UC Berkeley community gardens foster coalition, food justice

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In corners of campus and behind buildings, student groups work to cultivate small yet plentiful gardens, challenging the ways in which society engages with land. Organizations such as the Student Organic Gardening Association, or SOGA, and the Ecological Action and Sustainable Design DeCal, more often known as the Guerrilla Gardening DeCal, are two of several campus coalitions practicing land stewardship through urban agriculture.

The Oxford Tract houses facilities such as insectaries, greenhouses and field space for farming as well as SOGA, and has come to supplement the diverse inner workings of hands-on education and research. According to Coleman Rainey, an environmental science policy and management, or ESPM, graduate student, the area stretching from Hearst Avenue to Virginia Street is used by 11 different departments and 40 different research laboratories. Some of these departments and labs include the plant and microbial biology and ESPM departments, as well as the Innovative Genomic Institute and College of Natural Resources.

“You have folks … studying CRISPR to folks who are studying food sovereignty using the same greenhouse and insectary spaces … (and) the same field space,” Rainey said on the variety of projects taking place. “Then, on top of all of that, there is also the garden.”

SOGA is located on the corner of Virginia and Walnut streets on the north side of Berkeley. The organization started up in the 1970s as part of an Oxford Tract occupation movement against the campus. Since then, however, the nearly four-decade-old garden has worked with other student groups as well as farmers on the Oxford Tract, remaining physically and symbolically intact as a community symbol for food justice and sovereignty. I met with garden manager and UC Berkeley senior Lucy Bennett to gain insight into how the gardening space and Oxford Tract facilities work together to foster coalition.

A large part of SOGA’s upkeep and growth relies on the care of students. Bennett explained that even though the garden beds are resting this semester, perennial herbs and seasonal fruit trees remain year-round.

“A lot of the food that is grown in the garden is … maintained by different student groups that come through the garden,” Bennett said. “We have had several DeCals and classes in the past (and) this summer, the garden was tended by the Urban Garden Ecosystems class.”

Urban Garden Ecosystems, otherwise known as ESPM 117, is only one of three courses hosted by SOGA that works with the garden space. According to the Report on the Student Organic Garden located at the Oxford Tract, in recent years SOGA has engaged between 185 and 265 UC Berkeley students each year with its DeCal courses alone and approximately 600 from community workshops. The report was the result of the Oxford Tract Planning Committee, assembled by Chancellor Carol Christ to assess the plot to be developed for campus student accommodations amid the Berkeley housing crisis.

“A lot of the food that is grown in the garden is … maintained by different student groups that come through the garden.” — Bennett

While the garden has since been declared to be safe from construction, Christ has named the Oxford Tract a site to be developed in the near future. In her letter to the CNR community, Christ also announced that the research and educational projects taking place will “inevitably” be moved to other areas but not “abandoned.”

“(Efforts to protect the Oxford Tract and SOGA) remind me that there are people on campus that still care about having green spaces,” said UC Berkeley senior and SOGA volunteer Sasha Dimov. “That being said, it’s been difficult and at times discouraging — there are a lot of politics tied up in these spaces.”

Even though the physical space of the garden will be preserved, the relationships with the Oxford Tract entities have been fostered through gardening and farming coalitions. Reflecting on the mechanisms in which Berkeley community gardens form alliances, Bennett pointed to the joint-effort cooking cart, which was one feature of the climate strike walk-out in September.

With a kiosk cart and hand-grown produce, the UC Berkeley students and farmers of SOGA, Oxford Tract and Clark Kerr Garden, the Basic Needs Center and other organizations come together to prepare and offer free food to other students. Bennett commented on this as an example of how SOGA aims to fulfill the mission of building a coalition through food justice and sovereignty.

“To actually put on the cooking cart, it has to be a joint effort to get that many people and supplies … to feed people, and for free,” Bennett said. “The food is grown close to campus, by students for students and so that is exactly what the coalition of Berkeley student farms and gardens hopes to achieve.”

While SOGA and the Oxford Tract are allied in, to use Bennett’s words, their “joint mission of feeding students,” the urban agriculture spaces also serve in an educational capacity similar to other campus gardening groups such as the Guerrilla Gardening DeCal, located next to Barker Hall.

“Guerrilla Gardens has been fighting a lot for recognition as a gardening group and to access the land that they do in peripheral parts of campus because that is what they are allowed to garden on,” Rainey said, relating the group to SOGA’s origins as an occupation effort.

“A lot of our work is rooted in indigenous people’s rights, valuing and practicing and acknowledging indigenous knowledge, practicing sustainable ways of engaging with the land,” — Gonzalez

UC Berkeley senior Jessica Gonzalez, a previous student of this DeCal who is now co-facilitating the class for a second time, shared her takeaway from guerrilla gardening.

“A lot of our work is rooted in indigenous people’s rights, valuing and practicing and acknowledging indigenous knowledge, practicing sustainable ways of engaging with the land,” Gonzalez said. “(The class focuses on) shifting the way we understand ourselves in relation to the environment.”

Charlotte Hryse’s research on the occupation of the campus’s Gill Tract in “Guerrilla Gardening in California’s East Bay” highlights the social significance of guerrilla gardening and farming — it focuses on sustainable food justice for marginalized communities and is oftentimes achieved via decentralized community gardens. The Guerrilla Gardening DeCal is a local example of this larger guerilla gardening movement in urban settings.

Students share a deep connection with campus green spaces, suggesting something larger at work than just an ordinary class. Gonzalez commented on the personal connection to agriculture. As the daughter of farmworkers, she expressed that cultivation was not out of the ordinary during her upbringing and in her home life. To her, the DeCal embodies “reconnection,” a practice familiar to her and her family.

Sasha Dimov — a current student in the Guerrilla Gardening DeCal — shared Gonzalez’s sentiments.

“At the end of the day, I simply want to help, to be involved, to grow food and to share that food with people,” Dimov said. As a testament not only to the power of growing your own food but also the community cultivated in the process, she continued, “(T)he Guerrilla Gardening DeCal reminds me that there are still students who care, and who just need more resources and structure to create and build something incredible.”

Contact Ashley Soliman at [email protected].