Occupy the Farm protests potential Sprouts Farmers Market branch on UC-owned land

G. Haley Massara/File

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The day before Thanksgiving, a group of about 45 protesters gathered at Sprouts Farmers Market, a grocery store located in Walnut Creek, California, that plans to build a new branch as part of a development project on UC-owned land.

The protest was organized by Occupy the Farm, a movement that has persistently opposed the development of university-owned land in Albany, California, known as the Gill Tract, which may include a branch of the Sprouts Farmers Market. In 2013, the development project was approved by the Albany Planning and Zoning Commission and will be built on land east of the campus’s University Village.

Protesters organized at the chain’s Walnut Creek branch and asked shoppers to boycott the store, creating a flash mob and setting up a “real farm stand,” where protesters handed out fresh produce grown locally.

Stefanie Rawlings, a member of Occupy the Farm, said she thought the protest was successful because some shoppers joined the boycott and many called in to the grocery store’s management.

“(Shoppers) could see, feel and touch food produced on the UC farm,” Rawlings said.  “They got to see also how it’s possible to share this food in community and how it’s different from the food that’s inside the store.”

The UC-owned land is divided into a plot overseen by the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources that is devoted to campus agricultural research unrelated to the mixed-used project, a community farming project and two vacant lots being leased by the university. In these vacant lots, the university plans to introduce several retail stores, including a branch of Sprouts Farmers Market and senior housing.

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said the university underwent a seven-year planning process in which the public was invited to express their thoughts on what to do with the vacant lots.

The vacant lots will generate $1 million a year in revenue for the university, according to Mogulof, who added that the university cannot solely donate the funds to one group and instead strives to support the expressed needs of Albany residents, including subsidizing rent for low-income students.

“We think it’s better to have a win-win-win than to simply have winners and losers,” Mogulof said.

Rawlings said the Occupy the Farm movement will continue to protest until the grocery store pulls out of a lease agreement, as Whole Foods — a previous candidate to build a location at the UC-owned land — did after years of delay and because lease terms had not been met.

Rawlings said she and other protesters hope that the land is specifically used for education and research into sustainable farming.

“We have to prioritize foods that can be grown locally using ecologically sustainable methods,” Rawlings said.

Contact Kimberly Nielsen at [email protected].