Serving top restaurants and diverse community needs
By Sarah Henry | Photography By Scott Peterson
Continuing our year-long series about relationships between local farms and restaurants
It’s around six at night and Rachel Littlefield, 16, purposefully carries a wooden crate with a WOW FARM logo into the kitchen at Flora, a long-time anchor restaurant in Oakland’s rapidly changing Uptown neighborhood. The delivery of gorgeous, tender mustard greens and baby red Russian kale is a little late today. An unplanned produce drop at Nido in Jack London Square has put the WOW crew a bit behind schedule.
No matter. Flora, which features updated American classics, is already humming as the staff heads into the heart of service. Nonetheless, head chef Rico Rivera, managing myriad details in the kitchen, takes a moment out of his hectic evening to greet this teen greens grower and admire the fresh-picked harvest.
Littlefield is an intern at West Oakland Woods (WOW) Farm in West Oakland, and it’s her day to serve as the farm-to-restaurant liaison. She hands over an invoice and tells the chef what he can expect from the farm next week. Farm manager Kana Azhari is there too. But Littlefield is in charge of the transaction. The adolescent seems a little nervous and excited—you can sense her trying to keep her composure and stay on top of the details, too.
For Littlefield, as for other WOW interns, this is her first real job. “It’s so busy in the kitchen. I love being in the back and seeing everything that’s going on. It makes you feel important to bring fresh food that a restaurant is going to use,” says the Oakland Technical High School student. On diners’ plates that night are Ruby Streaks mustard greens, French breakfast radishes, and braising greens, all grown by Littlefield and her fellow WOW farm crew. WOW Farm gets a shout out on the printed menu, along with established commercial farms such as Happy Boy Farms, County Line Harvest, and Kashiwase Farms.
Littlefield, who lives in West Oakland, is an eager new gardener and an avid home cook. “I love that we drop off our produce to restaurants that are located really close to the farm,” says Littlefield, who would like to work in a kitchen like Rivera’s one day. “And not just any restaurant, this is a really nice restaurant.”
Green Jobs for Hungry Youth
WOW Farm is the brainchild of Philip Krohn, a former Oakland resident with deep roots in growing and trading produce, who wanted to conserve green space in the community, provide hands-on garden education to youth, and offer affordable fresh produce to local residents. Such pickings have long been slim in this part of town where corner convenience stores rule. It’s easier to buy beer, soda, and candy than find fresh lettuce, spinach, and chard. There’s still no major supermarket on this side of the city.
In 1999, Krohn purchased the triangular-shaped space, then a derelict lot, for a song by today’s real estate prices. He declines to say just how much the land cost. But it’s clear for Krohn the value of the 3,000-square-foot farm isn’t just measured in dollars. This isn’t a property investment by someone who’s out to make a buck. It’s an investment in the neighborhood, the residents who live there, and the greater good.
WOW has partnered with different nonprofits in the area since it started. It first served as an on-site market and children’s summer program in conjunction with OBUGS (Oakland Based Urban Gardens). In 2005, WOW teamed up with City Slicker Farms, which shares similar goals, albeit on a larger scale. For six years, City Slicker Farms ran production at the site for a sliding scale farmstand and educational programs.
In 2012, WOW began collaborating with Game Theory Academy, which focuses on economic literacy and teaches money management and strategic thinking skills to low-income youth in Oakland and Richmond. So WOW’s current intern program emphasizes planning, budgets, and financial goal setting as much as planting, watering, and weeding.
In 2014, WOW expanded to a second site in the neighborhood. On a 7,000-square-foot property at Wood and 16th streets, youth interns work in a cut flower farm business, where amaranth, dahlias, sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, and ranunculus flourish and are turned into table bouquets for local cafes such as Kilovolt. The bouquets are also sold at nearby Mandela Foods Cooperative and for local weddings.
WOW works with about 30 Oakland high school students each year. Interns learn key life skills such as showing up on time, teamwork, and workplace communication. For many of these students it’s their first experience with interviewing for a job, writing resumes, managing a bank account—and getting paid. The coveted five-month internship is part urban ag education and part business management 101. Every Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning students work on the farm. Mondays are reserved for classroom time. Interns can make up to $60 a week.
Profits from the sale of produce are reinvested in the business. Revenue from farm sales covers about 15% of WOW’s total budget, or 50% of youth wages (which is about 30% of the organization’s total budget). Grants and individual donations make up the rest and pay for a part-time farm manager.
