Rooftop farm partners with Oakland nonprofits to address food insecurity
on December 16, 2021
Six-foot-tall sunflowers, planted in between rows of peas and fenugreek, turn their heavy heads towards the late-morning sun. Three farmers methodically till the soil for garlic and vital cover crops 200 feet above bustling city streets in the Temescal district of North Oakland. At one acre, the Rooftop Medicine Farm is the East Bay’s largest rooftop farm.
Alayna Reid, the farm’s director, pulls watermelon radishes out of an overflowing garden bed and cuts one open, revealing a bright red core.
“When you cut open a radish and it’s glowing, it does spark something inside of you,” she says as she stands, facing the San Francisco skyline across the bay.
The Rooftop Medicine Farm — part of the larger nonprofit Deep Medicine Circle — is an urban farm that is working to address food insecurity in Oakland. Beginning in mid-September, with an initial harvest of over 1,000 pounds of fresh greens and herbs, the farm is donating its weekly harvest of 100 pounds of produce to UCSF Pediatric Clinic’s Food Farmacy, which gives free food to hospital patients and their families; POOR Magazine’s Sliding Scale Cafe, which distributes food and other resources throughout deep East Oakland; and Moms 4 Housing, a collective of houseless and marginally housed mothers.
The farm also functions as a center for learning about healthy foods and urban farming for those involved in all three organizations, as well as for doctors and residents at UCSF’s Pediatric Clinic next door.
Oakland’s Food Inequality Problem
The rate of food insecurity in California is 18.2%, compared with 17.4% for the nation, according to data from a 2020 Northwestern University study on food insecurity. The Alameda County Food Bank reports that 25% of residents are experiencing food insecurity. Additionally, the U.S. Agriculture Department designated East and West Oakland as food deserts, meaning many residents lack easy access to a grocery store.
Dr. Rupa Marya, a physician at UCSF’s Parnassus hospital and associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Deep Medicine Circle, which runs the farm. Marya said that the goals of the farm are to educate residents on making healthy food choices, to donate fresh produce to people experiencing food insecurity, and to empower local farmers as “the keepers of our health” by defining food as medicine.
“This is about challenging the very fundamental ideas of our food system,” Marya said. “Should food cost money? Should food be something that is there for everybody?”
Though North Oakland doesn’t meet the USDA’s definition of a food desert, Marya said that many residents there also experience food insecurity.
“In Oakland, people who can afford organic food that is nutrient-dense and not containing traces of pesticides are people who are wealthy,” she said.
Eli Zigas, food and agriculture policy director with SPUR, a Bay Area-based nonprofit public policy organization, said that the USDA definition of the term “food desert,” which relies on grocery store proximity as a key indicator, is too narrow.
“The problem with the ‘food desert’ is it makes it sound like there’s no food in a neighborhood. And there are many people who have critiqued the term food desert to talk about ‘food swamps,’ meaning that there’s lots of bad food, like fast food, liquor stores, snacks, but not healthy options,” he said.
In a 2015 report, SPUR expanded the concept of food insecurity to include four main barriers to accessing healthy food: physical, economic, educational, and cultural. These encompass someone’s ability to find healthy food, the means to afford it, the knowledge to prepare it, and the desire to seek it out.
Zigas said that there is little data to show that increasing access to grocery stores improves hunger or health outcomes, because expanding the retail environment does little to address issues of affordability.
UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Food Farmacy
When Patrice Guilford and her 11-year-old son, Taqari Hill, arrived at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital for a doctor’s appointment on a Thursday morning, they saw a colorful vinyl sign fastened to a tent reading, “Food Farmacy Pop-Up Market.” Guilford, who grows an assortment of vegetables in her backyard garden in Richmond, was drawn to the pop-up for the fresh produce.
“Fresh fruits and vegetables is my thing,” Guildford said, picking out greens and carrots to fill her take-home box. “We’re gonna go home and make the greens today.”
The children’s hospital hosts the Food Farmacy twice monthly that provides free food and produce from food banks and farms, including the Rooftop Medicine Farm, to 180 families who visit the hospital weekly. The rooftop farm donates around 300 pounds of produce to the Food Farmacy per month.
The program is partnered with the Food as Medicine Collaborative, which seeks to bridge the divide between health care systems and the food community.
