In the last two decades, thousands of small farms have appeared in cities around the world. They provide neighborhoods with healthy food, herbs and flowers. For those without local access to a grocery store, they are an absolute necessity.
Many city leaders and community organizations are continuing to develop many acres of vacant land to help revitalize blighted communities and create some measure of hope to the underserved. One such city is Oakland, California, a metropolis of 300,000, with a rich history of political and social activism. Oakland, the eighth largest city in the state, has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the U.S. Despite decades of disinvestment, systemic racism, a crime rate that is one of the highest in the country, a drug epidemic, and youth unemployment, the city’s fortunes are turning. Investment has increased, sustainable energy practices are being implemented, technology companies are relocating to the city and the arts community is thriving.
Neighborhoods are fast becoming gentrified. Gentrification, while increasing property values and ‘improving’ neighborhoods, is a mixed blessing. Where do the poor go when the affluent move in?
While the city’s fortunes are rising, there are many who remain untouched by the surge in economic and cultural prosperity. A large number are at-risk youth who experience social and economic hardships including poverty or homelessness, teen pregnancy, gang membership and consequent involvement with the criminal justice system. This is where West Oakland Woods (WOW) Farm comes in.
WOW Farm is an example of a small-scale agriculture and horticulture enterprise partnering with community organizations, schools, volunteers and the business community. In affiliation with Game Theory Academy, it runs programs to teach young people how to grow, harvest and market plants and, at the same time, giving them the tools for strategic decision making and financial self-reliance.
“I am learning how to farm. I want to grow vegetables and make my grandmother’s salsa and sell it.” – Wow Farm intern.
“I am doing this because I want a career farming herbs. I want to start a shop selling lotions and balms. I have a sister with lupus and herbal medicine really helps her. I want to help her and lots of other people.” – WOW Flower Farm Intern
In 2012, WOW farm’s founder, Philip Krohn, partnered with Patricia Johnson of Game Theory Academy to develop a 3,000 square foot triangular lot as an enterprising micro-model for organic vegetable production and youth empowerment.
(Game Theory Academy http://www.gametheoryacademy.org/ )
“It’s a really great program and I can use it as a stepping stone to college and a career.” WOW Flower Farm intern.
In 2014, the farm expanded its operations to a second site, a 7,000 square foot asphalt plaza outside an abandoned train station. The asphalt was removed, soil brought in and a flower farm was created. Both are small plots of land but they are farmed intensively.
“I am learning how to be an activist. How to organize my thinking and my actions. I want to be an activist for people who are forced out of their homes and have to live in their cars. There are people who have been here for three generations. Now they have nowhere to live. So many live in their cars.”-WOW Flower Farm intern.
Student-farmers select what to grow, when to grow it and when to harvest it. WOW now sells vegetables and flowers to gourmet restaurants and florists in the area. Its success is not only measured by the number and quality of the plants it produces but by the growing self-advocacy of its students. “I am doing this because it gets me off the street. I am getting away from the bad people.” – WOW Farm Intern.
For five months a year about thirty Oakland high school students earn a paycheck by working on the farm while studying strategic thinking, time management and other necessities of financial stability. Game Theory Academy’s mandate is to provide strategic decision making tools in a business context and in a way that they can apply in their own lives.
Growing flowers and vegetables is a tool – a means to an end. As Patricia Johnson says, “Growing food and flowers is incredibly meaningful in that the young people experience a degree of contact with nature that they’ve never had before. They learn a lot about nature by watching the seeds grow. They experience that little bit of magic in the transformation process from seed to food, and farm to table.”
The medium is the message. What would our world be like if we taught every child to garden? What if we taught every child to take care of something?