Gardening is radical work, with deep, disobedient roots like those of a solitary rye grass plant punching down through stiff shale to fan out in a grassroots network five miles long. Gardening is political work, connecting people and plants and stirring up new life out of uncommon ground. And gardens belong to all beings who love and depend on them, from blind moles to the frontline gardeners at City Slicker Farm, in West Oakland, who grow Ruby Crescent potatoes in old tires, stacked high above toxic ground.
These were some of my thoughts as I ventured out of the well-watered gardens at Zen Center with our eight farm and garden apprentices to visit new paradise plots east of Eden in the Oakland industrial flatland. We spent the morning working at Martin Luther King High School, in north Berkeley, with about seventy middle school kids in their huge, nonprofit garden and kitchen before moving on to the People’s Grocery about eight miles away, whose mobile market offers food to a steady stream of hungry customers in the heart of the inner city. These grassroots projects, and hundreds more like them all over the country, are part of a national citizens’ coalition working for food security, which provides access to affordable, culturally acceptable, and nutritious food, available year-round through local, nonemergency sources.
Close to 70 percent of West Oakland’s thirty-two thousand residents live below the poverty line in neighborhoods punctuated by thirty-six liquor stores and a single supermarket. Founded in 2001, the People’s Grocery took root in this lean soil, sown and nourished by three young citizens of the community who were committed to grassroots change. Their mobile market is made from a converted postal truck retrofitted and painted bright orange and purple. Running on biodiesel fuel with a solar-powered “phat sound system” that plays loud hip-hop music, it tools through town three days a week, parking for an hour or so at a time on populated street corners so that local citizens can shop for food and healthy snacks.
We Zen practitioners sprawled on the grass outside of a local senior citizens’ center and watched as a flood of folks shopped at this mobile market, emerging with large bunches of greens and fresh broccoli, some of it grown in the five local gardens now up and running. These gardens are tended by volunteers, neighbors, and a handful of high school students who are part of the People’s Grocery Collards ’n’ Commerce program, which offers local classes in cooking and nutrition, as well as conflict resolution workshops. Little kids mobbed the van, buzzing up on their bikes to purchase small bags of Barbara’s organic potato chips, Luna Bars, and a basket or two of ripe Sequoia strawberries from local organic farms.
These days, most food travels an average of fifteen hundred miles from farm to table, an astonishing fact when you consider what is happening in communities like West Oakland, where a new kind of grassroots movement is forming, grounded in good citizenship and strong social and environmental justice.
Grassroots dharma practice grows like this food security movement, breaking into seized, conventional ground with vanguard roots nourished by regular sitting and walking meditation and deepened by real work and study that engages with the life of local neighborhoods. Grassroots dharma is both a sanctuary and a field of action evoking one of my favorite koans from the twelfth-century Chinese Zen dialogues of the Book of Serenity: The World-Honored One points to the ground underfoot and says, “This spot is good to build a sanctuary,” at which point a primary disciple plucks a blade of grass and sticks it back into the ground, announcing, “The sanctuary is built.”
And so it is, day by day and moment by moment, sometimes a purple and orange mobile market of a sanctuary, sometimes an open patch of abandoned grass on its way to becoming a garden that will cover heaven and earth and feed all beings in the ten directions.
For more information about the People’s Grocery, please contact:
820 Wood Street
Oakland, CA, 94607
There are hundreds of wonderful grassroots food security projects in this country and beyond. Here are just a few of my favorites outside of California:
CSA Learning Center
at Angelic Organics
1547 Rocketon Road
Caledonia, IL 61011
This Chicago-area organization has a wonderful program involving local religious groups called Congregationally Supported Agriculture. Check them out!
The Food Project
P.O. Box 705
Lincoln, MA 01773
(781) 259 8621
This ten-year-old organization works with inner-city youth to cultivate a twenty-three-acre farm that feeds hundreds of people and builds community in the extended Boston area.
305 Van Brunt Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231
This urban garden in South Brooklyn works with local youth and has opened a farmer’s market that serves as the sole provider of fresh produce for neighborhood residents.
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