According to Food Farmacy Coordinator, Rigoberto Del Toro, many families that visit the hospital rely on inexpensive, processed foods because healthy foods are unavailable in their communities.
“Most of the families we see in our primary care clinic are low-income or they’re on Medi-Cal and often have food insecurity concerns. Food Farmacy was a way for doctors to prescribe healthy food options,” Del Toro said.
The Food Farmacy helped address increased rates of food insecurity during the pandemic. In the 12 months prior to the pandemic the program distributed about 39,000 pounds of food. After the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, it doubled its distribution services and increased its output to 80,000 pounds.
The program also teaches families how to choose healthy food options. And there is demand for high-quality fresh foods among program recipients, Del Toro said. He asks parents to let the children pick out the produce, which can lead them to discovering new types of leafy greens that Rooftop Medicine Farm provides.
“It’s a learning opportunity for everyone,” Del Toro said. “The children’s eyes just light up as they just pack their own food bags.”
POOR Magazine & Sliding Scale Cafe
Each Thursday morning at the Sliding Scale Cafe, nearly 100 women, many with young children in tow and infants swaddled to their chests, line up on the sidewalk along a chain link fence. On the other side, on long folding tables under a white tent, volunteers hurriedly assemble dozens of bags filled with fresh greens from the Rooftop Medicine Farm, as well as donated food, diapers, vitamins, and hand sanitizer.
“Right now, everything is going up [in price], more than before,” said a woman waiting in line. “Money doesn’t go as far as it used to. With 10 dollars you could buy a bunch of fruit and now you can’t.”
The rooftop farm provides palettes of greens to the cafe each week, which primarily serves low-income Latina families.
The cafe is the food-donation arm of the nonprofit POOR Magazine, which Tiny Gray-Garcia started with her mother in 2011 when they were living on the street. She describes the organization and cafe as a “radical redistribution network” of food and supplies for residents in deep East Oakland.
“This society is built on hoarding as a model of success,” Gray-Garcia said. “So our dream, our vision and our reality was to resist that scarcity model with interdependence and abundance, to the extent that we have it. And so we’ve been sharing food.”
Moms 4 Housing
Moms 4 Housing brings marginally housed and houseless mothers and children to the Rooftop Medicine Farm weekly to learn about farming and to receive free produce.
“I can’t think of too many grocery stores that have organic vegetables that are affordable to the community,” said Dominique Walker, founder of the organization. “I barely can afford to feed my children organic fruits and vegetables.”
They say the farm visits are especially important for the children, who showed a lot of enthusiasm on the first trip.
“It was amazing to see our children engage like that,” Walker said. “Once they saw everything, they’re like, ‘How can I help?’ They want to put their hands in the dirt.”
Walker said that they plan to distribute the food to underserved areas throughout Oakland.
Limitations of Urban Farming
According to Zigas, urban agricultural projects like this one can’t address hunger or nutrition on a large scale.
“All the ecological food literacy you get from urban agriculture is, I think, its most powerful thing,” he said. “But I think in terms of the number of people you can feed, you’re probably in the dozens or the hundreds.”
Economic sustainability of the farm is also an issue.
“Can that farm sustain itself if it’s not selling at high-end prices? I think generally, no, you can’t make the economics [work] unless you’re subsidized,” Zigas said. “I don’t know many urban farms that have a model of selling what they grow unless they’re selling with a high-end premium price to restaurants or farmers markets.”
Zigas believes the issue of food insecurity is a smaller part of a broader issue.
“Rather than solving for food deserts, we should focus on solving for poverty and purchasing power and ensuring people have the money they need to buy the food they want,” Zigas said.
The Future of the Farm
The farm is attempting to expand reach by fundraising to build a greenhouse that will allow it to produce more food. The farmers say that all the food produced in the greenhouse will go to the Food Farmacy, with the intention of giving every child that visits the clinic a box of organic produce.
Additionally, the farm plans to host routine visits and workshops for children from Moms 4 Housing in the spring, as well as a tour for students from Castlemont High School. Reid said that during the tours, the families often talk about their lack of access to fresh food and desire to maintain a healthy diet.
“Tears of joy and ideas are shared, followed by a flurry of excitement with questions all at once,” Reid said.
“You plant the seed in their minds and then from then on, maybe when they pick something up in the grocery store, they read the back of it.”
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