At its Oakland rooftop farm, Deep Medicine Circle digs into revolutionary food access and landback
By Mark C. Anderson
There’s a lot to see from the rooftop farm on the Logan Building at Telegraph and 51st in Oakland—the downtown skyline and San Francisco Bay, fist-sized strawberries and towering artichokes, injustice behind and equity ahead.
The vision of a revolution in bloom.
Oakland civil rights attorney Walter Riley comes equipped to ID such a shift.
Riley, now 79, was a teenager growing up amid segregation in Durham County, North Carolina, when he started organizing freedom rides and other nonviolent action alongside the Congress of Racial Equality, NAACP, and Malcolm X.
Now he chairs the board of Deep Medicine Circle (DMC), the organization behind the largest roof planting on the West Coast and the most productive urban food plot in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As it routes nutrient-rich produce to food-insecure souls at a dozen-plus places like UCSF Claremont Clinic and Homeful Foundation—for free—DMC sets off cascading socioeconomic benefits. It also provides wildlife habitat, stormwater mitigation, and replicable practices for city-centered agroecology to anyone ready to adopt the data-driven blueprint on how DMC’s done it.
That blueprint involves a coalition of Greater Bay Area “farmers, elders, physicians, healers, herbalists, ecological designers, scholars, political ecologists, movement workers, educators, youth, storytellers, and artists” who—as DMC’s website lays out—actively “heal the wounds of colonialism through food, medicine, story, restoration, and learning.”
As a youngster in the Jim Crow South, Riley felt he had no option other than advocacy.
“I very clearly remember my desire to be a kid,” Riley told the SF Chronicle as part of the “Lift Every Voice” series, “but I didn’t feel I could be a kid because I was too aware of what was going on around me.”
The feeling lingers six-plus decades on in the face of similar systemic injustice.
“Deep Medicine Circle is working with people who put their hands in the soil, who understand it’s a living organism, who emphasize food access as justice,” says Riley. “What happens in this country is that people work hard and don’t have access to food.”
Sowing health, Riley adds, goes beyond produce.
“We’re not going to feed the world with one farm alone,” he says. “Deep Medicine is an attempt to penetrate the intellectual understanding of health and nutrition; to change our relation to growing, soil, and produce; to inspire policy to develop a different approach.”
Ultimately, he connects his past and present.
“The Civil Rights Movement was about trying to make changes. So is this,” he says. “That’s why I’m here doing this rather than being a corporate lawyer.
“That is momentary. Systemic change is necessary.”
A book talk by Dr. Rupa Marya, a physician/farmer, UC San Francisco professor of medicine, and DMC’s executive director, led this writer to the rooftop. And that led to another talk and some digging in the dirt.
Talk #1 came at EcoFarm, the longest running organic farming conference in the U.S., where Marya discussed Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice (2021), coauthored with political ecologist and food systems activist Raj Patel.
Inflamed looks at how the human body, society, and the planet are aggravated in parallel patterns that happen to be intimately linked.
As the book illustrates, solutions wait patiently in Indigenous practices.
“These connections are not new,” it reads. “Nor are they ours.”
Activist emcee/screenwriter/director/producer Boots Riley, frontman of The Coup—who introduced Marya to chairman Walter Riley, his dad—elaborates in an endorsement of the book.
“Science and medicine are often treated as fields that are subtracted from social movements, separate from the struggle for power that billions of human beings are embroiled in and abstracted from the material conditions around us,” he writes. “Luckily for us, Marya and Patel are out here making these connections … as we fight to have control of our surroundings.”
It was such learning that led this author to talk #2, back at the Deep Medicine rooftop farm. There Marya referenced Inflamed as part of an urban food tour organized by the 2023 Bioneers Conference in Berkeley.
“I am inspired by dismantling colonial capitalism,” Marya said. “That mindset has decimated wildlife; it has destroyed our waters; it has made the air unbreathable; and it has written the scourge of chronic inflammatory disease on all of our bodies.
“Beautiful things emerge in the compost of that failed system.”
With her medical, activist, and abolitionist chops, Marya’s thoughts carry clout. But she doesn’t often bring up those bona fides, nor the fact she’s a world-touring singer-songwriter-guitarist frontwoman for Rupa & the April Fishes. (That’s the same group that accepted heirloom seeds as admission to shows and distributed seed packets with each song release of its latest album, Growing Upward.)
Marya flags a different qualification: She married a farmer.
“I [was looking] for a computer hacktivist or a seed saver,” she says.
She found the latter in Big Sur while on tour with the April Fishes at Esalen Institute. There she met Ben Fahrer, a Carmel native and permaculture expert, who was managing Esalen’s crops and leading related workshops. When they reconvened later, he reconsidered his plan to travel the world teaching agroecology.
“It was that life or love,” he says. “Love prevailed.”
Fahrer and his Top Leaf Farms are the team who later spearheaded the build-out of the rooftop farm. Using elements like novel water design, biochar underlays, and compost tea systems to make up for shallow grow beds, their fields burst forth with everything from bell peppers and bok choy to sweet peas and Swiss chard.
