El Sobrante food-justice community center, café in works
By Lou Fancher
With luck, the improbable stories of 2021 will be tales of good fortune emerging from last year — despite the rubble of 2020’s tragic pandemic and response, social justice unrest and gaping economic and political divides that threatened our lives and our nation.
These new narratives will be like the one involving Planting Justice, The Good Table United Church of Christ, a land owner and a community that rose up with 900 signatures on a petition to protect a creek and a former ranch and plum orchard in El Sobrante from suburban development and yet another gas station.
On Ohlone land that had since the early 1900s housed the historic, Japanese-American family-owned Adachi Florist & Nursery, Planting Justice is establishing a 4-acre retail farm. On the specific, 1.3-acre site that was to be a gas station, the Oakland nonprofit whose mission is to correct perceived inequity in the food distribution system has joined in a unique, intergenerational partnership with members of Good Table UCC. Together, they plan to open a “pay-what-you-can” café, nursery/farm store, commercial kitchen and a community center offering spiritual programming, health and wellness education, sustainable agriculture training, arts and music events and more.
Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi are the co-founders of Planting Justice. After two years of discussions with the land owner about how the nonprofit could buy the land and preserve it for use as a retail nursery, the developer inadvertently played matchmaker.
“The Adachi family had been in business since 1905 — one of the oldest businesses in the (Contra Costa) county and one of the last Japanese nurseries to remain open,” recalls Raders. “The gas station developer was going to tear down this beautiful building and build yet another gas station, like we need another one of those in El Sobrante. Luckily, in one of those calls he was attempting to light a fire, I believe, and he said, ‘You better make an offer because there’s another organization interested.’ He gave me the name of Rev. Dr. Melinda McLain, pastor at Mira Vista United Church of Christ (which changed its name in 2020 to The Good Table United Church of Christ). We met to talk about it.”
McLain, whose church members had sold their former church property with intention to enact their values more broadly in the world by investing in a social project that would include buying land and opening a community café and center for spiritual practice, education and outreach, remembers the “magic” of that first meeting.
“They are a millennial-led fundraising powerhouse. We are an established organization with older members and a legacy capital. We’ve been around for 70 years, and they’ve been around for 10, so it’s a perfect intergenerational mix of gifts and skills. We have more capital, and they have more energy. We need each other to pull it off.”
The church bought the land; Planting Justice agreed to renovate and run the retail and farm operations. The melding of an older group with a younger group, McLain adds, is rare.
“I’ve been with nonprofits for more than 30 years, in political, arts, spiritual and social justice arenas. I don’t see this model anywhere.”
The plans for spiritual programming include meditation, yoga, a book group and more.
“You don’t have to be a member of the church. It will be beyond ordinary things churches do — like the meditation group I already have that includes atheists, Buddhists as well as Christians,” says McLain.
She says that COVID-19 closures have brought social isolation to the forefront and are a primary reason behind the why and when of opening the center in 2021.
“We’re going to launch this just as we come out of the pandemic and can be together,” she says. “It’s been a great source of hope for me, and it will be a great way to be in community again.”
Raders knew the 4,700-square foot building would be a terrific retail nursery and a strong support vehicle to the East Oakland nursery that Planting Justice already owns and operates. That garden is primarily a mail-order nursery, selling plants and trees while simultaneously fulfilling the organization’s mission to provide full-time, living wage jobs for neighborhood residents, formerly incarcerated people working to reintegrate into society and other people most impacted by food insecurity.
“At our nursery in East Oakland we brought a small family business that had about $180,000 in sales before we acquired them to what we had last year, about $450,000. This addition of a retail nursery property increases the sustainability of our farming operations because the El Sobrante commercial kitchen will develop value-added products: jarred fruits and jams, fruit vinegars, baked goods, salves, tinctures, honey … . We’ll integrate that into our nursery sales and also our online platform that has national reach,” says Raders.
Of course, even with the church purchasing the property, renovating the building and nursery comes at a cost: roughly $1.1 million. Of that, Raders says about $950,000 has already been raised. A GoFundMe campaign launched in December raised just more than $31,000 by the start of the new year.
With less than $150,000 remaining to raise, Raders puts his faith in the community and has no doubt about success, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.
“Like any human or parent alive, COVID has had a huge impact on our personal lives. And yet the organization is as strong as it’s ever been. There’s a resurgence of gardening and an interest in home-scale food production across the country.”
Long-term, the two nonprofit leaders anticipate the project will serve as a model for other communities.
“The veil is coming down. COVID and the past four years and couple of decades have shown how an exploitive food and economic system is failing to meet people’s basic needs for housing, job and food security,” says Raders. “The myths we’ve told ourselves are not working out any longer. We need economic models that provide dignified, meaningful jobs to people.”
Planting Justice plans to open-source the model’s aquaponic technology, database, business and grassroots fundraising practices, educational programming and more, presenting it in ways suitable for nonprofits or in forms independent of grant or foundation support and applicable to for-profit entities.
McLain says people of all ages who care about food justice or congregations like Good Table’s and who “like to roll up their sleeves” to work within communities using music, art and food to “make peace in the world,” should collaborate more often. “Music is a language that can stop violence in its tracks,” she says. “You can persuade without preaching. It’s important this space be a place where everyone feels accepted as they are, without barriers.”
Creating living-wage jobs, selling and distributing hundreds of thousands of pounds of organic produce per year, open-sourcing a replicable business model that expands with value-added products, drought- and fire-resilient agricultural education, spiritual practices and a community gathering space open to all, this is a story of hope and promise born in 2021.