Food and the city

August 25, 2009

(Or, perhaps more accurately, “Food and The Town”…)

Urban food is back in a big way in my little city. The Oakland restaurant scene, which has been gathering energy for the past several years in spite of—or perhaps because of?—the bleak economic times, finally seems to be hitting its stride, and is making splashy news with features in GourmetSunset, Fortune, the New York Times, and other national publications. And the urban agriculture trend in town—from city chickens and bees to rooftop gardens to urban foraging—is getting some press time, too. The nice part, of course, is the positive publicity for Oakland. It’s been a pretty rough year for national media attention here amidst several tragedies. I thought we’d been thrown a small bone when the New York Times did a May “36 Hours” feature on Oakland that acknowledged the city’s reputation and bad press, but also called out some of the hidden gems. But that seemed to jump-start a sea of other articles. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there were articles on Oakland, and especially on Oakland food. But maybe it’s just that I notice those articles more. So I waited to see.

It started out slowly. First, while we were on a visit out East, my dad asked offhandedly if we lived anywhere near “that T neighborhood” that This Old House had recently dubbed one of the best old house neighborhoods in the country. (We pointed out that not only did we live just south of the Temescal, but they had even been to several restaurants there the last time they visited!) Just a few days later, wandering through bookstores in Manhattan, we spotted Novella Carpenter’s new book, Farm City, out front and center in several displays. Novella runs (and blogs about) a tiny urban farm about ten blocks from our house (although it feels like a world away given the freeway in between, so we haven’t actually been to check it out yet—soon!) At a cupcake shop in the East Village, the owner spotted my “I Hella ❤ Oakland” t-shirt and gushed over Oakland coffee, promising to trade me cupcakes for beans if I’d bring some on my next visit. (Granted, she actually asked for Peet’s—which is technically roasted just across the Oakland line in Emeryville, and which I was astounded to discover you can’t get in New York, since you can buy it in Boston!—but I told her I’d send some Blue Bottle instead.)

Then D.’s mother called to tell me she’d seen an article in the New York Times about all the Oaklanders who were jumping headfirst into the city farming movement, raising vegetables and chickens in the backyard. “There are lots of people like you!” she exclaimed. She sounded relieved. (The best part? I’m not even sure which article she was talking about, since the Oakland urban food movement was featured in the Times not once but twice this summer—the first piece focused on the Forage Oakland project, while the second talked about the urban homesteading trend in Oakland, where, in the best line from the article, “backyard menageries and D.I.Y. charcuterie are the new garage band.” I guess you know your neighborhood is officially “in transition” when you have all three, complete with a fleet of single-speed hipster bikes!)

None of this is news to Oaklanders, of course. The urban farming bug bit many people here years ago, especially because our temperate weather means that just about anything grows here. The city’s community gardens continue to have long waiting lists. (There are only eight to serve this city of 420,000—and that includes gardens reserved for OBUGS programs with youth.) And more and more friends have been jumping on the chicken wagon in recent years. (In fact, not long after we moved into our house, our neighbors got together and started planning a cooperative chicken coop for the block, though we have yet to make much progress on it! It’s near the top of the 2010 Resolutions list, though.)

Big Daddys Complete Rejuvenating Garden, a community garden and art project on the Emeryville/Oakland border. (Photo from Oakland Geology)

Big Daddy's Complete Rejuvenating Garden, a community garden and art project on the Emeryville/Oakland border. (Photo from Oakland Geology)

Neither is the urban homesteading trend unique to Oakland. Concerns around energy consumption and climate change, the local food movement, community health, and the global recession have sparked an immense flood of interest in creating more self-sufficient, healthier communities. Victory gardens are back in cities across the country. People are walking and biking more. They’re joining CSAs. This year’s Maker Faire, a big do-it-yourself event held annually in the South Bay, included an entire area devoted to food and gardens, with booths on everything from beekeeping to cheese making to urban foraging. Perhaps most importantly, organizations committed to food security and equitable food systems have been growing in recent years, too. Somehow, the convergence of the Bay Area’s foodie scene, culture of civic engagement and social justice, and a renewed interest in urban living have fostered a pretty vibrant urban food and agriculture community.

By July, we were awash in local food news. The Oakland Food Policy Council, one of only a few dozen city-run food councils nationwide, formally launched this summer, creating a space to bring together Oaklanders interested in food policy, infrastructure, and equity, from backyard gardens to restaurants to commercial farms to processing plants along the Estuary. (One of the OFPC’s major projects will be a strategic plan for food access and security in the city, which is critical, because thus far the “eat local” movement has not been especially accessible to lower income Oakland residents, and there are huge swathes of the city that remain underserved by grocery stores and farmers markets in spite of the sizable number of both that have opened in the central parts of the city in recent years.)

In August, PolicyLink and its partners released a new report on building viable urban food systems

In August, Oakland-based PolicyLink released a new report on building viable and fair urban food systems.

Not far away, Urban ROOTS, a new organization focused on creating cooperative “microfarms” throughout Oakland as a path to food security, was just getting rolling. In Old Oakland, Oakland Roots—a “school of urban sustainability”—had set up shop on a vacant downtown lot, and across town, Oakland Sol (Sustaining Ourselves Locally) spent the summer tilling their own vacant lot garden in the Lower San Antonio. This fall, Oakland Food Connection is getting ready to launch an after-school urban agriculture program at an East Oakland charter school where they built a rooftop vegetable garden last year, and I noticed recently that all three of the elementary schools near our house now have raised beds in their schoolyards, as does Mosswood Park. A message just came across our neighborhood listserv today about an effort to organize Oakland’s PTAs to advocate for major changes to the Child Nutrition Act to promote healthier school lunchs when it comes up for reauthorization this year. Everywhere you turn, the energy is building.

And last but not least, coming up this weekend is the Eat Real Festival in Jack London Square. Taking place on Friday the 28th through Sunday the 30th, the festival purportedly started as an effort to bring the local food movement to the masses by celebrating street food, beer, and the other simple pleasures in life after last year’s Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco got some flack for coming across as a little too high-brow (and prohibitively expensive) for many local residents. The Eat Real Festival, in contrast, is free (except for the Beer Shed, where tickets for all-you-can-drink beer are $20 in advance or $25 at the door). It’s grown into a pretty massive undertaking, though. The three-day schedule now features everything from street food to a special farmer’s market to to a butchering contest to outdoor movies and live music to a canning and foraging demonstration and food swap. There are accompanying dinners to raise funds for local nonprofits, bike tours of food in the city, and even a tour of Novella Carpenter’s Ghosttown Farm, complete with a chicken slaughter (not sure I’m up to that quite yet!) and a how-to-raise-goats session.

So there’s a lot to do and a lot to think about (and a whole lot to eat!) around Oaktown—and in cities across the country—these days. Here’s a little taste!

Oakland food organizations:

Recent Oakland restaurant coverage in the national press:

General Oakland coverage:



  1. Thanks so much for this. I always leave your blog full of pride for our city.

  2. Will you be posting an Eat Real review? I was upset I couldn’t make it, I think the kids would have liked it too.

  3. Sure, though I didn’t get around to taking any pics sadly—but maybe can borrow some from others who did! When we got there Sunday they were in the middle of a cooking demonstration for preschoolers (of whom there were a huge number on both Friday night and Sunday morning, for some reason!) so I thought of Chimpy. 🙂

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