“The demographics of the neighborhood are shifting very dramatically. West Oakland is a hotspot for the tech industry and that has placed enormous pressure on low-income residents. They are being displaced at an alarming rate. So we’re partnering with other organizations to alleviate some of those pressures. We’re staying in the West Oakland community and assuring that residents have access to food.”
– Rodney Spencer, City Slicker Farms
City Slicker Farms was created in 2001 by members of the West Oakland community, who wanted to address a variety of issues related to an absence of nutritious food, poverty, pollution and few opportunities to connect with nature in their neighborhood. The group found unused land and began growing food.
Today, City Slicker farms continues to empower the community through a range of programs and activities. They have three community market farms (which are open to the public), more than 300 backyard gardens, a farm stand, greenhouse and an urban farming education program…and more, including collaborations with public agencies to expand the backyard garden model to childcare centers. A new addition? A Farm Park (you can learn more about that effort below).
Recently, the organization named Rodney Spencer as its executive director. Spencer, who has volunteered for the organization, is a seasoned educator and community activist. If you’re in the Bay Area, we encourage you to attend the Farm Park Grand opening on Saturday, June 11…you’ll have an opportunity to meet Rodney and welcome him to City Slicker Farms. (The event is free).
Q: You’ve recently been named the executive director of City Slicker Farms. (Congratulations!). What are your primary tasks in your new role?
Rodney: Staff management is key. We currently have a staff of seven individuals that do a variety of activities in the office and at our site. I will also be a liaison in the community we serve and to the broader community of other organizations that are focused on the same mission as us…food justice and social justice.
Q: What’s your background?
Rodney: I’m an educator. I came from Vincent Academy, which is a small elementary school in West Oakland. I was the director of extended learning there, which included all of the extra activities and the after school program. Among the many things we offered were nutrition and cooking classes and gardening. I’ve been volunteering at City Slicker Farms for a number of years.
Q: What’s your vision for the organization?
Rodney: I want to continue to provide access to affordable, healthy, organic food to members of the community, who for so many years did not have access to that. The other main objective is to do that in a very sensitive way.
The demographics of the neighborhood are shifting very dramatically. West Oakland is a hotspot for the tech industry and that has placed enormous pressure on low-income residents. They are being displaced at an alarming rate. So we’re partnering with other organizations to alleviate some of those pressures. We’re staying in the West Oakland community and assuring that residents have access to food.
But we also want to extend our reach beyond West Oakland. There are some obvious ways for us to do that. We’re known for the Backyard Garden Program in West Oakland. We have built 300+ backyard gardens for residents. Lately, we’ve been partnering with other agencies – including the Alameda County Department of Public Health and the First Five program – to promote the backyard garden model at childcare facilities. We provide a two-bed garden and a fruit tree. Quarterly, we visit and provide feedback on how the garden is doing so that the sites can keep the garden healthy and productive. We want to do more of that with low-income housing, childcare centers, schools and other places with need. Hunger is not just a West Oakland problem.
Q: What can you tell me about the Farm Park?
Rodney: We’re really excited about the Farm Park. It is a 1.4 acre piece of property at Peralta and Helen Streets in West Oakland. We purchased it through a Proposition 84 grant (six years in the making). It’s allowed us to do something we’ve been unable to do in 15 years: we own the property we’re farming on. Everywhere else we partner to use or borrow land.
A paint factory abandoned the land many years ago; it’s a brownfield and the soil was contaminated. In addition to the Proposition 84 grant funds, we had a capital campaign. We purchased the land, remediated it and have built a center for operations. We also have office space for community use, a community garden, a community group garden and two public restrooms. We have raised bed plots and four community groups on site (Churches, low-income housing, the International Rescue Committee). Our urban farming education center is there. We have an outdoor classroom that houses 20 to 25 people. We also have a chicken coop and will be able to sell fresh eggs. There’s a playground for kids and a very large open green space for community use. We have a small orchard with 30 fruit trees and a food forest for kids. Our orchard has apple, pear, citrus varieties, mango, persimmon and avocado trees.
A farm park council provides governance; it is a collaboration between our organization, the developer and community groups. We’ve learned to collaborate with the community to get feedback and input before decisions are made.
We hope to make Farm Park a centerpiece of Oakland….not just West Oakland. It’s kind of unique to have a facility like this. We really want to attract members from outside West Oakland to take advantage of the property. We want to spread the idea of urban farming and growing your own food.
Q: What kind of work are you doing with schools?
Rodney: We’re in the incubator stages of partnering with schools. It’s fun and easy to teach environmental science through gardens. At Vincent Academy I did this and we took a holistic approach to the environment and how we interact with it, all the way from growing your own food to composting and recycling. Something very interesting happened. Kids didn’t want to stop their projects to go to recess. That got us thinking about how we could expand school garden programs and add important science topics and concepts.
Q: What’s inspiring you most about the food system?
Rodney: I think that would be the combination of policy changes that are in favor of gardening. I think the opportunity – with the demographic change in our community – is an opportunity to highlight other things besides the food.
We can raise awareness of issues like social inequality. So it’s more than just food justice: social inequality in and of itself is being highlighted more. There’s policy action around that, too (example: a moratorium on steep rent increases). This work is really highlighting the need for social justice on a broader scale.