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An artichoke grows in a community garden in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Perennials and annuals are cultivated by Planting Justice, with the participation of residents, to create healthier eating habits and educate on where food actually comes from. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Planting Justice is an Oakland-based grass-roots organization working to solve the urban hunger crisis and finding answers by digging deep.

If its evolution is a metaphorically packed story, it's also the tale of a muscular, powerfully effective punch to the belly of a systemic problem affecting low-income, underserved communities across the nation.

From the tiny seed of its co-founders, Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders, the operation has gained stature. The two jump-started their for-profit Backyard Food Project in 2008 before leaping to the edible landscape mission of Planting Justice in 2009.

Now boasting 20 employees, 225 gardens and 1,200 "sustainers" who support the organization with an average monthly contribution of $12, Zandi and Raders are generating not just food, but also full-time jobs. They're not simply sustaining gardens, they're growing a resilient funding base: 60 percent of their operating budget is self-generated and not dependent on foundations or grants. And they're not only harvesting vegetables and cultivating good will: They're reaping rewards such as the recognition they will receive at the Mt. Diablo Peace & Justice Center's Annual Awards Dinner in Walnut Creek on Nov. 23.

The attention springs largely from the nonprofit's subsidized or community garden projects, including one at the Keller Apartments near Telegraph Avenue and 53rd Street in Oakland.


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"We were asked for help to start a community garden in 2009," Raders says, in an interview in the Oakland home he and Zandi share with their 13-month old daughter, Azadeh. "There'd been a murder there a few years before and they wanted to create a symbolic, safe space."

After building raised beds and an herb spiral, Planting Justice staff began weekly workshops in urban agriculture, nutrition, and culinary arts. Keller residents are primarily East African and soon, Raders says, people began to bring seeds from their homeland to plant in the garden.

"They have plants we don't even know the English names of; herbs that are important to their history," he says.

The project has led to requests to re-imagine central courtyards in low-income apartment complexes in an East Oakland neighborhood and San Rafael.

"I've always been focused on working with the community," says Zandi, who grew up eating fast food and gastronomically "disconnected" from her Persian heritage. "My mom was a busy single mom. I didn't know how to cook Persian food until I visited Iran and cooked with my aunties. This is culture shifting for me, it's connection to earth, community, my ancestry."

Raders grew up in a Los Angeles that had food disparities.

"On one block, big houses, on the next, people starving," he recalls. "I felt a strong social urge that grew. Meeting social activists in South India in 2006 showed me how small, local voices could protest exploitive policies and make change."

Zandi and Raders met on an archeological training course in 2005 and the life partners soon joined forces, going door to door as anti-militarism advocates. Both say the street smarts they gleaned are put to good purpose at Planting Justice.

"We started with 23 board members and a sustainable business model," Raders says proudly. "That means, for every three paying clients, we can provide a free garden build for an economically challenged customer."

Businesses and cities, they say, are becoming partners.

"One of the biggest benefits of working in the city is that waste is always available," Raders says. "Breweries have spent beer grains we turn into compost or chicken feed; cardboard is sheet mulching and becomes healthy top soil; urbanite, broken sidewalk, is great for garden walls. There's no such thing as waste if it's put in the right place."

The organization's firm financial base supports their public schools programs, like the ones at McClymonds and Fremont high schools. Planting Justice builds the gardens with students and partners with school staff in weekly permaculture and food justice courses.

"High school-age youth are coming into awareness of the structural problems impacting their families," Raders says. "Violence, hunger, poverty, these are deeply troubling and affecting their every day lives. It's not just an access issue for these kids. It's an ownership issue. Transforming their physical space -- taking something ugly and creating a living eco system -- inspires them to think in new ways."

It's also giving them a future. Two students they met at Fremont High are now employees. As are four ex-cons from the Insight Gardens project at San Quentin State Prison, where Planting Justice has been making monthly visits, training inmates in garden construction, greywater system installation and other green industry skills.

"These men self-selected to take our classes. While they learned to produce food (donated to low-income families in the Bay Area), we worked hard on the outside to be able to hire them," Raders says. "For me, this is what I should be doing. One person can't affect the whole military complex, but my sphere of influence can create tangible change in my community."