One of the many challenges people in historically underserved communities face is food insecurity. According to the Economic Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 10 percent of U.S. households in 2021 were food insecure. Families experiencing food insecurity often live in a food desert or are not able to afford food without assistance.
Communities in food deserts, in particular, lack access to fresh, nutrition-rich food; this presents consequences for the long-term health of those impacted. One such community is East Oakland, California, which has been designated a food desert by the USDA. According to a study conducted by UCLA in 2018, it is not unusual for parents in East Oakland to go without food so their children can eat.
In 2017, the East Oakland Neighborhoods Initiative (EONI) launched Better Neighborhoods Same Neighbors (BNSN), a community-driven initiative that seeks to improve the lives and livelihoods of residents. In 2020, BSBN received a $28.2 million grant from the state of California in support of its goals to improve infrastructure, lower carbon emissions, increase employment opportunities, build affordable housing, and eliminate food insecurity, among other goals.
BSBN partnered with Planting Justice, a non-profit organization with a mission to achieve food sovereignty in the underserved communities of East Oakland and provide employment to residents and people transitioning from prison.
With the support of the funding awarded to BNSN, Planting Justice acquired a former 3-acre nursery that previously stood vacant and blighted for 20 years. This, along with its existing nurseries, will make Planting Justice the largest and most productive urban aquaponics farm in the U.S. Along with the hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh, organic produce the aquaponics farm will produce exclusively for East Oakland, the nursery also plans to create 27 living-wage jobs.
To date, East Oakland's aquaponics farm has completed all the environmental requirements and permitting to begin building out the greenhouses on the new nursery's campus. The farm has also employed nearly 20 people at approximately $25/hr with benefits. All employees are from within the East Oakland community and can walk to work.
This fulfills several of BSBN's strategic goals:
- Increased employment at a living wage
- Access to higher-quality organic produce
- Lower greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition to the aquaponics farm, Planting Justice is working with the city to supply community residents with fruit trees from its tree farm.
"We were charged with planting 2,000 trees over the grant period; we have already planted over 300 of the fruit trees," says Marsha Murrington, 2018-2020 FUSE Fellow with the City of Oakland's Departments of Economic & Workforce Development, Housing & Community Development, and Planning & Building. Murrington estimates that by the end of 2023, there will be close to 1,000 trees planted.
Through community outreach, BSBN and Planting Justice are educating residents and planting fruit trees in the front and backyards of residential properties, a convenience that will make fresh fruit directly accessible to many of East Oakland's residents.
Considerations for Your Community
Food insecurity is a systemic issue in the U.S., especially with the recent skyrocket of food prices from inflation. Urban farming and neighborhood gardening are one way to empower communities to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in low-income communities of color suffering in food deserts.
Planners can make a difference by doing community outreach, implementing educational programs, and providing resources to help traditionally unserved populations increase their access to locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Many communities experience access to food as a privilege, rather than a basic human right. Better Neighborhoods Same Neighbors in East Oakland is a strong example of how that can change.
Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - phanthit
About the Author
Dina Walters is part of APA's Prioritize Equity team.