The produce farm internship gives Oakland youth first-hand insight into Oakland’s thriving restaurant culture. “This project allows low-income youth to benefit from the local restaurant boom selling valuable produce to some of the best restaurants in the community,” says Patricia Johnson, executive director of Game Theory Academy. “We’ve long been concerned about the youth unemployment rates here, so this collaboration with Philip is a good fit for us. He’s a real visionary, determined to create meaningful opportunities in a city that is rapidly gentrifying.”
Krohn, who grew up in Oregon and whose grandfather had a big kitchen garden, has raised and traded homegrown produce for much of his adult life. The 54-year-old sculptor, recently relocated to San Francisco, has been active in community gardening circles in West Oakland for decades. The current reiteration of WOW and its emphasis as a youth business incubator is right for the times, he says. The micro-enterprise program could spark creativity in budding entrepreneurs and equip future employees for the work world.
The real magic of the program, though, Krohn says, is seeing how it inspires confidence and camaraderie in a diverse group of youth. “They come from all different schools, different social hierarchies, different socioeconomic and family backgrounds,” he says. “In the beginning they’re checking each other out and testing each other and figuring stuff out. It’s wonderful to watch them bond and become a tight team. Working on the farm is a democratizing experience. Plus they feel like they’re doing something pretty kick-ass, which makes them proud.”
A Sanctuary and a Source of Income
Of course, chefs such as Rivera, who grew up in East Oakland, could easily, and perhaps more economically, source these raw ingredients elsewhere. That’s not the point. For this native son, the child of a Puerto Rican father and a Nicaraguan mother—lousy cooks both, he confesses with a laugh—it’s about giving back to his hometown, where he first got his start in the restaurant biz.
While in high school Rivera landed a job in the kitchen at the Doyle Street Cafe in Emeryville. He started doing prep work, moved up to line cook, and learned how to sling eggs and cook burgers with the best of his brethren on the line. He remains grateful for the opportunity and for the boss who took the time to show him the ropes when he had no idea what he was doing. He’s moved well past his diner days. Now a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, Rivera spent about eight years on the East Coast, working at a Michelin-starred restaurant and for James Beard-award winning chefs before returning to Oakland. In the fall of 2010, he was hired as the executive chef at Flora after several years working at Pizzaiolo in the Temescal neighborhood. A year into his position at Flora, he partnered with WOW, which he first heard about through local urban farm contacts.
It’s not all fields of glistening greens. “Look, it can be hit and miss. I give them constructive feedback, if plants come in covered in dirt or not cut correctly,” says Rivera, who shrugs off such inconveniences. He’s twice the age of these teens, but he remembers what it’s like to have your first real job. Mostly, he wants to offer mentorship, instill confidence, and lead by example. His high standards, strong work ethic, and keen attention to detail are evident in his restaurant culture. “It’s sometimes a pain in the ass, you know, I can’t always count on them to come on time or bring exactly what we need—and none of that matters,” says Rivera. “You have to understand the bigger picture.”
And the bigger picture here: Giving at-risk adolescents an opportunity to succeed in the wider world. Rivera wants to see the youth from his hometown get a chance.
Besides, what culinary professional with any moxie isn’t up for a challenge or inspired by stellar raw ingredients? “We’re adaptive and creative here. We can work with whatever they bring us,” says Rivera. An overabundance of radish isn’t a problem. The kitchen can pickle the spicy root vegetable. Excess braising greens find their way into sautés, soups, and stews. Fresh herbs, such as purslane, provide a flavor accent that can bring a dish from ho-hum to, well, wow.
The farm crew members have their own challenges. Through trial and error, WOW farmers have figured out that the best row crops for the site and their restaurant clientele are those with short growing cycles—around 30 days—so brassicas, salad greens, braising mix, radishes, and Persian cress are mainstays in the beds, along with herbs such as chervil, parsley, and cilantro. Yields from apple, guava, and persimmon trees are shared among the farm crew and local residents.
Fellow chefs see the importance of a project like WOW to the local community. “It’s all about empowering underserved and under-supported kids and engaging them in a super positive activity where they literally see the fruits of their labor,” says Duende chef-owner Paul Canales, who learned about WOW through his restaurant neighbor Rivera. “As a parent of a tween and a teen, I know this is absolutely critical. Finding positive alternatives for youth who are exposed to rampant drug and alcohol pressure is essential to our collective future,” he says. Canales, whose restaurant serves modern, Spanish-inspired fare, is partial to the farm’s radishes, kales, and arugula, which he dubs “lovely and vibrant.”
