Urban youth farm a community gathering place in East Oakland

Kelly Carlisle, founder of Acta Non Verba Youth Farm, harvest greens during a recent Wednesday afternoon. She is being assisted by her daughter Kaiyah Carlisle, 7, and Christina Vega, 11. Photo: Marnette Federis/California Health Report

An east Oakland urban youth farm is an unexpected patch of green oasis, set among concrete mazes that make up the city’s busy freeways.

Since its grand opening last fall, the farm is quickly becoming an educational resource for kids, a place where the community gathers and families get fresh fruits and vegetables for whatever they can afford to pay.

Founded by Kelly Carlisle, the farm is the epicenter for the program Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project aimed at teaching kids in East Oakland about planting, growing and harvesting fresh vegetables for their families and the surrounding community.

“This is unique in that the kids will really be able to plan, plant, nurture and grow, harvest and sell their produce,” says Carlisle.

Located on the Tassafaronga Park, the Farm has 22 plant beds, each measuring 5 feet by 10 feet, and overflowing with broccoli stalks, kale, Swiss chard and other greens. The farm sits behind a recreation center, adjacent to a baseball diamond. Rows of brightly painted apartment buildings and town homes that make up the affordable housing complex of the Tassafaronga Village, overlook the quarter-acre piece of land.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, community members are invited to come through the farm and take what’s ready for harvest. Kids between the ages of 7 to 12 years old help Carlisle in maintaining the farm by learning how to plant, pull weeds, fight off aphids and bugs and haul mulch.

Soon, Carlisle plans to set up a farm stand where youth participants and farmers, who rent the beds, can earn a small profit. Carlisle will work with families to make sure any dollars made by participating youth will go towards educational accounts.

“Our organization, when we were first starting out, when we were putting on paper, it looked like a food justice organization,” says Carlisle. “But it evolved to more than that. Really, it’s a community development [organization].”

Part of her vision is to see adults and kids growing fruits and creating products with it, such as gooseberry pies, which can then be sold. It won’t make anybody rich, she adds, but it’s something. Currently, residents don’t have to pay for any of the harvested goods, but are encouraged to give whatever donation they can afford. So far, the farm has a profit of $10.58, Carlisle says with a chuckle.

For the kids who regularly come to the garden, taking home or giving away what’s been harvested is part of the fun. Christina Vega, 11, is among the core group of kids who regularly spend time at the farm.

“When people come, we give them vegetables and fruits … it’s fun,” says Christina as she hops over a puddle of water, her long brown her bouncing behind her in a ponytail. “When you plant strawberries, you get to pick them … they’re delicious!”

Thirteen-year-old Maryam Nasirova’s family lives in an apartment just steps away from the farm. The seventh grader volunteers as part of her community service hours for school a few times each month. Nasirova says she wishes her family had a garden, but they have no backyard.

“When my family first moved here, this was super empty, there was nothing here,” she says gesturing to the area around the farm. “I’m not an outdoor person, but this is fun.”

Deeds, not words

Carlisle grew up in East Oakland before moving with her family to Albany. She doesn’t have fond memories of her hometown because of the lack of activities for kids and seeing pimps and drug dealers on the streets.

“I hated how dry it was all the time, there was nothing to do, it was a dangerous to be out,” she says.

But as an adult, Carlisle was spurred into action after learning about the problems plaguing Oakland, including a soaring crime rate and a dismal 40 percent graduation rate among high school kids.

“There’s a whole demographic here that has zero say on what goes on,” says Carlisle. “Children don’t have control over where they live, how they live, what resources are available to them and so I really thought it was unfair.

She decided to create an urban agriculture program and youth farm called Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project in 2011. In Latin, “acta non verba” translates to “deeds, not words.”

A study released in 2009 by the Hope Collaborative, a group also studying environmental health and food policy, found that the zip code where the farm is located has one supermarket compared to 32 liquor stores.

Carlisle says the farm is more than just a place for residents to get fresh produce.

“It’s access to fresh foods, vegetables,” she says. “But you know, really, it’s access to hope, access to something different to what you see.”

Through the farm, Carlisle says she hopes kids can have a broader scope of the world and find techniques on how to cope with life. Farming—at times a tedious but rewarding process—teaches them about hard work and perseverance.

A place to learn and gather

“How are you doing sir?” Carlisle calls out through the wire mesh that surrounds the farm to a man walking across the street.

“That salad was delicious!” the man responds.

“You had it already?” asks Carlisle, flashing a big smile.

“Oh, yes,” the man smiles back. “Friday, I’ll be here. I won’t be so shy next time.”

It’s this type of spontaneous interaction that often happens when Carlisle is working at the farm. Through word of mouth, she is slowly spreading news to the 500 families living in Tassafaronga Village that fresh foods are available for them at the farm.

Carlisle says part of the program’s mission is to educate adults as well as kids. She finds that not only does she need to tell many of the residents about the types of vegetables available at the farm but also how to cook them.

“One of the things that we’re hearing loud and clear is that a lot of people don’t know how to cook what it is we’re growing,” she says. “Swiss chard, for example, a lot of people have never seen it, they like the way it looks but they don’t know what to do with it.”

There are big plans for the youth farm in the coming year. This includes a summer camp for kids along with the farm stand. Cooking demonstrations at an outdoor kitchen area, using vegetables from the garden as ingredients, are also in the works.

The farm is just one of the many efforts to improve parts of Oakland through urban agriculture. Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project partners with the organization Communities for a Better Environment, which hosts workshops on Wednesday evenings about environmental, health and equity issues.

More than just learning about new types of plants and vegetables, the farm has created a gathering place for the neighborhood.

Many of the adults in the community have invested their time in the farm by becoming volunteers, helping to teach children about how to tend to the farm.

James Gary, a retired city gardener, has lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years. He says he recently just met neighbors—some who have lived in the community for as long as he has—because of the time he spends at the farm.

“It hooks me up with my community,” he says. “You’re working in the garden, people will come up and ask, “What is this?”

Gary says the farm is also building community pride.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, what age you are what background, we can plant together, from that we can work on other things,” he says. “You have people cleaning up the garden, you have people cleaning up the grounds, because they want it to look good.”

Note: The story has been updated. An earlier version of this story referred to Kelly Carlisle as Amy Carlisle, and mistakenly said that the farm is near the Port of Oakland. The farm is called the Tassafaronga Youth Urban Farm and Carlisle is founder of the program held at the farm called Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project.

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