Give and Take: The East Bay’s Growing Food-Sharing Culture
By Sarah Henry
Pictured: Some of the homemade goods offered at the East Bay Homemade Food Swap. (Photos courtesy of Becky Spencer.)
Sharing has made a comeback. East Bay residents are now bartering, trading, exchanging, swapping, or simply giving away an abundance of homegrown produce or homemade food in a variety of creative ways. Of course, gardeners who grow their own veggies have always doled out surplus squash and spinach to neighbors (or as the San Francisco Chronicle recently wisecracked, arugula and cilantro, the Berkeley equivalent of summer’s backyard bounty).
But these days, guerrilla gardeners and DIY preservers and picklers have raised the bar on the sharing circuit. Hardcore urban homesteaders exchange honey and eggs for goat milk and rabbit meat. Some even give their excess goodies to local restaurants or food artisans on the sly, in return for a share of the finished product—handing over, say, a bag of Meyer lemons that will find their way into fresh pasta dough.
Resourceful local residents who don’t have land but are willing to offer their labor use local email lists to find homeowners who have a place where a produce plot could thrive, if only somebody would plant one. Happy produce matches have happened this way, with both parties reaping the harvest. Similarly, Neighborhood Vegetables, a loosely organized garden work group overseen by veteran organizer Laurence Schechtman, pairs people in Oakland and Berkeley who need help with their gardens with people who want to till the soil. Beans and beets have been known to change hands at these gatherings too.
Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library lets people “borrow” seeds, Albany hosts a garden swap on Tuesday nights where folks drop off fava beans and snap up Santa Rosa plums. A similar crop swap started in July in Berkeley on Monday evenings; Phat Beets holds a produce and plant exchange in Oakland on Saturdays.
Some folks help themselves, others a whole community. Anna Chan in Clayton (also known as the Lemon Lady) and Natasha Boissier of North Berkeley Harvest take the sharing concept a step further: They glean excess produce in their areas and drop off bags of fresh fruits and vegetables for hungry mouths at community soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The newly opened Urban Adamah, a one-acre educational farm with Jewish roots in West Berkeley, plans to give away much of its produce to people in need in the neighborhood.
Here are three local efforts to share resources that result in good grub for all.
Patricia Algara and Giancarlo Muscardini: Algarden
Pictured: Giancarlo Muscardini at work in the borrowed West Berkeley garden space he shares with Patricia Algara (with bees). (Photos by Nicki Rosario.)
She’s a landscape architect with an urban ag focus, but without land of her own. He’s a proponent of permaculture who wanted to plant produce in his neighbor’s yard. Patricia Algara and Giancarlo Muscardini met a few years ago when they were both eyeing the same double lot of lawn in West Berkeley that was crying out to become an edible oasis. They decided to team up, approached the owners about borrowing part of the yard, and after a legal agreement addressing liability concerns was drawn up and a fence with a locked gate was put in place, a demonstration urban farm was born.
The homeowners provide the land, Algara much of the ongoing labor (the initial garden design and buildout was a joint effort by Algara and Muscardini), and water is piped from Muscardini’s residence next door. His permaculture principles, which emphasize using resources on hand rather than bringing in supplies, informs the entire space. Old cardboard boxes, for instance, form the sheet mulch.
Currently, the space holds a greenhouse, beehives, and garden beds boasting loads of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. A rainwater catchment project is in the works.
It’s a win-win all round. For homeowners Matt Haber and Jane Diamond, who both work full time for the Environmental Protection Agency and have spent a lot of their off-work hours gutting and renovating their 1880 Victorian home, it’s a delight to have an aesthetically pleasing edible garden in their formerly grass-filled yard. “We had grand plans to put in a garden, and we did plant a lot of fruit trees when we first got here,” says Haber, who has lived here since 1984. “But fixing up the house took up so much of our time we just didn’t get to the yard.”
Algara, who grew up in Mexico, where her grandfather tended a family garden full of tomatoes, lettuce, and corn, is grateful to now have a space where she can grow her own food. The fact that she can also share her knowledge and excess bounty with others makes it all the more satisfying. Up until recently she hosted weekly Friday lunches in the garden, which featured foods grown on site. (The local chef who cooked for these meetups has since relocated, so Algara has moved her community meals to San Francisco, where she lives.) Algara and Muscardini hold regular garden work parties and permaculture workshops that are open to the public, at which visitors are educated on the myriad benefits of growing their own food. (Check Algara’s blog for details on upcoming events.) “We’ve done so much with this garden in such a short amount of time,” Algara says. “I hope we serve as an example to others about what can happen when people pool their resources.”
There have been unexpected benefits to the cooperative project. “I enjoy having people spend time in the garden; I’m glad it serves the community,” says Haber. “And even though we ate pretty healthily before the garden, I eat a lot more kale now. When you have food that fresh you feel like you just have to eat it.”
Kendra Poma: East Bay Homemade Food Swap
A food swap just made sense to Oakland resident Kendra Poma, a seasoned clothes swapper. She was inspired to hold her own edible exchange after watching a video on a phenomenon that’s cooking in kitchens across the country.
Of course, home cooks have been swapping (or simply gifting) preserves, pickles, cakes, and cookies with friends and neighbors for generations. These days, artisan DIYers have added a contemporary culinary spin to the food swap, which may well have caught on due to the lingering economic downturn. The appeal: Discovering new foods, meeting fellow food lovers, and stocking the pantry for a fraction of the cost of buying retail. Since no money changes hands, such meetups aren’t subject to health department scrutiny.