As the farm came together, the couple started assembling DMC’s collective of collaborators, a group that pollinates food-is-medicine mindfulness in every direction, reminding everyone listening, as Marya says, “We’re a living system within a living system.”
At the same time, they were comparing notes and observing something in her patients’ evaluations and his farm analyses: Stool and soil health followed similar tracks—improving and declining in concert—but no one was paying attention to the connection between healthy functions in the gut and nutrients in the ground.
“Healthy soil equals healthy food, which equals healthy people,” Fahrer says. “Our food is only as healthy as the soil is.”
This perspective informs and solidifies the foundation from which Deep Medicine rises: reestablish Indigenous-minded stewardship of land; support farmers as frontline health workers; make nutrition universal; remember food works best as a medicine provider, not profit generator.
“We have an opportunity to reawaken our relationships with our soils and foods,” Marya says. “But that’s not achieved through sitting around and meditating.”
Oakland-based Moms 4 Housing founder Dominique Walker observes that reawakening in her role as a food distribution partner and also as DMC’s farming-is-medicine survey coordinator and political educator.
Yes, plenty of awakening does happen in the dirt—“So much thought goes into seeds and soil and ritual,” Walker says—but it is also happening in places she didn’t expect, like boardrooms and community centers.
“I’m more hands on, in the street,” she continues, “so when I chose to be part of the data team and political education team, I was hesitant at first. But I see what we’re doing, and we know folks want to see numbers. Showing that is important.”
Those numbers include 18,687 pounds of produce that DMC grew in fall 2022 alone, as reports by partner See Change Institute show.
Just as meaningful for Walker, however, is the human data—the long line of elders she surveys who report skipping meals and the testimonials she gathers from them.
“Sometimes when we do distribution, folks are like, ‘Is this really free?’” she says. “Just getting folks to believe that some things are a human right, like food and shelter, shows … there’s a need for this on a much bigger scale.”
That bigger scale awaits on the coast just north of Santa Cruz County, in fertile fields of unincorporated San Gregorio (population 214). There sits a 38-acre farm named Te Kwe A’naa Warep, “Honoring Mother Earth” in native Ramaytush.
DMC’s work there began in 2020, when Marya and Fahrer submitted a stewardship proposal to the Peninsula Open Space Trust after local Indigenous groups invited them to consider the opportunity. That collaboration with the Native community—and DMC’s track record and relationships in farming circles—helped them beat out 30-plus other contenders.
Today the rooftop farm’s sea-level sister grows many of the same things they do in Oakland—carrots, lettuces, melons, onions, radishes, ginger, and indigo among dozens of other items—while cultivating connectivity as well as crops.
Within the barn’s soaring walls, where braided garlic dangles from cross struts, an assemblage of drums awaits a session. Sun streams through the broad door where Marya recently power-posed with her guitar for a social media post that reads, in part, “When you cease making distinctions that separate art from healing from earth from fire from being from decaying …everything is music.”
Past the fluffy farm dog watching from the barn floor, toward the ocean, rows of vibrant rainbow chard and fruit trees curve with topography tended by hand tools.
Flower bundles commingle with paint and paper as DMC administrative aide Lola (who goes by a single name) hand-letters signage for a community U-pick later that week.
Twenty-one-year-old Lola’s Northern Pomo and Kletsel Dehe Wintun heritage helped guide her here from her native Mendocino County.
“For many, there is difficulty understanding food policy and landback work because we’ve gotten adapted to capitalistic structures to feed our families,” she says. “It goes back to reminding people that healthy food is a human right.”
The farm occupies an inauspicious place on the coast. Very near here in 1769, Gaspar de Portolá encountered Natives who helped nurse his sickly crew to health. Later colonists massacred the original inhabitants.
Keeping that history front of mind and center of heart grounds the project. Charlene Eigen-Vasquez, a descendant of Ohlone now living in the village of Chitactac near Gilroy, is DMC’s landback director and a member of the WOC-led nonprofit’s board. She helps coordinate tribal collaboration, brokering peacemaking rituals and bringing Indigenous groups to the land that, over time, will shift back to their care.
“As we heal the land, we heal the people,” she says. “By working on the land, nurturing it, and reintroducing species, we can renew plant relations and animal relations that were once there. What follows is the people, then the songs and the ceremonies.”
Regular ceremonies like two last fall and winter drew representatives from the Ohlone, Mexica, Miwok, Maidu, and Chumash peoples, among others.
Eigen-Vasquez notes the impact on the land’s production.
“If we want to create healing food with all the vitamins and nutrients possible, it’s not just water and soil but the energy we put into it,” she says. “We’re doing our best to lift the spirit of the land and the workers, which is one of the reasons that ceremony is so important.”
Beneath azure skies and puffs of cloud cover, a diverse band of gardeners gently plucks tall stalks from the soil, shakes away the dirt, unsheathes the garlic, and plops it onto a growing pile.
It’s the weekly volunteer day on the roof in Oakland, and the multiethnic mix of students, doctoral residents, and justice activists are weeding, composting, and harvesting vibrantly colorful rainbow chard.
Rooftop harvest manager Meredith Song and field manager Victoria Chavez—who also support DMC’s robust intern education program—lead the group from task to task.
