Planting Justice: Food Sovereignty in the Bay Area

Oakland citizens tend the garden at Afrika Town. Credit: Indy Bay News
Oakland citizens tend the garden at Afrika Town. (Credit: Indy Bay News)

Kieran Shell

Food security is the concept of being able to regularly find and afford healthy fresh food, whether it is from your backyard or a grocery store (USDA). Food sovereignty is growing the food yourself, on your own land, and on your own terms. Food security has almost everything to do with income. Food sovereignty is more complex but is, basically, the ability of a community to sustainably harvest enough food to feed itself year round. And while food sovereignty is the ultimate goal of the food justice movement, basic food security, while it can remain within the constraints of capitalism, is a vitally important building block for a healthy community.

“Food sovereignty goes well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs… Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems…It asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat.” (US FSA)

Food Insecurity

(Credit: Magnolia Pictures)
(Credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Our food system is broken and does not meet the needs of a large portion of our population. Fewer and fewer people grow their own food, while those who continue to farm receive less profit. In the 1980s and the 1990s, half of all rural farmers in the U.S. lost their jobs and were forced to move to towns and cities, replaced by huge corporations growing monocrops and using cheap, exploited immigrant labor (GRACE), and by 2010 farmers were receiving 14 cents of every dollar spent on food in the U.S., down from 36 cents in 1974 (Allen). As more people become disconnected from land and place, knowledge of food becomes scarce, and the health and well-being of the population suffers as a result.

The USDA defines hunger as "an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity."
The USDA defines hunger as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” (Credit: Google)

Food insecurity is a massive problem in the United States. In 2015 over 43 million people, or about 13.5% of the entire population, were considered food-insecure, or were unable to consistently afford enough nutritious food throughout the year (Feeding America). This figure disproportionately affects minority groups: 21% of Latinx, 22% of African Americans, and 23% of Indigenous Americans (Zielinski) were food insecure in recent years (Gordon & Oddo), compared to 10% of White people.

Food security is not just about the quantity of food available, but the quality as well. One can be eating large amounts of low-quality calories and be considered food insecure. It is well documented that eating cheap, processed foods is directly correlated with disease and death. Food-related illness is, indeed, the leading cause of death in the United States (HCWH). As Simone Senogles says in this video on regaining food sovereignty:

“We all know that indigenous [and young, black, and brown] people suffer disproportionately from health problems such as diabetes and heart disease but why is this? It’s not as though we are naturally unhealthy, and just a few generations ago these diseases were virtually unknown. And it’s not just about personal choice. It’s the result of a corporate controlled global food system that values profit over human and ecological health, and it’s the result of genocide, colonization, and the disruption of traditional ways of life language and culture.” (Indigenous Environmental Network)

 Planting Justice

Logo of Planting Justice (Credit: Planting Justice)
Logo of Planting Justice (Credit: Planting Justice)

Planting Justice is a grassroots organization based in Oakland, California that works to put control of all aspects of nutritious, organic and sustainable food back into the hands of those who need it most “by empowering urban residents with the skills, resources and knowledge they need to maximise food production, expand job opportunities, and ensure environmental sustainability in the Bay Area” (Planting Justice). Founded by Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders in 2009, Planting Justice uses crowdfunding campaigns and both public and private grants to give ex-convicts living-wage jobs, experience and opportunity, fund projects that bring healthy food and education to local communities, and help those communities realize the potential they have for true sovereignty over their food. Planting Justice is 40% self-funded, 40% crowdfunded, and 20% grant-funded (JPMasser). As activists or organizers for food and climate justice, we can learn many lessons from the resilient programs and actions of Planting Justice.

Volunteer waters community gardens in Afrika Town, Oakland.
Volunteer waters community gardens in Afrika Town, Oakland. (Credit: East Bay Express)

Incarceration and Food

This chart shows the correlation between incarceration and poverty within households.
This chart shows the correlation between incarceration and poverty within households. (Credit: UC Davis)

Incarceration has a strong correlation with food insecurity, especially in households with children (Cox). Incarceration is extremely stressful on the families of the convicted, and when prisoners are released they are often unemployed and without opportunities, leaving already struggling families not much better off than before the release. In Oakland 70% of ex-inmates are unemployed, and with recidivism hovering at 65% it is easy to see how the two might be connected (PJ/1). The most important thing for a newly released prisoner to have is a steady job, which Planting Justice has provided for those living in and around East Oakland. Planting Justice has hired more than 20 former prisoners since its inception, and not a single one has been re-convicted. In the video below, former inmates hired by Planting Justice tell their stories.