In April, the first East Bay Homemade Food Swap was held in Poma’s Oakland home, where 25 mostly female home cooks (all of them new to bartering food) showcased their wares. The swap featured staples like homegrown eggs, greens, and herbs, along with handcrafted jams, breads, and spreads. But less-common homemade items, such as fava leaf pesto, basil liqueur, and avocado pound cake were also up for grabs.
A second swap, scheduled in Emeryville for July, could accommodate 30 participants. Any bigger than that and such events lose their personal feel, explains Poma, who plans to hold seasonal meetups. The next swap is slated for October, probably in a central Oakland location.
The event operates like a silent auction where swappers jot down their offers. This gives other swappers an idea of who wants their goods and what they’d score in exchange. At the end of a designated bidding period people can decide who to trade with. Typically, there’s a tasting station too. For the first hour people mill about, chatting and checking out the chow. Then the bidding begins. Once everyone has had a chance to make their swap choices known the actual trades take place. Informal verbal requests for unclaimed items follow, once written swaps have been honored. The idea, after all, is to go home with different foods than the ones you brought.
Surprisingly, a lot of participants at the first swap said they opted to make something new—be it blood orange marmalade or their mom’s kick-arse kim chee—rather than play it safe with a tried-and-true recipe.
Poma grows a lot of her own produce and has traded food with friends in the past. But since the first swap, she’s developed an even bigger network of frugal food lovers, and says she’s been able to feed herself without actually spending much money the past few months. Case in point: She recently traded her kombucha, lamb’s quarters, chard, and kefir grains for some pickled vegetables and jars of peach and ginger preserves. “Food swaps are a great way to save money and eat well,” says Poma. “They’re also good places to meet like-minded people and expand your community.”
Sophie Hahn and Willow Rosenthal
Sophie Hahn (left) and Willow Rosenthal. (Photo by Robin Jolin.)
All Sophie Hahn wanted to do was share the abundance from her North Berkeley home garden, where she’s been able to grow enough greens, herbs, and veggies to feed five families in addition to her own family of five. She’s also eager to offset some of the costs incurred in maintaining her edible garden. Her idea? Run a modest CSA of sorts out of her backyard. She intended to charge neighbors $30 or $40 a week for a share of the freshly picked harvest.
But then she discovered that the city’s zoning codes forbade such business transactions in a residential setting. Undeterred, Hahn began a campaign to update the codes. (Similarly restrictive laws in San Francisco and Oakland were recently overhauled in favor of urban growers who want to sell their produce.)
For Hahn, putting the land behind her home to good use was a no-brainer. Still, it’s not cheap: There are the initial setup costs—which include garden bed construction, drip irrigation, and animal, seed, and plant purchases—in addition to ongoing payments for the two farmers who tend the garden. Since Hahn does not have a green thumb, she hired urban gardener Willow Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms, to turn her terraced, sloping backyard into a thriving produce garden. Rosenthal and fellow farmer Laurel Sharp tend eight planter boxes that boast leafy greens like chard, lettuce, and kale; root vegetables; and herbs. A compost bin takes green waste, and a chicken coop is home to a dozen or so hens. It’s a clean, green, quiet, productive plot.
Berkeley’s residential gardens are a significant untapped resource for fresh food production for the community, says Hahn, whose Berkeley Edible Gardens Initiative is intended to pressure the city to allow small-scale ventures like her own to operate legally. Hahn has the support of fellow residents, including councilmember Jesse Arreguin and author Michael Pollan as well as the Ecology Center. “I value and want to protect the residential quality of our neighborhoods,” she says. “I think we can do that while still allowing reasonable economic activity associated with a social good—in this case growing fresh food to share.”
While Hahn awaits action from the city, she gives away her excess greens to grateful neighbors. “Not everyone wants to or can grow their own food,” she says. “But we should help make it economically viable for those who do.”
Rosenthal agrees. “Sophie is committed to this garden, and pays fair wages to farmers because she believes it’s the right thing to do from a health and environmental point of view. She really gets it, even if it isn’t cost-effective.”
Freelance food writer Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. She writes a weekly food column for Berkeleyside and blogs regularly for KQED’s Bay Area Bites . Her stories on good food matters have appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic, Eating Well, AFAR, California, and San Francisco, as well as in other online and print outlets.
Patricia Algara: www.foodscaping.blogspot.com
East Bay Homemade Food Swappers: www.ebcaswaps.blogspot.com
Berkeley Edible Gardens Initiative: www.berkeleyediblegardens.org/gardens
Natasha Boissier, North Berkeley Harvest: www.northberkeleyharvest.org
Urban Adamah: The Jewish Sustainability Corps: www.urbanadamah.org
Neighborhood Vegetables: www.facebook.com/pages/Neighborhood-Vegetables-East-Bay/149222998454191
Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library: www.richmondgrows.org
Transition Berkeley Crop Swap: Ohlone Greenway across from North Berkeley BART, Mondays 6:30–7:30 p.m. Contact Carole Bennett-Simmons: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phat Beets Crop Swap: www.phatbeetsproduce.org/events
Anna Chan, The Lemon Lady: www.thelemonlady.blogspot.com
Albany Garden Swap: www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=814