections between how the work they do with us in the garden is connected to broader social movements.”

The curriculum takes students from planting the seeds, to harvest the produce, to cooking nutritious meals. Lesson themes include “Holistic Wellness,” in which Planting Justice educators encourage women to take care of themselves, in addition to the burdens of caring for their familes or communities. The Planting Justice educators also draw on indigenous knowledge for their lessons. Students learn about using food as natural remedies and build Native American medicine wheels that incorporate physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional health. “Native American, Meshica, and Chicano organizers in the United States are teaching  ‘cultura cura,’ culture cures,” Salsedo said. “For many of us, there are colonial or traumatic experiences that disconnect us from our cultural practices, spiritual practices.”

On the culinary side, there was a salad dressing competition where students learned about the struggles of farm workers all over the world. There was also a mindfulness lesson that incorporated making peanut butter balls. “More than 65 percent of the students on the campuses we work on are eligible for free or reduced meal plans, and our goal is for students to learn easy, nutritious recipes that can help them reduce their grocery bills and encourage them to eat out of the garden,” Zandi said. “We also want to show young people that it’s possible to earn a living wage working a green jobs within the sustainable local food movement.”

Though Planting Justice’s founders have seen urban gardening take off in the Bay Area in recent years, they said there’s still much work to be done. “We’re lucky to live in the Bay Area—healthy, local, nutritious food is really valued in our community,” Zandi said. “But there are big challenges to the healthy food movement on a national level—gaining access to land to grow food is a huge challenge, since land and water is so expensive. Institutionally, we need to think about how we are going to provide healthy food in our hospitals, in our schools, in our prisons. It’s a real challenge to integrate the local sustainable food system into those giant federal systems. These are the challenges we need to be planning for in the future.”

With several hundred gardens under their belts, Planting Justice’s members are looking to the future. The organization recently leased 5 acres in Contra Costa County, where the group plans to build a working farm, using funding it received through a USDA grant. Chahrour said he sees endless potential in the new farm as a source of healthy food, green jobs, and educational opportunities. “We’ll have chickens, bees, goats, trees, vegetables,” he said. “We can sell worms, sell compost, sell eggs, honey, and goat milk. We’ll turn sun and soil into organic apple butter, and hopefully we’ll be able to form little cottage industries around those projects and create new green jobs. And it’s an opportunity to have a home-base mother garden, which is crucial in every good educational program centered around food and health. We see a ton of possibilities in the farm.”

Back at Ebony’s garden, volunteers chat about why they’ve come to lend a hand. “I don’t know much about gardening—I just have a few plants on my fire escape—but I’m excited to learn more, and this is such a great way to give back to the community,” one volunteer told the group as she nestled a mint plant into the herb bed. Salsedo moved between volunteer clusters, talking about the different plants, making sure a lemon tree was pruned properly and checking to be sure enough dirt was delivered to fill the new vegetable beds. As she made her way around the new garden, she encouraged the volunteers to get their hands dirty.

“We’re not using gardening gloves,” she told the group. “There are are studies that show that having soil on your hands is good for you. The research shows that when you dig your hands into dirt to plant food, your brain releases feel-good chemicals. So get in there and get your hands dirty.”

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