Inmates hold up freshly harvested vegetables in San Quentin.
Inmates hold up freshly harvested vegetables in San Quentin. (Credit: The Mind Unleashed)


Insight Garden Program

Bilal Coleman on the Farm. (Credit: Planting Justice)
Bilal Coleman on the Farm. (Credit: Planting Justice)

Since its inception in 2009, Planting Justice has been involved with the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin Prison in Marin County, where inmates are given the opportunity to learn a skill (farming) while also doing self-work in preparation for release, when they are offered a guaranteed job conditional on their participation in the IGP. Many of Planting Justice’s employees were hired directly from San Quentin through this garden program, and none have returned. The overall recidivism rate for 117 ex-convicts who participated in this program is just under 10%—an extreme improvement from California’s notorious 65% rate (Insight Garden Program). Convicts are taught horticulture as a life-long skill grounded in social and climate justice, and participate in spiritually oriented activities as well. “The IGP curriculum includes an ‘Inner Gardener’ module, which utilizes meditation, poetry, and a variety of self-reflection tools as elements of emotional process work, along with sessions held by ecotherapists and horticultural therapists” (Rohleder).

More than pointing out the faults of the system, I want to highlight the positive moments of freedom, growth, and community… I am the 18th person that Planting Justice has hired from San Quentin. My 17 predecessors have all successfully made the transition and stayed out of prison… I am human. I am gentle. I do not deserve to be thrown away.  I have a light to shine.”Bilal Coleman

Although prison gardens are just a small part of a massive struggle against food and prison injustice, they are a very effective way of creating real change for real people. The reality is that while prison abolition and food sovereignty is the ultimate goal, it probably is not going to happen overnight. As Haleh Zandi noted: “We have been working for the past five  years to get a veggie garden inside San Quentin. This is something we can do in every prison in California and every prison across the nation, but hopefully this isn’t something we have to do forever” (Gillis).

Programs like these provide a partial example of what a society without policing and incarceration could look like, and while one organization can only help so many people, the real benefit of the Planting Justice model is just that: an example of something will need to be repeated hundreds and thousands of times until freedom and fresh organic food is a reality for everyone.

In fact, the Insight Garden Program is a long shot from being one of a kind. In this article, Emily Gilbert shows how prison gardens in the U.S. have significantly improved rehabilitation, reduced recidivism, lowered food costs and strengthened food security both in prisons and the surrounding communities. Many prison garden programs produce much more food than can be eaten by inmates. The surplus is often donated to local food banks where it is distributed directly to those who need it most. (Gilbert)

Employees water the nursery in Sobrante Park. (Credit: Planting Justice)
Employees water the nursery in Sobrante Park. (Credit: Planting Justice)

Sobrante Park Aquaponics and Education

In 2014 Planting Justice began work on a financially and environmentally self-sustainable nursery and aquaponics farm in the middle of a “food desert” in East Oakland. The majority of the $150,000 of the down payment for this farm came from kickstarter, a crowdfunding website (Fancher). This farm will produce 100,000 pounds of fresh food every year using an aquaponics system, an important step in an area that suffered from record-breaking drought (Baptista). In 2015 Planting Justice acquired the largest and most diverse collection of organic food trees in North America, and relocated it to the farm in East Oakland, empowering severely marginalized communities with control over an extremely valuable, productive and sustainable natural resource. Free mass trainings in farming, permaculture and social justice are offered regularly, as well as extended paid trainings for former inmates (PJ/2). While urban farms generally sell their produce to upscale restaurants to make a profit, this farm will have a farm stand on site that features sliding-scale pricing in order to distribute the produce as efficiently as possible to those who need it most.

Check these videos to get a better look at the farm in Sobrante Park, East Oakland:

Transform Your Yard

(Credit: Planting Justice)
(Credit: Planting Justice)

The Transform Your Yard program is a lawn-to-garden program that has built hundreds of gardens in the Bay Area in recent years. While services like this are usually only accessible to those with a disposable income, Planting Justice’s model uses the income (at standard landscaping rates) from building three or four gardens for those with means, to subsidize one free garden for a low-income household (Hiles). Building these gardens also provides a good income for employees and valuable education for interns, volunteers and homeowners alike. Each Garden means one more household that will contribute significantly less to the globalized capitalist economy, and hopefully significantly more towards organized, sustainable community. The goal is to eventually find a way to make these services available to everyone, equally. (PJ/3)

Check out this slideshow to see Transform Your Yard in action!

Afrika Town

Oakland residents check out the mural at Afrika Town. (Credit:
Oakland residents check out the mural at Afrika Town. (Credit:

In Fall 2014, Planting Justice helped clean up a lot in West Oakland and turn it into a community garden with the help of Quilombo, a “radical community social center” that sits adjacent to the gardens (PJ/4). Originally called “The Holdout” while occupied by anarchists in 2011, the space on San Pablo and 23rd was re-organized as Quilombo in 2014. In the early spring of 2015 it was revealed that the owner of the lot, Noel Yi, was going to bulldoze the gardens to make room for luxury condominiums. When he showed up with bulldozers and eight cops on March 26th, garden volunteers were there to stop them. After a confrontation, it was “agreed” that if the gardens were not removed by April 3rd they would be demolished (Shabazz). When Noel returned that day, he was met by hundreds of people participating in an organized “Liberation Day” complete with live music and an inflated bouncy house filled with kids (Tsai). The gardens still stand, but the legal battle is not over yet. Residents have resolved to buy the land outright, but with the bill at just under a million dollars, this may prove difficult. In the meantime, vegetables grow and people are healthy.

