Know Your Farmer: Guillermo Vasquez, Indigenous Permaculture Project

Farmer Guillermo Vasquez in front of the mobile (bus!) pantries of the Indigenous Permaculture Project. Credit: M. Doshi

This month, Growing Roots teammate Marit Doshi had the opportunity to connect with Guillermo Vasquez, head of the Indigenous Permaculture Project here in the Bay Area. Observing COVID safety guidelines, they visited while walking around one of the Project’s vibrant and inviting farms, this one in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood.

Tell us about the Project’s goals and accomplishments

Growing food for the community right on top of concrete!

To begin, Guillermo gives “thanks one, two, three times to our creators and makers for everything.” He and others started the Project in 2002, working with local communities and Indigenous peoples, as part of “our obligation to bring in mother Earth’s way of thinking.” The Project empowers low-income peoples across the Bay Area to understand how we are all connected and to respond directly to intertwined food, nutrition, and health challenges. In particular, Vasquez and others share Indigenous science as part of traditional farming. They now manage three sites in Oakland, Treasure Island, and Berkeley and also have a mobile food pantry going weekly to Oakland and San Francisco. The Project also provides extensive training for aspiring farmers and  gardeners in March-September. While the training is free, the students have to offer their full commitment to implement a project in their own community for one year, bringing in their own culture and family history. Even during COVID, 8 students safely completed a shortened training course. Through all this work, Guillermo and others have learned that “you can grow anything as long as you have space and water!”

What are the key sources of support for the Project?

Ever since 2002, the Project has had little to no grants or guaranteed funding. So they work with the resources at hand in their low-income communities. Without money, Guillermo has seen that “you create your own resources” from within the community, and while that’s really (really) challenging, that enables “you [to] understand the community.” In Oakland, an Episcopal Church provides space and water access in their church parking lot while in Berkeley, the Ecology Center helps with the EcoHouse site. The Project also does receive small, targeted grants, such as a recent one from the Rose Foundation to provide care and boxes for bees.This year the SF Foundation and the Berkeley Food Network have provided COVID19 response support, including supplementary food for the mobile pantry. 

How do you engage with other farmers in the East Bay?

“Tiguanceguite = working together.” Urban farmers and community gardeners are “my heroes,” says Guillermo. The Project supports other East Bay farmers when possible, helping out when they’re busy, and definitely drawing on them for continued inspiration. And several community gardens contribute to the food provided by the Project’s mobile pantry.

What would you like to see change or improve for urban ag in the East Bay?

Guillermo would love to see more available East Bay space used for urban ag and community gardening. They were able to utilize an old parking lot! Additionally, he would like there to be further recognition, in policy and other spheres, of the different reality and knowledge of urban farmers. He ticked off the challenges of pollution, water access, micro-climates, vandalism, and funding. All that knowledge, held by urban farmers, “cannot be disconnected from growing the food.” In other words, urban farmers have a lot more to offer to their neighborhoods and cities than many realize! 

What else would you like folks to know about the Project and your work?

Project farm site in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood

Guillermo first had a message for all urban farmers and healthy, local food champions: “Don’t stop what you’re doing.” He encouraged us all to bring our love to this work because it is love and health, mentally and spiritually. Additionally, he flagged that the Project is looking for space! Specifically, in this time of ongoing COVID19-induced need, they are hoping to acquire access to 3 acres to grow more food and have a long-term training site. Plus, they are raising funds for cold storage and a teaching kitchen container at the Oakland site. Contact Guillermo directly if you have leads on space, cold storage, and funding:!

Sustainable East Bay Urban Farming project team’s message for Black Lives Matter

As a team of academics and practitioners working together on an urban agriculture and food security project in the San Francisco East Bay Area, we wish to express our outrage and sorrow over the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and other Black Americans. These murders were enabled by the systemic racism embedded in our nation’s cultures, governance structure, and economies.

Agriculture in the U.S., and the fortune of the U.S., was built on the enslavement and exploitation of Black people and the theft of Indigenous land. Today, approximately 75% of the current labor force on US farms is Indigenous and Latinx-identifying –– many who had to leave their own farms due to policies that have disenfranchised rural communities around the world. In sharp contrast, White people account for 96% of the owners, 97% of the value, and 98% of the acres of private U.S. agricultural land. This is not an accident, nor has it always been this way. Decades of racist agricultural policies have systematically discriminated against Black farmers, resulting in Black farmers owning between 16-19 million acres in 1910 to only 1.5 million in 1997. From slavery to present day, our agricultural system has always relied upon the labor of Black and Indigenous peoples of color—often denying them  labor protections and voting rights—and land grabs via the displacement of Black and Indigenous peoples of color from their homes.* We see how this structural racism continues into today in the East Bay, undergirding many of the barriers that East Bay urban farmers face.