“We have a chance to value and pay farmers as people closely involved with the health of the community,” Song says at one point.
“Growing nutrient-dense food and giving it to people within a day means they get peak nutrients,” Chavez says, brushing dark dirt from a bulb. “The fresher you eat it, the more vitamins and minerals you get! And when we provide it for free, we liberate food from the capitalist system.”
Paying farmers like doctors and making food free can sound radical. But ultimately, prevention of costly diet-induced disease is practical, or about as un-radical as it gets.
Fahrer helps put it in perspective: “What’s radical is the imagination needed to solve what’s ailing us.”
The additional layer of irony there: The solutions aren’t complicated. Healthy soil grows healthy plants. Fresh produce fights inflammation. Permaculture is based on 10,000-year-old practices.
Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America, understands this as well as anyone—and articulates it as lyrically and willfully, too.
After surviving both life on the streets and incarceration (for being houseless), she’s helped build a grassroots network of support for the houseless, built by the houseless—or, as she says more succinctly, “a value system that believes in radical interdependence.”
Under the East Oakland–based project Homefulness, which includes Sliding Scale Café and Poor Magazine, Gray-Garcia and friends furnish everything from media access to diapers and art education for all impoverished youth, adults, and elders who seek it—along with Deep Medicine Circle produce for as many as 1,000 food-insecure individuals every Thursday.
Even a short conversation with Gray-Garcia overflows with critiques of everything from nutrition gaps—“We die from processed, high sodium, and GMO food that’s what we have money for at the corner store”—to “crapitalism.” “The reality is most poor people die of poor-people diseases. Changing that is not a radical thing. It’s a precolonial thing.
“We’re building a solution and living in it,” she adds. “Healthy greens are a lifeline for this community. The origin of food is also the origin of life.”
She returns to a foundational piece of her outreach more than once: Deep Medicine Circle’s approach.
“[They] bring things from a totally different direction,” she says.
Picture an impossible jigsaw puzzle.
That’s how some describe Deep Medicine Circle’s endeavor to offer free greens to those who need it most, to reimagine health care’s fundamentals, to take on centuries of colonization.
Fahrer embraces the comparison. How to take on something so complex? Like you would a … jigsaw puzzle.
“Take care of edges first,” he says. “We’re trying to create the framework in one district in Oakland: to [build] a food utility, to make healthy vegetables a right, and document it so other communities can try to replicate it.”
The effort has DMC tracking data on inputs, harvests, staffing, outreach, storytelling, and other lessons learned the uneasy way, across months of measurement to produce a toolkit for other farms and communities. Key to it are funding mechanisms, which for DMC includes private donations, public grants, and a plan to earn government health care dollars.
That documenting process is past year two as this publishes; the plan after year three is to share everything online with open-source accessibility.
“It’s a rich case study,” Marya says. “Some pieces might be applicable in some places, and some won’t. We’ll say, ‘This works,’ ‘This is what we would’ve done differently,’ ‘Here are the challenges,’ ‘What happened, and what did we learn?’”
Deep Medicine Circle also hopes to use the toolkit to win backing for food-is-medicine projects from interested public institutions like the University of California system and local municipalities.
“It will be there for anyone who wants to replicate it,” Fahrer says.
In other words, this is not a socialist fever dream. It’s a merit-based model where the depth lies in the thought going in, the knowledge coming out, and the partners on board, which include the city of Oakland, Berkeley Food Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Other puzzle pieces find their places through Te Kwe A’naa Warep’s relanding: Eigen-Vasquez reports tribes from New York to Wisconsin and Montana to Washington state are watching—and contributing.
“Because [tribes] know it’s happening, they’re offering seeds,” she says. “Tobacco, sweet grass, different corn, beans. They’re following our work.”
On top of that, local members of tribes from across North America who have attended ceremonies on-site return with more relatives and stand ready to help.
“Whether it’s clearing brush, planting seeds, trenching, invasive weed removal …” Eigen-Vasquez says, “If we need them, they’re there. It’s way cool.”
And so, piece by piece, the impossible jigsaw puzzle begins to come together. Marya saw as much in a patient’s mood swing she described for the Bioneers on the rooftop last spring.
A Bay Area local she’d known for 20 years only to lose track of during COVID came in eager to hear how the April Fishes were jamming along.
“I can’t play music right now!” Marya told her patient. “I have to grow food.”
His face fell—until he learned it was his doctor who hauled in the hyper-fresh produce for him to take home.
“Wait—you brought the lettuce?!” he asked.
He felt better already. ♦
Mark C. Anderson is a roving reporter, photographer, and explorer who won best magazine column at SF Press Club Awards this winter. He is contributing editor at Edible Monterey Bay, where a previous version of this story was published.
Volunteers at Deep Medicine Circle’s rooftop farm gain gardening insights and leave with fresh organic produce to share with friends and family. deepmedicinecircle.org/work-with-us
At PeopleSkool, Poor Magazine leads a biannual free (and virtual) decolonization seminar to help people navigate race, class, and/or formal education privilege with their family, community, and self. poormagazine.org/education
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