The farm serves as a source of income for interns, as well as a sanctuary. “I love working in the garden because everything is good, there’s a positive, peaceful vibe, there’s nothing stressful about this place,” says Yesica Martinez, a sophomore at Skyline High School who lives in East Oakland. She takes home excess produce and uses it in soups and salads. Like all the interns, she’s proud of what she does. “There’s something very satisfying about watching something grow from a seed into something beautiful that you can harvest and take to a restaurant to serve.”
At the end of each internship, the youth come for a meal at Flora. At first, Chef Rivera had interns choose from the menu, and typically, they ordered familiar fare, such as burgers. So Rivera simply started serving them dinner, introducing the adolescents to new foods and encouraging them to try a bite. He was delighted to see teens tucking into fried oysters and chicken liver pâté. And, of course, he always makes sure there’s something from WOW Farm in the mix.
“If I’m able to even reach one or two of these teenagers and spark an interest in them for a profession that I’m passionate about, one that has inspired me and brought me so much joy, then my work here is complete,” says Rivera. “It’s as simple as that.”
Fresh Ground For Former Prisoners
It could have been any other farm-to-table event, served up at Picán Restaurant, one of Oakland’s high-end restaurants, known for its fried chicken, biscuits, and bourbon. On this night in late August, the elegant, multicourse meal featured dishes inspired by produce from West Oakland Farms. On the menu: stuffed squash blossoms, heirloom tomato salad, and crispy Russian kale. Representatives from the farm sat at one table: All pretty routine fare by Bay Area standards.
What made this night novel? The farmers are all ex-prisoners in search of a second chance tending to produce as part of an ambitious new project launched by a former leader of the Black Panther Party.
Elaine Brown, the 72-year-old former chairwoman of the Black Panthers, is no stranger to radical ideas. She is determined to transform a once-blighted vacant lot in West Oakland into a thriving urban farm business that employs ex-prisoners who cultivate produce destined for fine-dining restaurants.
Brown has large-scale goals for the project, announced in October 2014. First up: The for-profit West Oakland Farms, which features 40 raised beds. When this reporter visited in the peak of summer, tomatoes, peppers, kale, squash, and corn were all being harvested, weighed, and readied for restaurant delivery.
Brown has designs on the city-owned site beyond the farm. Down the track she wants to add a grocery store, juice bar, fitness center, and tech design and printing office, along with affordable housing, all under the umbrella of the nonprofit entity she founded last year, Oakland & the World Enterprises. “I’m not in the farm business,” says Brown, “I’m in the business of creating opportunities for Black men and women who are poor and lack the education, skills, and resources to return to a community that is rapidly gentrifying without economic avenues for them in mind.”
Since 2010 she has been working closely with Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson on youth and employment re-entry projects in West Oakland.
Think of West Oakland Farms as part prisoner re-entry program, part small business startup incubator, and part community hub. After a more than 30-year absence, the project marks a return to activism in Oakland for Brown, who led the Black Panthers from 1974 to 1977. The civil rights group introduced school breakfast programs for inner city children across the country, a free, volunteer-funded program started in 1968 in a church in Oakland that quickly spread across the country.
A longtime prison reform activist, Brown thinks big, but she’s also realistic about what one program can do. “This is not a panacea, it’s a model,” says Brown, who wants ex-prisoners to develop skills so they can find work or begin their own businesses. “People come out of the joint with nothing to do and $200 in their pocket. Once that money runs out, they get desperate, and they’ll do anything to survive, including hitting somebody in the head for $20. They’re not bad people, they’re just poor. We have to create positive opportunities for these people to return to the community.”
Time may have passed, but Brown’s message remains the same: self-sufficiency, self-determination, and empowerment for her people. Only these days, they’re armed with shovels, wheelbarrows, and other farm tools. In November, a building on the property is slated for demolition, which will substantially increase the amount of space the farm has for crops.
West Oakland Farms recently entered into an agreement with the Oakland Unified School District to distribute its produce through the OUSD’s on-campus farmers markets, according to Brown. The farm will also provide fresh food to the long-anticipated OUSD Central Kitchen, once it is up and running. For this ex-Black Panther, it’s like coming full circle: Feeding urban school children and empowering disenfranchised residents.
The farm is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Oakland & the World Enterprises leases the three-quarter acre plot on the corner of 7th and Campbell streets from the city in a section of town that has been slower to bounce back than other areas. The land is located adjacent to the BART tracks, three blocks from the West Oakland station. The neighborhood is starting to undergo an urban renaissance—other community farms, cafes, and restaurants are popping up—but it still lacks a large grocery store, though the small, worker-owned Mandela Foods Cooperative has been open since 2009.
