I Support A Food Initiative on the Gill Tract
I am a Master of Public Health Candidate studying Environmental Health Sciences working on the collaborative research project in “Area A”, and I believe that the development of the Gill Tract will undermine the innovative work students, researchers, and community members have started on this land, and it will endanger the health of families at University Village. I am but one of several students in the delegation calling on the UC administration, the UC regents to halt the current development plan for the Gill Tract Farm and enter into a collaborative design process with students and community for the entire Gill Tract Farm.
On Monday, “Students for Active and Engaged Learning” launched a new petition [sealstudents.wordpress.com/petition] for a last shot at some rational conversations about the Gill Tract Farm. This land, the last remaining 20 acre piece of historic farm land in the East Bay, is under threat of imminent development by our own University. Community members have been trying to work with the UC on an alternative plan for over 15 years. After the three week occupation of the land lead by Occupy the Farm in 2012, the piece of the land north of Cordices creek was transferred back over from Capital Projects to the College of Natural Resources until 2022.
I have been working this semester on the new community-University partnership on a 1.5 acre piece of this north portion of the Gill Tract, known as Area A. From this experience witnessing first-hand the opportunities for community-driven research and student engagement that could come from this project, I strongly support the call for an alternative plan for all twenty acres of the Gill Tract Farm.
An Opportunity for Community-Driven Research
As a public health masters student, I wanted to get involved in this new community partnership because I recognize the potential that this relationship can have for developing innovative community-driven research for finding empowering solutions to the problems faced by the emerging urban gardens across the bay area and the world. Many research Universities have rural agriculture research stations; it is far more rare to see centers for urban agriculture.
Removing trash from Area A at an open volunteer day to prepare the land for planting on April 26th.
There are new urban agricultural projects emerging across the region, thanks to the growing movement for integrating urban agriculture into city planning for a myriad of public health benefits, and benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation. However, there remain some serious health concerns about planting in land that is daily dosed with the high concentration of pollutants that fill the urban environment. This is particularly worrying for food justice projects, as low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately located next to highways and polluting industries, and are also more vulnerable to the health effects of these chemicals due to the physiological impacts of poverty, racism, and other intersecting oppressions[i]. A food movement that does not take these issues of environmental contamination into consideration will only be committing further injustices.
To me, this is just one example of the important research addressing community needs that could be conducted through a community-University partnership on an urban agricultural research site: How can we remediate urban lands using methods that are accessible and empowering to all communities?
This semester, the soil production working group of the new Community-University Land Stewardship Council launched a soil testing and remediation project, culminating with the planting celebration this Saturday, April 26th. In a series of volunteer days and open planning meetings, community members collected soil samples, analyzed the results, selected amendments, and worked them into the field, all with the assistance of University soil scientists, UC Cooperative extension researchers, and facility staff.
The author and active community member, Ed Fields, taking a soil sample at the Gill Tract as part of a community-University collaborative initiative on Area A. Ed Fields submitted the appeal of the Albany City Council’s decision to approve development. This appeal was denied in March, making development imminent.
Members of the University and the community have also formed a Land Stewardship Council, where we are working on developing protocols and principles of collaboration that could be a model for the future of community-engaged scholarship. The relationship is still fragile and trust is slow to build, but it is remarkable to witness the forging of a collaborative initiative formed out of a fifteen year struggle for this land.
An Opportunity for Improving Student Education
A significant component of the student argument for a Food Initiative on the Gill Tract is the need for more hands-on engaged learning experiences and opportunities for putting academic lessons into practice.
An open letter sent to Dean Gilless by students earlier this year laid out the significant student work behind the progress the College of Natural Resources has made towards incorporating food systems and urban agriculture into the curriculum. In particular, the letter highlighted how the Student Organic Garden, which is 1/1000th of the size of the Gill Tract Farm, provides hands-on learning opportunities for over 200 students. As the letter states,
“It is clear that we have run out of space for providing this critical educational resource to the University. Practical agriculture knowledge is in high demand from students who recognize the magnitude of the changes that will need to occur in our food system if we are to sustainably feed all communities and adapt to the imminent spectre of climate change that already marks our generation. These are lessons that we have learned in most CNR classes.”
There is clear student interest in more hands-on opportunities, and as the Students for Engaged and Active Learning’s website expresses on its home page, Berkeley students “not only ask for this innovative vision”, but they have teamed up with a wide array of student initiatives and community organizations to create this campaign to become “actively engaged in creating this reality”.
