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Oakland Museum Digs Into Urban Farming

A new exhibition, Take Root, opens this weekend

Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California

With “everything from Alice Waters to Cesar Chavez,” to learn about local agricultural history, a new Oakland exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California that explores the rich topic of local farming is “only going to be a tasting menu,” says Sarah Seiter, the museum’s associate curator of natural sciences. That means Take Root: Oakland Grows Food , a new, year-long exhibition a the OCMA, will provide a broad overview of the current state of Oaklanders growing food for themselves and their community, answering basic questions like “what grows in Oakland?” and connecting visitors to information about local farms including City Slicker, Acta Non Verba, and New Roots. Take Root runs from December 16th through January 2019.

“It’s not a secret that the Oakland Museum is moving towards progressive, social justice issues” says Seiter. Recent exhibitions have covered cannabis to capitalism. “This exhibition is a way to do that in the natural sciences gallery. We wanted to focus more on ecosystems that are managed and experienced by humans — fisheries, working water fronts, landscapes where humans are deeply enmeshed.”

The East Bay has long been fertile ground for farmers and gardeners, with chefs like Jeremiah Tower and Paul Bertolli of Chez Panisse and then Stars and Oliveto and Michael Wild of Bay Wolf cultivating local food systems and putting local produce at the center of the plate. In 2006, Oakland’s City Council even announced a goal that the city grow one-third of its own food.

Still, some areas of Oakland have languished as food deserts. Amidst gentrification, as “our vacant lots are getting snapped up,” according to Seiter, farms like City Slicker have demonstrated the viability of growing food in formerly unused spaces. A community partner of Take Root, City Slicker operates a weekly West Oakland farm stand to distributes fresh fruit and vegetables on a sliding donation scale.

Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California

“It’s a really big honor and pleasure to work in Oakland with Oakland community groups,” says Seiter. “There’s something that’s very ‘can-do’ and inclusive that’s a very Oakland quality, and that really comes through in our farmers, communities organizing for themselves.”

With 80 percent of the Oakland Museum’s visitors also from Oakland itself, “people are coming from the community to learn more about the community,” says Seiter. Over the next year, tour groups of local middle schoolers will engage with farming on a scientific scale, learning about the plants, animals, insects, and birds that interact with garden plants. They’ll leave with their own food justice posters and perhaps a desire to get their hands dirty.

Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California