Gardening Eden 

Susan Beck says urban gardens can improve people's health, create green space, provide jobs, dampen crime, and revitalize Cherryland. That's a lot to ask of a few plots of land.

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The red tape comes in part from a concern that toxic city soil won't grow anything but toxic city gardens. A report by the Pacific Institute indicates that West Oakland is one of the three worst Zip codes in Alameda County for childhood lead poisoning risk between 1995 and 2002. That's one reason why Oakland is careful about who is planting what where, and whether it's going to be ingested.

UC Berkeley graduate student Nathan McClintock, who is knowledgeable about soil toxins in Oakland from working on a project that includes sampling soils from 120 different sites in the area, believes there are ways to build healthy urban farms around those risks. McClintock has been conducting an inventory of underutilized parcels of public land in Oakland that could have urban agriculture potential. Part of that project requires ensuring the land won't grow poisonous food.

Soil can accumulate lead through paint peeling off of old houses, industrial emissions, and previously, before the ban on leaded gas, car exhaust. Lead is an especially nasty toxin as tests may indicate there's no lead in an area one day, and high levels the next because the soil has been turned. Other chemical concerns include zinc, PCBs, industrial solvents, and dioxin.

McClintock suggests it's good to be cautious. "There has to be a certain level of due diligence before you start a garden," he said. Consequently, he suggests that urban farmers conduct a historical survey of the site they're farming before breaking ground to see what types of buildings and toxins may have been on the property.

Barbara Finnin, spokeswoman for Oakland's City Slicker Farms, said her organization follows a number of precautions, like testing for lead in an ongoing manner, and planting gardens in planter boxes instead of putting seeds directly in the ground, depending on what the levels of toxins in the soil look like. Finnin said that it's also important to understand the science of how lead accumulates in plants — namely in the roots, stems, and leaves — which sometimes argues against planting leafy greens or root crops in soil with higher lead content.

For now, Finnin suggested, urban gardeners should generally avoid planting in brownfield sites. Plants like sunflowers and various fungi have bioremediation properties that could potentially suck toxins like lead out of the soil, but Finnin says at this point it's an unperfected science. For one, it can take up to twenty years to bioremediate a site. Also, Finnin asked, "what are you going to do with that sunflower after it's been soaking up all those toxins?"

Like Oakland, the Eden Areas have a history of industrialization and are equally prone to toxic soil, which is why the network is conducting soil-quality tests before planting at all of their farm sites.

Even assuming a healthy harvest of nontoxic plants, political backing, and a monetary jump-start, Beck's network still faces the ultimate challenge: how to sell fresh produce to a community that has had limited access to it.

In July, 2008, The New York Times published a long article touting a new company called MyFarmSF, which designed and installed organic backyard gardens for Bay Area clients who then received a weekly box of fruits and veggies grown from their own backyard and the backyards of their neighbors. It was the kind of business people could get behind — a win-win for the environment and economy alike. Foodies everywhere wanted to see the model work.

But just one year later, the company went under.

Although MyFarmSF's founder couldn't be reached for an interview, online reviews suggest that, in addition to being unable to run a business in which revenues exceeded expenses, the business model failed to predict another challenge that all organic farmers face: gnarled and blemished produce is a hard sell — even at the grooviest of natural food stores.

Eaters accustomed to the unblemished produce that one finds at conventional grocery stores may not be ready to eat the typically smaller, browner, scruffier backyard versions. Creating demand for such products is even more challenging in a place like West Oakland or the Eden Areas, where residents don't even have much access to fresh vegetables.

In West Oakland, Ahmadi has prepared for this challenge to ensure the success of the People's Community Market, which is finally scheduled to open in the spring or summer of 2011 after years of planning. In 2006, armed with eight years of nonprofit experience and a business degree, Ahmadi stepped down from his role as director of the People's Grocery to focus completely on opening the grocery store as a separate entity from the nonprofit.

His business model incorporates a strategic partnership between the for-profit grocery store and the nonprofit People's Grocery, which has sold local produce to West Oakland for the past eight years with street-side stands and affordable produce boxes. The nonprofit end will continue to provide nutrition and cooking classes to community members, increasing demand for the kind of products that Ahmadi will sell at the store. If it works, he hopes to prove that inner-city produce markets can be both a great benefit to the community and an economically viable and sustainable business option.

But the infrastructure to support an urban grocery providing local produce doesn't yet exist. Although Ahmadi would prefer to fill his store with local produce, without local distributors he doesn't think he can depend on local farmers to provide the three most important aspects of a viable grocery store: consistency, quantity, and quality. At this time, he expects that less than 25 percent of stock for his store will come from local urban farms.

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