Abeni Ramsey moves her
mission from Farm to Fork
Abeni Ramsey (some may know her as Abeni Massey) has attracted national attention for her local urban farming efforts. They began eight years ago when, with the help of City Slicker Farms, Ramsey, who was on food stamps at the time, started growing her own food in West Oakland. Times were tight for the then-college-going single mom, but she wanted to feed her daughters well. She sought to swap freshly picked tomatoes for the Top Ramen she’d gotten into the habit of buying at a local market that didn’t sell produce. As she started planting and harvesting her own fruits and vegetables, something clicked for this UC Davis international agriculture major, who had thought she’d use her academic training to work overseas helping low-income people grow their own food. Instead, she found a need for her services close to home. “It’s a revolutionary act to plant a tomato in your backyard,” she’s fond of saying. “I’m motivated by self-sufficiency and economics and the desire for people to have access to real food that can nourish their families and community.”
Ramsey went on to work for City Slicker, helping the food justice group build backyard produce plots in West Oakland. That’s when her education around local food deserts began in earnest. Many residents there, she learned, simply don’t have access to fresh food. Next came a stint with Dig Deep Farms, an urban-ag organization that employs Alameda County youth and feeds people from San Leandro, Castro Valley, Ashland, and Cherryland. Then she launched her own farm business, City Girl Farms in San Lorenzo, on land already lush with pineapple guava, persimmon, and walnut trees. She planted organic, heirloom greens and other vegetables that she sold to restaurants like Flora in Oakland.
This urban farmer has been forced to relocate her farm several times; twice developers bought the land to build housing, clearing acres of produce in the process. “It broke my heart,” says Ramsey, who currently grows food in milk crates in her East Oakland backyard and on a farm share in Richmond at Sunnyside Organic Seedlings. She’s also working with a group in Oakland keen to create a farm-share program in the city. “We want to use land that is blighted and abandoned and have it become zoned for agricultural use and protected by land tenancy,” she says. “I’m hoping to be a tenant in that program.”
While searching for a new permanent growing space, Ramsey is focusing her attention on opening two food and farm businesses in downtown Oakland. Calling on her 15-plus years experience working restaurant front-of-house, Ramsey is launching Township, a restaurant focused on seasonal, farm-fresh food. Expected to open in February, Township is housed in a 100-year-old warehouse building that will also accommodate City Girl Farmstore: a source for seeds, starts, and tools as well as beekeeping equipment and backyard farm-animal feed. “We want to make it easier for folks in the city who want to grow their own food,” says Ramsey. “As urban farmers, we know how difficult it can be to source basic supplies and tools and we want to offer these resources at a reasonable price in a central location that’s close to public transport.” The store joins other urban farm supply outlets in the East Bay, including the Berkeley cooperative Biofuel Oasis and Pollinate Farm & Garden in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.
City Girl Farmstore began as a pop-up on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. The collaboration included Ramsey and Stephanie Essig, a former science teacher who met Ramsey when she volunteered to help plant at City Girl Farms. The farmstore, which Essig will oversee, is scheduled to open in December, and will also sell soups, salads, and sandwiches. “My passion is to get people to reconnect to their food, especially in the black and brown community,” says Essig, who tends greens and raises bees from her nearby apartment. “It’s made such a difference in my life to grow my own food.”
Ramsey, 39, has led an eclectic life. She’s known both lean times and luxury. Today, she is the single mother of three girls, ages 17, 10, and 2. The daughter of a judge and a small business owner, she grew up in a leafy, tony enclave of Berkeley where they were one of the few African American families. She recounts that some of those eventual neighbors signed a petition to prevent sale of the home to her family on the grounds it would lower property values. The family moved in anyway and Ramsey enjoyed the trappings of an upper middle class life, including membership at the Claremont Hotel Resort and trips to Europe, Africa, and Asia.
She also grew up helping her grandfather, the first urban farmer she knew, tend his large garden with beans, okra, and potatoes while on summer visits to Queens, New York. “My grandfather used to say: ‘Make sure you can hang a shingle.’ That mindset comes from growing up in the Depression and is relevant today,” says Ramsey. “We’re living in a time when you can have a job today, no job tomorrow, and be on the street the day after that. Cities like Oakland have lost a lot of industry that is never coming back. That’s what fuels the entrepreneurial spirit here now. We have to get creative and do for ourselves, take responsibility, and recreate community,” she says. “The more that people rebuild and revitalize neighborhoods, the more the city will get behind them, and then things will really blossom.”
Take the burgeoning food and drink scene in Oakland neighborhoods such as Uptown, Old Oakland, and Jack London Square. While some sniff at gentrification, Ramsey is not one of them. “For me, gentrification is a problem when you don’t own a stake in the new reality, it is not a problem when you do,” she says.
Still, in opening her restaurant smack in the heart of Oakland, she will have one of the few new African-American-owned food businesses in the area. She hopes that diners hold their preconceived notions in check. “I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. . . I don’t want people to make assumptions about my food just by looking at me. Nor do I want them to be angry about what’s on the menu because I’m black and somehow something I’m serving isn’t black so I’m selling out. Why can’t a black person be an individual just like anyone else? My skin does not dictate who I am, my life dictates who I am, and I’m a woman who has had a life, been places, and been inspired by those places.”
So customers can expect what Ramsey calls “contemporary American” food on the menu: familiar fare incorporating forms and flavors from across the country and around the globe, whether Southern influences, French tastes and techniques, or classic Californian cuisine. Ramsey learned to cook from her father, who was something of an amateur gourmand, the type that took his family on cooking tours throughout France. She also grew up hooked on PBS cooking shows, such as Great Chefs, Jacques Pépin, and Julia Child. “I wrote recipe books as a kid and I put together my first business plan for a restaurant 10 years ago,” she says. “Hosting and hospitality is in my blood. You come to my house the first thing I’m going to do is offer you something to eat.”
To run the kitchen, Ramsey has brought on chef Brent Johnson, whom she met when they both worked at Spruce, a fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco. Most recently Johnson served as the culinary manager at La Cocina, the incubator food program for women in San Francisco. In keeping with her urban farmer roots, Ramsey is talking with the landlord about installing a rooftop garden. Inside, the restaurant will feature a wall of edible herbs for the bar program, and a greenhouse room will provide lettuces and other greens for the kitchen.
Ramsey wants to create a casual dining environment with quality food served in a communal fashion. And the name of the restaurant? A nod to when Oakland was an agrarian township. Ramsey likes the idea of evoking the past as a way to move forward and create something new. That might just sum up what Oakland is all about right now in a nutshell.
For details on opening dates and hours for City Girl Farmstore and Township Restaurant at 1542 Broadway, Oakland, visit facebook.com/510Farmstore