Oak Park: Epicenter of the Food Movement
Is it plausible that the epicenter of our local food movement is in Oak Park? If you pull back the layers and look deep into the soul of that neighborhood, you’ll find an inspiring and rising current of change and possibility.
Step into a local elementary school, and you’ll find kindergarteners cooking with vegetables during an after-school food literacy program. Walk past a local high school, and you’ll find a bustling school garden. Peek into a backyard, and you’ll find a child’s playhouse equipped with a rooftop backyard garden. Even the local food bank boasts a thriving vegetable plot tucked behind wrought iron bars.
Oak Park, Sacramento’s first suburb, is a scene of collaboration, change and surprisingly delicious food. In many ways, the food itself is driving the improvements.
Oak Park was once known for violence, drugs and prostitution. In 2007, a grant called Weed and Seed invested funding to improve the area. Based on dialog with residents, existing nonprofits like NeighborWorks invested those funds in food. They created the Oak Park Farmers Market and garden crop swaps.
Meanwhile, Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services was turning the idea of food banking on its head. Instead of asking hungry people to come to them, they began a series of mobile food distributions, reaching deep into this community to bring food where it was needed most.
Food. It’s fundamental to a healthy life. Imagine living in a world where a majority of residents are hungry. Imagine a neighborhood where the nearest store sells only junk food and liquor rather than produce and groceries. This sort of neighborhood is known as a “food desert.”
Children living in food deserts can’t perform well in school when they haven’t fueled their bodies with proper nutrition. Mothers can’t perform well at work when their stomachs are rumbling. Teenagers might act out in frustration when their main nutrients for the day have come from sugar and preservatives.
For many of these problems, a simple answer is food: not just having enough of it, but having access to the quality type of food that sets your heart—and your brain and liver and stomach—to sing.
It was for these reasons—and more—that the Oak Park Farmers Market was formed. And the neighborhood changes continued to build.
In 2010, the California Endowment, a statewide foundation, shifted to a place-based funding model. Rather than scattering services across a metropolitan area (a food bank in one neighborhood, an urban farm in another neighborhood, and a free mental health clinic in yet another neighborhood), the foundation wondered what might be possible by strategically layering all services in one area.
“It’s focused,” says Christine Tien, program manager for the Endowment. “We like to focus efforts on institutional policies and practices. There’s a greater chance of sustainability in perpetuity.”
Focused, placed-based systems change is taking shape in many forms throughout South Sacramento, the area the Endowment selected for its funding. Within this large area, North Oak Park stands out as the shining success.
North Oak Park offers significant assets that are critical to community development: business development, public gathering spaces, proximity to downtown Sacramento, proud agricultural and culinary history, existing nonprofits and strong resident leadership.
AGRICULTURAL & CULINARY HISTORY
Oak Park’s recent trend toward food-centered improvements, be they economic or social service in nature, hearkens to its roots in food and agricultural.
“In its earliest years, Oak Park was rural farmland just south of the city limits,” writes Lee M.S. Simpson in the historical book, Images of America: Sacramento’s Oak Park. The majority of income in Oak Park’s 1891 beginnings came from vineyards and dairy farms. In the 1930s, one of the area’s more successful businesses was Dunlap’s Dining Room, featuring Southern cooking.
Fast forward to recent history, and food continues to be core to community development strategies.
In May 2003, Mayor Kevin Johnson focused his nonprofit, St. Hope, on revitalizing the Oak Park neighborhood. The nonprofit built the mixed-use 40 Acres Art and Cultural Center, which included a bookstore, theater (which, for three years, has housed the Sacramento Food Film Festival), coffee shop and more. The Old Soul coffee shop is now a bustling center for food movement activity.
In 2011, the Oak Park Farmers Market opened in McClatchy Park.
“There’s a large immigrant population in Oak Park with strong ag roots,” says Shawn Harrison, executive director of Soil Born Farms, one of the nonprofits working strategically on Oak Park community development, including partnering on the opening of the Oak Park Farmers Market.
“Knowledge of cooking is part of the culture here. You can’t discount that,” says Harrison.
In addition to NeighborWorks, many local nonprofits have historically focused services in the Oak Park area. Several currently have their offices in the neighborhood, including Alchemists Community Development Corporation (CDC), an agency largely known for bringing CalFresh (formerly known as “food stamps”) to local farmers markets; Ubuntu Green, working to plant urban gardens throughout the neighborhood; Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services; and several more.
In 2012, Colonial Heights Library in South Sacramento became one of the only libraries in the region to plant a community garden. They also operate a seed library and have plans to open a community kitchen.
“Endowment picked South Sac ultimately because, at the time, there was a history of collaboration among organizations in the area,” says Tien.
Trends in the national food movement have echoed the happenings in Oak Park: mobile food banking, school gardens, backyard agriculture, libraries with community gardens and kitchens, and more.
Harrison’s role as head of Soil Born Farms has positioned him as leader of an independent collaborative of nonprofits called the Food Access Work Group. With funding from the California Endowment, Harrison facilitates the group to work jointly, overlapping their services to provide Oak Park residents with the benefit of multiple food services to improve the region for the long term.