Seeds of Change and Second Chances
Despite its recent bleak history, this West Oakland enclave was once part of a vibrant African-American cultural center rich with live jazz and blues music, which attracted a loyal following. But with a series of freeways, a postal distribution center, and the train line constructed in a way that cut through the neighborhood, the soul was sucked out of the community in the process, says Brown. As with the ex-prisoners, Brown wants to help give West Oakland its second chance.
She knows she has a long way to go. While Brown has the vision, she still has to raise significant funding to make it a reality. She’s looking to nonprofit groups and private donors to invest in her idea. The entire project, including housing, could cost well into the millions. To date, she’s received a small fraction of that in grants and county funding.
For now, the farm employs 10 ex-inmates on a part-time, rotating basis. Each week, four farmers work three days a week for four hours a day and are paid $20 an hour for their labor. Unlike other similar urban farming programs, West Oakland Farms is not a nonprofit, it’s owned collectively by the farmers.
Picán Restaurant is the farm’s first culinary client. Located in Uptown, this white-tablecloth establishment has a French chef and a Southern sensibility, and is one of the few African American-owned restaurants in the area. Picán owner Michael LeBlanc says it’s a privilege to come on board as a partner. In addition to sourcing from the farm, the restaurant is hosting fundraising and goodwill-building collaborative dinners serving the farm’s produce. In October, for instance, the restaurant and Brown co-hosted a dinner with visitors in town for the Black Farmers and Urban Growers Conference, a national meet-up held in Oakland this year.
Brown, who concedes to knowing little about growing or cooking food, has enlisted Master Gardener Kelly Carlisle to oversee the effort. An ex-Navy officer and longtime East Oakland resident, Carlisle runs the nonprofit Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project. “Working with kids is one thing. Working with adults who have been in prison is something else,” says Carlisle. “Some of my crew asks if they can go to the bathroom, that’s how engrained prison culture is for them. I like to give them as much autonomy as I can: Those who want to water get to water. They take pride in what they harvest. They’re here to turn their lives around.”
Farming for a Future After Doing Time Behind Bars
In a matter of months, the team has built an obvious rapport. They don’t discuss life behind bars with Carlisle. “I’ve made some bad choices and I’ve suffered the consequences of that; I lost custody of my son,” says GaQuayla LaGrone, 33, who began working at the farm in April. She had never farmed before, and it took her a few weeks to get over squeamishness around bugs. After a few months, she morphed into a keen produce picker and plant tender. “I’d like to start my own business making hair care products without harsh chemicals for African Americans,” adds LaGrone. “I might even be able to use herbs or flowers from the farm in the products.”
There’s education along with employment. “Every day I come here I learn something new. I didn’t know that a lot of fruits start life as a flower. That just blew my mind,” says Ray Kidd, 26. Incarcerated from 16 to 23 for violent crimes, Kidd wants to break free of the prison cycle: Both his biological parents are in federal prison. “Farming is not about ego, money, or fame,” says Kidd, who runs his own music production company. “It’s about doing something that helps the community.”
Tyan Bowens, 49, spent three months in San Quentin State Prison and vowed when he got out he would never go back. Word-of-mouth brought him to West Oakland Farms. Born and raised in the area, he remembers when the streets were safe and children played outside. “People from the neighborhood stop by to thank us. That feels good,” says Bowens, who has used money he’s earned from the farm to buy school clothes for his daughter. “We can serve as role models to some of the youth hanging out on the street corners.”
West Oakland Farms is not the only local program that hires ex-inmates. Planting Justice, which builds produce gardens for low-income sectors of the community, also hires former prisoners. Given the crushing need for employment opportunities for people exiting prison, many of them young men of color, there’s room for more such undertakings.
Oakland & the World Enterprises board member D’wayne Wiggins grew up in the area too. The Grammy-award winning musician of Tony! Toni! Toné! fame jumped at the opportunity to support the new effort. “Oakland was a different place when I was a child—I remember running outside and eating fruit from my neighbor’s plum trees. It can be that kind of place again,” he says. “I’m inspired by Brown’s commitment to bring about change. And I’m confident this program will continue to grow. It’s the right group of people and we’re all invested in making it work.”
Wiggins and company won over at least one local at that first farm dinner. “There’s a lot of love in this room, you can feel it,” says Donna Loewen, an Oakland resident who attended a recent Picán fundraiser for the farm. “It gives me hope that this project will be successful.” ´
Sarah Henry wrote about West Oakland Farms earlier this year for Civil Eats, where some of this content first appeared.