The inequities in food production reflect those in food access and security. Almost 800,000 San Francisco Bay Area residents experience food insecurity, with the highest rates (12%) in the East Bay. Often referred to as a food desert, the East Bay fails to provide affordable, equitable access to fresh, healthy and culturally-diverse foods for low-income and often historically marginalized communities. Community food insecurity is interwoven with racialized economic disparities, which are prevalent in the East Bay. People are going hungry as they sacrifice meals to pay for the high cost of living. Across the nation and here at home, COVID-19 has magnified these disparities as thousands have lost their jobs and food distribution channels have fractured, leaving the most vulnerable even more exposed.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s (BIPOC) bodies are threatened by the current social and economic systems which are built on land and labor stolen from BIPOC communities. Similarly, our work, and the benefits we derive from it professionally, are only possible through the labor, time, and sacrifice of urban farmers, many of whom are BIPOC. Without careful consideration, and significant stakeholder input, our work reinforces the very systems and power dynamics we seek to dismantle.

We must dismantle these systems of oppression. We pledge to increase our commitment to BIPOC community members: centering you, amplifying your leadership, and transferring power to you. We acknowledge and apologize for instances where we have not done this successfully, or if prior researchers, academic and otherwise, have not sufficiently shared research results with the communities served. We invite feedback on our process. While this particular project ends in a few months, many of our teammates are actively deepening our service to our Bay Area communities. We pledge to engage in ongoing learning and sharing of resources that aim to end anti-Blackness and racism in our food system; to leverage university resources in service of BIPOC farmers and food system change-makers; and to engage in a process with BIPOC community partners to deepen meaningful relationships and restructure our processes to enable more equitable project development, publications, outreach, learning and funding. 

We encourage you to reach out to or in conversation with teammates whom you know to offer feedback or if you are interested in participating in these decisions and actions moving forward.

*This section draws from the UC Berkeley Agroecology Lab members’ just-finalized message of acknowledgement, solidarity, and action, which builds upon their existing lab and community guidelines. Several of our project teammates are part of the Agroecology Lab, and we thank the entire lab for letting us share their process and message more widely.

Mandela Partners: Swiftly changing to be in service to their communities during crisis

Mandela Community Meals Partner- Thank Que Grill

For over 15 years, folks at Mandela Partners have supported an East Bay regional food system that serves local farmers of color and low-income, low-access communities. Via its food hub – Mandela Produce Distribution – Mandela Partners sources sustainably grown-produce from local growers and distributes through a network of food access programs, independent grocery stores, and community-based businesses. But when the pandemic hit in March, they had to change up their model and fast. They re-focused their efforts on providing free CSA-style produce bags and produce-based meals which meant reconfiguring their warehouse and repurposing partners’ restaurant kitchens. They still play their role as a trusted, caring food distributor and community-connector, but how that is expressed shifted in a big way. Interim Executive Director, Mariela Cedeño, chalks up Mandela Partners’ ability to quickly meet their communities’ changed needs to their deep, multi-year relationships in the local food system — community groups, local businesses and small growers, and even funders — and to their organizational culture that prioritizes equitable community-based work.

Emergency relief produce site

In the midst of that rapid spin and subsequent months, the Mandela Partners team has seen afresh the inefficiencies of the conventional food supply chain and the inequities embedded in our current food systems. Mariela says, “The impact of Covid-19 has been severe – the communities we serve are at most risk of contracting Covid, have been the most impacted economically by Covid, and are dealing with higher levels of food insecurity prior to and as a result of Covid. Covid-19 has shed light on and exacerbated the food access and economic inequities that low-income communities of color have been enduring for a long time.” Furthermore, resources to support food insecure communities have left out the small businesses that are part of these communities. For instance, while admirable, the state-run and locally administered “Great Plates Delivered” program for at-risk adults, precluded many local smaller-scale food-makers. So, Mandela Partners is piloting their own community meal program with eight of their local partners.

Mariela wants to leave us with the strong message that this continued pandemic time should serve as a reality check. Our East Bay food systems cannot go back to what they were before pandemic. Our inequitable systems weren’t working then for many East Bay residents, and they won’t work after. So let’s make the needed changes stick! And groups like Mandela Partners are still hustling to support their communities. If you’re able, your continued or new support to their Emergency Relief Fund will go a long way!

Heartfelt thank you card for Mandela Partners!