Berkeley community gardens facilitate connection, education

photo of the Berkeley crop swap
Linda Currie/Courtesy
Community gardens in Berkeley, including those in People’s Park and the Ohlone Crop Swap, have helped foster connections among the community.

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More than four decades ago, city residents gathered at People’s Park and began a shared garden on top of what was previously a parking lot.

Years later, community members have continued the multigenerational project. By “rehabilitating” the community vegetable garden, they provide free food and health products to people and businesses on the Southside of Berkeley, according to Aidan Hill, former Berkeley mayoral candidate and People’s Park Committee member.

The gardens at People’s Park are just one of many community gardening efforts around Berkeley.

“We hope everyone can benefit from it, that People’s Park as a whole can demonstrate its value by providing this free food for anyone who wants to come into the park right now,” Hill said. “It’s a way to fight the machine, as Mario Savio would speak.”

The emphasis on community sharing and providing alternatives to commercial agriculture is also what guides the Ohlone Park Crop Swap, according to organizer Jenifer Azulay.

The crop swap takes place Monday evenings and is organized by Transition Berkeley, an organization that promotes sustainable practices in the city. Community members come together to share and exchange their excess homegrown crops and seeds, according to Bonnie Borucki, co-director of Transition Berkeley.

Borucki said some of her favorite moments from the crop swap, which began in 2011, were when participants would bring huge vegetables or make treats out of crops they grew.

According to Linda Currie, Transition Berkeley co-director, the exchange also serves as a place where people can share tips and information while connecting with their neighbors. Participants have even taken Transition Berkeley’s model and started their own crop swaps around the world.

“There’s so much to learn from the Earth and so much to learn from other people about how they connect to their land and the food that they eat,” Azulay said. “My number one goal is to make people feel aware that they can be connected to the food that they eat and that it can be a source of joy.”

Educating community members is a common thread between many of the shared gardens in the city. Affiliates of the Student Organic Gardening Association, or SOGA, regularly teach a DeCal course on urban agriculture, according to the SOGA website.

SOGA is one of the seven student-run gardens that comprise the Berkeley Student Farms.

Berkeley Student Farms aims to use its community gardening spaces to support existing food sovereignty and anti-oppression movements, according to its website.

The Edible Schoolyard Project, another educational food program, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School focuses on teaching children about food systems, cooking, gardening and their relationship with food, according to community manager Russel Sterten.

The project has been running education programming using the school’s gardens since 1995, Sterten noted. It also offers free curriculum through its website.

“Edible education provides hands-on experiences that connect students to food, nature, and each other; and it systematically addresses the crises of climate change, public health, and social inequality,” Sterten said in an email.

Contact Emma Taila at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @emmataila