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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From Industrial Garden to Food Desert: Unearthing the Root Structure of Urban Agriculture in Oakland, California


In this paper, I use a framework of urban political ecology to explore the rise of urban agriculture (UA) in Oakland, California. As part of a growing effort to reduce its “ecological footprint” and to guarantee access to nutritious food for the urban poor, the City of Oakland has recently embraced a goal of sourcing 30 percent of its food locally, a modest amount of which should come from UA. Many of these small gardens and farms are to be located in so-called “food deserts,” low-income areas far from supermarkets, in the Oakland flatlands in order to provide access to fresh food as well as ecological and culinary knowledge to participants and customers. Recent critiques of some food justice initiatives, including urban garden programs, have argued that such projects are neoliberal in nature, emphasizing entrepreneurialism and self-betterment while filling in gaps left by the rolling back of the state. In this paper, I argue that a macro-level structural analysis of Oakland’s history reveals the emancipatory role of UA. I demonstrate how flows of industrial capital and racialized urban planning throughout the 20th century concentrated the devaluation of capital to the flatlands, ultimately giving rise to food deserts. Following the logic of what Karl Polanyi referred to as capitalism’s “double movement,” food justice activists are mobilizing through UA to counter capital’s uneven transformation of the flatlands.

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