By Isaac Smith, Oakland North
As families prepare for a day of food and thankfulness, one Oakland resident is grateful for the simple act of harvest on a small community farm.
Amid glowing rows of rainbow chard and plump purple eggplants, Kelly Carlisle, founder of Acta Non Verba Farm, is celebrating her sixth community harvest. The farm, which sits on a quarter acre of Tassafaronga Park leased from Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Department, offers local children a safe outdoor space to learn where food comes from and to earn a profit from its neighborhood produce stand.
Carlisle, a military veteran, surveys the meticulously arranged groups of raised planting beds. While she appreciates the orderliness of the art of farming, it is the magic of watching a seed transform into food that captivates her. “Seeds are amazing,” she said. “Just keep me protected, keep the bugs away, and I can do my thing.”
After six and a half years in the Navy, Carlisle, now age 36, came back home to Oakland concerned about the under-resourced condition of the schools. Long interested in farming, she set on the idea of an after-school program that would give kids a chance to get outside and see nature at work. Acta Non Verba—actions not words—is her response.
Acta Non Verba is a 501c3 non-profit operating under the umbrella group Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs. The farm is supported by major funders including the California Endowment, the Rose Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation, plus a number of small local donors.
Much of Carlisle’s philosophy of farming is rooted in her time in the Navy, where discipline and organization are prized. “That’s why farming is so great. You’re put on a regimen. You know you have to water on these days and you know to plant on these days. You know that in order for this to happen, you have to do that. It’s a good alternative to being in the military,” she said.
As a child, Carlisle was amazed to find that food comes from plants. She discovered that lemons grew on trees and her “mind was blown.” After successfully growing three small lemons, she was hooked. “I fell in love with it. I mean, it’s really magic. You put a seed in there and you get food out,” she said. “The idea that one could grow food to sustain their family was just, like, this was being on the side of angels.”
The farm was founded by Carlisle in 2010. After numerous meetings with community leaders that only led to more meetings and more talking, she said she decided to make things happen on her own. “I’m about changing the life expectancy and health outcomes for those in the area by direct servicing—by actually doing something, not just talking about it,” she said.
Based on a model of the garden-as-classroom, the farm teaches children how to grow produce and run a market stand. All of the profits go directly into the kids’ savings accounts.
As many as 70 kids per day attend the farm’s summer camps and over 300 of the neighborhood youth come to its afterschool programs. The youngest children are tasked with weeding and planting while the older kids learn to build greenhouses and take on the responsibility of managing the produce stand. “They’re like little baby farmers. They give the tours and show their parents which flowers are edible and which aren’t, and why we make compost and why that’s important,” she said.
After her very first harvest, she said people from the community started asking her about specific vegetables. She hadn’t understood the cultural relevance of food until then. “Folks started coming around asking me if I had collard greens: ‘Why don’t you have collard greens? It’s about to be Thanksgiving!’”
Carlisle said the farm allows for a learning experience not found in schools and offers a path toward more sustainable and healthy eating practices in a community where that can be difficult.
Pockets of East Oakland have been designated by the United States Department of Agriculture as “food deserts,” areas where access to fresh fruit and vegetables and other nutritious foods is limited, especially for those without cars. The only alternatives for many residents are convenience stores that offer high-calorie and high-fat foods. Carlisle said she hopes to show kids the importance of whole foods and “to make sure they come up conscious about what they’re eating and what they’re putting in their bodies.”
This is an important lesson for kids not often aware of the importance of healthful eating. A 2012 study by researchers at UC Los Angeles found that 42 percent of Oakland children were overweight or obese in 2010.
The City of Oakland is attempting to remedy this through a series of initiatives. The city has set a goal of producing 30 percent of its food needs from within the city. Also, as of 2014, the city has 16 community gardens and 23 gardening sites run by young people. A 2010 survey found 39 non-profits working on food access.
“For a while there, it was all about being in a food desert,” Carlisle said. “But in reality, communities of color have always been solution-oriented, from the Black Panthers’ free food programs to mothers making sandwiches to sell at the railroad cars. We’ve always been solution-oriented, but it’s just now the national story has changed.”