Examples of these overlapping services include Soil Born Farm’s backyard fruit tree harvesting program, bringing fruit to Food Literacy Center for its after-school cooking and nutrition classes; or Alchemists CDC working with local convenience stores to sell fresh produce from a local urban farm. As more nonprofits unite their services, the more it infuses the community with resources for long-term improvements.
Among the agencies working collaboratively through the Food Access Work Group are Alchemists CDC, Food Literacy Center, Ubuntu Green, Soil Born Farms, City Councilman Jay Schenerier’s Office, NeighborWorks and many more.
“When we started our work in 2000, there were very few organizations that were really focused on this particular issue of food,” says Harrison. “That’s completely changed.”
“All of that signals to me that change is afoot. You want more providers doing this work, more folks paying attention and understanding what this work is about. Like food literacy—no one even knew what that was, or food deserts. They weren’t in the common vernacular and they are now,” says Harrison. “The idea of urban ag and an edible city—the first time I used the term people thought I was a wacko.”
STRONG RESIDENT LEADERSHIP
The growing momentum in the Oak Park region is largely being driven by young leaders.
“There are a number of young folks, 20s and 30s, that have started to move into Oak Park and have an interest in urban ag and food systems,” notes Tien. “Davida Douglas (Alchemists CDC), Paul Towers (at the time, Pesticide Watch), Randy Stannard (Soil Born Farms), Yisrael Family Farm (urban farm), Charles Mason (Ubuntu Green).”
Last September, residents collectively created a localized version of the Farm to Fork Festival at Yisrael Family Farm, targeting their neighbors. They called it “Urban Farm to Fork,” charged $20, and no one was turned away. They didn’t need to hold a press conference to announce it. The community organically united around food—a strong tradition that has existed in Oak Park for decades.
Outside the nonprofit arena, local artists, entrepreneurs and civic leaders have gravitated toward Oak Park.
Roshaun Davis recently moved both his event management business, Unseen Heroes, and family home to Oak Park.
“All the people have put work into Oak Park to make it bud,” says Davis. “Now it’s becoming the beautiful flower and we want to be part of developing that.”
Davis has a long list of friends and business companions that are now his neighbors in Oak Park, including a chef at Hook and Ladder and a home brewed soda pop entrepreneur.
For both new and existing residents of Oak Park, the drive to improve the area is palpable.
“The national food movement has drawn more people into the conversation from service provider standpoint and volunteers,” notes Harrison. “I don’t think the national conversation around Slow Food has had tremendous impact on residents of that community. The motivating factor for them is activities that they can easily understand and goes straight to their pocket book, diet.”
“With food you can figure out concrete strategies around food access, food production and education,” says Tien. “They are easily understood, real activities that people can easily engage with, see a return on their time invested. There’s a focus to it.”
PUBLIC GATHERING SPACES
One of the most important elements of Oak Park’s success is its public gathering spaces, most notably Old Soul coffee shop.
Davis calls Old Soul a “third space.”
“These are spaces that make people feel comfortable outside of their homes, where community interactions happen,” says Davis.
Visit Old Soul on any given day, and you’re likely to run into someone who’s working to improve the community, and most likely, a leader in the food movement. This is where many of Oak Park’s informal decisions are made, where leaders meet each other and build collaboration, where bold ideas are formed.
When Silicon Valley was first forming as a center for technology, a similar thing happened: informal meetings were taking place in the local coffee shops and bars, where leaders gathered to break bread and shape innovations.
For the local food movement, ground zero is Old Soul. On a recent visit there with Davis, we were discussing advances coming out of the neighborhood. I told him about a new microbrewery, Oak Park Brewing Company. Davis said he hoped to meet the owners. Not 10 minutes later, owner and Chef Christopher Davis-Murai walked into Old Soul, tired and dirty from the construction taking place on the site a few blocks away. Introductions were made and business cards exchanged.
On another visit, I was meeting with a food bank staffer from Yolo County. As we wrapped up, two directors from the Sacramento food bank walked in. Introductions were made, and a new conversation picked up and ideas were shared. This is the organic innovation that Oak Park’s food leaders are sparking.
In June, Davis partnered with the Oak Park Business Association on a monthly neighborhood street festival called “Gather,” an event that united 1,000 area residents on its launch night. They closed down a city street at 33rd Avenue and Broadway in front of Old Soul. Music, food trucks, food literacy activities and fun were on the menu. In August, the festival will expand to include a community kitchen where attendees can purchase food from a variety of vendors. Ryan Donahue and Mike Thiemann, owners of Mother, are helping coordinate the space, where a portion of the proceeds will go back to the local community, earmarked for Food Literacy Center to provide more food literacy to children.
The festival’s tagline? “A community that eats together stays together.”
Amber K. Stott, founding executive director of the nonprofit Food Literacy Center, delivers food literacy in Oak Park and grows her own groceries in Sacramento. She blogs about living la vida locavore at Awake at the Whisk. She’s chair of the Sacramento Region Food System Collaborative and has been named a “Food Revolution Hero” by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.
Marita Madeloni, award-winning blogger and food photographer, captures everyday food experiences, farm-fresh food businesses and food education on her blog Food, Love & Tradition and her business, Madeloni Photography. In 2012, her blog won the Country Living Blue Ribbon Blogger Awards.