OMCA Spotlights Urban Farming in Oakland

Take Root: Oakland Grows Food is a new yearlong exhibit highlighting the people and organizations growing food Oakland.


Photo of Acta Non Verba courtesy of OMCA

Brussels sprouts, spring onions, cherry tomatoes, squash: These days it seems like nearly everyone with a square foot of open dirt has something growing on the side.

Between the year-round growing season and an obsession with sourcing local food, backyard gardening has become something of an Oakland birthright. More than that, the city is dotted with larger farms and community gardens, reflecting—and some might say inspiring—a renewed national interest in growing food in urban areas.

In Take Root: Oakland Grows Food, a new yearlong exhibit launched in December, the Oakland Museum of California digs below the surface of this local passion, placing a spotlight on the people and organizations that grow food in this city, where and why they do it, and how.

Indeed, it’s a reflection of how prevalent food growing is in Oakland that one of exhibit organizer Sarah Seiter’s problems was who exactly to highlight.

“There was no way we could include everyone,” she said. “We ended up picking people and groups to represent a variety of backgrounds and different neighborhoods within the city.”

Among those profiled is City Slicker Farms and founder Rodney Spencer—dubbed by Seiter as the “granddaddy” of the Oakland food-growing movement—whose mission is to empower West Oakland community members without access to fresh food. Another is New Roots, a younger program at Laney College designed to help acclimate newly resettled refugees (like profiled Cambodian farmer Chhy Touch) from agricultural communities. Still another is Acta Non Verba, started by U.S. Navy veteran Kelly Carlisle as a way to engage at-risk youth in East Oakland through urban farming.

While their exact motives differ—and there are those who simply enjoy tending garden—a common thread is a sense of calling that goes above and beyond the simple act of growing food. 

 “Urban agriculture is a pretty tough business to be in, so for the most part, people are there because they want to be, because it’s something of a social mission,” Seiter said. “That’s really true in Oakland where, whether it’s social justice, youth education, environmental sustainability, maintaining ecological diverse, increasing food access, almost everyone is connecting the work to a broader set of ideas.”

The exhibit also offers a macro and micro view of the city’s urban agriculture landscape beyond just the growers themselves. That means taking a bird’s-eye look at the history of land use in Oakland and how that has shaped where food is grown (perhaps most timely, the show touches on the recent impact of skyrocketing real estate prices). It also means a down-and-dirty examination of what it takes to run a thriving urban garden that includes video footage of insect predators and a microscopic examination of beneficial bugs.

One thing that’s conspicuously absent: food itself. The exhibit is housed in the museum’s natural sciences section, where contamination is a real concern. But if organizers have their way, visitors won’t need free handouts of Brussels sprouts, spring onions, cherry tomatoes, or squash—they’ll be out growing their own.

“There will be a big resource section on how to get involved that includes a binder with opportunities to volunteer—a list of organizations and urban agriculture projects by neighborhood,” Seiter said. “We’re hoping this exhibit will serve as a kind of on-ramp for people to growing their own food.”

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