City Slicker Farms began with a mission to empower West Oakland community members to meet the basic need for fresh, healthy food by creating sustainable, high-yield urban farms and backyard gardens.
When City Slicker Farms was founded, there was nowhere in West Oakland, a low-income community of color, to buy fresh, healthy food. The community’s health and well-being was suffering tremendously because of an absence of nutritious food coupled with pollution, poverty, and a lack of contact with nature in an industrial landscape. In 2001, a group of West Oakland community members decided they would help by growing healthy food right in their own neighborhood. There were plenty of vacant lots in the area, so growing food in unused spaces was a natural fit. One of the neighbors, Willow Rosenthal, donated the use of a plot of land for the first City Slicker Farms garden on Center Street. The founding farmers were intent on maximizing food production at the Center Street Farm, so they formed committees, such as
the “compost committee” and the “chicken committee” to make sure the work was done properly. City Slicker Farms was entirely a volunteer effort at first. Whatever produce wasn’t taken home by the farmers was put out for anyone to take for free. Most people, though, didn’t want to take it for free. They wanted to honor the labor of the farmers and honor their own ability to contribute, and so began the weekly Center Street Farm Stand.
Willow Rosenthal became the organization’s first Director, and the founding farmers became an advisory board. The City Slicker Farms model was built on a rich history of farming in African American, Latino, and immigrant families. And people appreciated its practicality, too. People could use empty spaces in their neighborhood to grow food that was desperately needed in a neighborhood with a very high poverty rate, a liquor store on nearly every block but no grocery stores. For many neighbors, City Slicker Farms
awakened an almost-forgotten knowledge of home food production. Many community residents could remember a family member who had grown and preserved their own food and how good that food tasted. Soon people were seeing potential gardens all over the neighborhood, including in their own backyards.
By gathering to celebrate food, share resources and knowledge, and preserve food-ways, we nourish and strengthen the resilience of our communities. Growing food in urban areas presents natural challenges. As a craft, urban farmers look for ways to produce the large quantities of healthy food in the smallest of spaces. Many of the techniques we use today were pioneered as City Slicker Farms and other like-minded organizations transformed hundreds of backyards, vacant and blighted spaces of West Oakland landscape into family and community gardens. The bureaucratic and legal landscape often provided additional challenges for urban farmers and gardeners. As City Slicker Farms fought to provide direct access to West Oakland residents, the organization also partnered with the Oakland Food Policy Council, and other like-minded organizations to lobby for favorable laws that empower individual families to produce and sell their own food.
In 2010, we began searching for permanent roots to serve as a home base for our programs and the community. We found a vacant brownfield on the corner of Peralta and Helen St. and with the help of the community and funding from Proposition 84, we turned it into a thriving community park and urban farm. Launched in June 2016 after deep community involvement in the planning and design process, the West Oakland Farm Park is now a hub for sustainable agriculture, environmental awareness and action, and health education. Nowhere else in the Bay Area has an organization demonstrated the permanence of urban agriculture in the way that the West Oakland Farm Park proves possible, nor are there any similar parks in the city that integrate environmental and agricultural learning opportunities as fully as this site