Radical bookstore in Quilombo (Credit: Quilombo)
Radical bookstore in Quilombo (Credit: Quilombo)

In addition to being a garden site, Quilombo is a radical organizing space with a stocked bookstore, free computers and regular decolonial creative writing workshops (Quilombo).

“All are welcome to come to the garden with no judgment, including drug addicts, sex workers, and other so-called ‘throwaway people’ — many of whom are now eating more vegetables and feeling healthier… ‘Oakland could be the one to lead the rest of the country on how to beautify and do community revitalization in a real way’.” –Danae Martinez


Planting Justice offers activists and organizers lessons and models of how to make the most of limited resources and what really works. The astounding fact that none of the people that Planting Justice has hired from prison have ever been reincarcerated shows that prison as we know it is a complete failure of a “correctional” system. By starting with a training program in prison, guaranteeing a job on release and paying a living wage, Planting Justice shows that ending recidivism is easily possible.

Placing an aquaponics farm in East Oakland is doubly symbolic. Food will be provided fresh and at affordable prices in the middle of an impoverished food desert, while the water saved by the aquaponics system helps keep Oakland from becoming an actual desert. As the farm is still under construction there is no data yet on how many people it can actually feed, but with a planned harvest of 100,000 pounds per year, and in conjunction with the many other farms and gardens being built in the area, many are optimistic.

The gardens at Afrika Town are an impressive start to what will be a fully functioning cultural center in the years to come. The example of the resistance of April 3, 2015 shows us how having a party or festive atmosphere during an act of civil disobedience, especially with children, not only provides mental and emotional fortitude in a stressful situation, it sends a powerful message to oppressors: We are here, we are a community, we are normal. You are out of the ordinary in this place. We will stay, we will thrive.

Grassroots canvassers pose in the garden. (Credit: Planting Justice
Grassroots canvassers pose in the garden. (Credit: Planting Justice)

“Indigenous peoples from California to India and across the world understood what we have only recently forgotten: that we are part of nature, that our lives are dependent upon the lives of all living beings, and that our collective actions determine whether our descendants experience scarcity or abundance” (Planting Justice, 5).


As this is a very current story, my main mode of research for this project was web-media. It is fairly difficult to find media that will portray community gardens in a bad light. It seems that, in terms of media, garden programs fight not against bad coverage, but lack of coverage. As media coverage was never conflicting, my job was simply to piece together facts to put together a picture of radical gardens in the East Bay, and what they mean to food justice activists and organizers.

Allen, W., & Wilson, C. (2013). The good food revolution: growing healthy food, people, and communities. New York: Avery.

Baptista, P. (2014). Water Use Efficiency in Hydroponics and Aquaponics. Bright Agro Tech.

Cox, R and Wallace, S. (2013). The Impact of Incarceration on Food Insecurity in Households with Children. The Semantic Scholar.

Fancher, L. (2016). Urban farm Planting Justice adds East Oakland site, hires ex-offenders. San Jose Mercury News.

Feeding America. (2017). Hunger and Poverty Facts and StatisticsFeeding America.

Gilbert, Emily. (2012). Five Urban Garden Programs that are Reaching Inmates and At-Risk Populations. Nourishing the Planet.

Gillis, Carly. (2014). Here’s Some Prison Food That Actually Isn’t Also Being Used To Punish Inmates. Upworthy.

Gordon, A and Oddo, V. (2012). Addressing Child Hunger and Obesity in Indian Country. Mathematica Policy Research.

GRACE Communication Foundation (2017).  Food Economics

Health Care Without Harm. (2017). Healthy Food in Health Care.

Hiles, Rachel. (2014). Planting Justice Builds Edible Gardens for Urban Dwellers. Oakland North.

Indigenous Environmental Network. (2003). Regaining food sovereignty.

Insight Garden Program. (2017). Research and StudiesPlanting Justice.

J. P. Massar. (April 19, 2016). Planting Justice. Reaping Social Change

Quilombo. (2017).

Rohleder, A. (2014). Gardening Behind Bars: San Quentin’s First Harvest. Civil Eats.

Planting Justice. (2017). Holistic ReentryNursery and Aquaponics FarmTransform Your YardEducation and Ongoing Projects.

Shabazz, R. (2016). Hundreds Defend ‘Afrika Town’ Community Garden in Oakland. East Bay Express.

Tsai, L. (April 3, 2015). West Oakland Activists Vow to Defend Afrika Town Community Garden. East Bay Express.

United States Department of Agriculture. (2016). Definitions of Food Security.

United States Food Sovereignty Alliance. (2016). Food Sovereignty.

Zielinski, A. (2015). The Native American Community Faces Dangerously High Levels of Food Insecurity. Think Progress.