This semester, I have been a Graduate Student Instructor for the Environmental Justice class, one of the courses on campus where students are teamed up with internships with local organizations as part of the new American Cultures Engaged Scholarship Program. From this experience, I have seen students engage deeply in course material and become inspired through this active learning and integration with a local community. These projects not only provide great learning opportunities for students, they also directly support local organizations, and strengthen bonds between the student body and the broader community.
This model of education has been gaining significant attention in different parts of the University, and students from SOGA and other campus groups have already started building farm skills out at Area A through this spring’s open volunteer hours.
Student volunteers preparing the beds at the Gill Tract for planting during the Community Farm Day this Saturday from 11-3pm.
A Food Initiative on the Gill Tract provides innumerable opportunities for research opportunities and practical experience in food systems, as well as environmental design, public health programming around food access and nutrition, gardening education for collaboration with local schools, and beyond. A twenty-acre food initiative on the land would be more than just a farm; it would truly be an extension of the campus, and a significant opportunity to expand Berkeley teaching facilities for the environmental sciences in a way that simultaneous expands access to these resources for the surrounding the community.
The Destructive Impact of the Development on the Public Health of the Community
As a student in Environmental Health Sciences, one of the factors about the proposed development project that is most concerning to me is how it will exacerbate air quality concerns in that particular area. This additional pollution would be damaging to the health of the community, including the student families living at University Village, directly adjacent to the Gill Tract.
The development will remove the opportunity for the innumerable health benefits from food access and the air remediation potential of green open space, and it will also introduce new traffic into the area, including diesel delivery trucks to the grocery store and a daily influx of cars into the parking lot. Diesel and idling vehicles are of particular concern when considering the health impacts of air pollution because of the particular make-up of their exhaust. Furthermore, this new pollution will be combined with the disproportionate burden of pollutants that the surrounding area is already experiencing.
The CalEnviroScreen tool created by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) shows that the region directly south of the proposed development is already disproportionately impacted, as it is in the 70-80% percentile for cumulative impacts, which include sociocultural vulnerability factors. The region directly incorporating the proposed site has a lower overall score, but when you look particularly at the air pollution considerations, it already has Toxic Releases from Facilities in the 70th percentile, Traffic in the 80th percentile, and diesel emissions in the 90th percentile.
Furthermore, the University Village community has had a long history of air pollution and odor concerns, and a new year-long study of air quality in the neighborhood in just beginning. Community complaints suggest that we may find that air pollution levels are much higher in this area during peak intervals than we have previously expected using region level, time-averaged measures.
There are many University Village families who have expressed support for the development project because of the convenience of having a supermarket within walking-distance. However, a new Whole Foods will be moving into the neighborhood just a few blocks away, making food access more convenient. This option may still be unaffordable for many families, who struggle to raise families on fellowships and the UC’s non-competitive wages for student workers. Recognizing this, and the broader issues of food insecurity throughout the East Bay, I have been a part of many critical discussions about the alternative food access models that could be established along with a food initiative on the tract. This in itself would provide additional pioneering research into program models that could provide access to produce and other food staples and products in way that is more affordable and accessible to the entire community, including University Village families.
A Food Initiative on the Gill Tract Farm could be a public health benefit to the neighborhood, and could be a pivotal laboratory for nutrition and food access research, whereas the proposed development would be adding pollution to an already overburdened neighborhood. By coming to the table and meeting the demands of this student petition, the University could be taking important strides in improving the public health of the community, including its own students.
A Food Initiative as a Rational Alternative to Development
Finally, this alternative use for the Gill Tract would meet the UC’s goals in moving forward with a plan to add emphasis to agriculture and food systems. As the petition states,
“A center for urban agriculture and sustainable food systems at the Gill Tract would accomplish all four goals of the recent President Napolitano’s Food Initiative. The 20 acres are uniquely suited to be developed as a model food system that integrates farming, economics, culture, and public health. It would make UC resources accessible to the public through hands-on education and participatory research, and develop precedent for establishing authentic University to community relationships. This dynamic model could help make the UC system a global leader on issues of food and farming, while improving student education through engaged and active learning.”
Land is increasingly valuable and rare in an urban environment. While the proposed development provides some small short-term income to the school, the University should consider the enormous value of preserving this land as an internationally renown urban agricultural research station that could attract investment and prestige.
In demanding that the University administrators meet with me and other students, I am appealing to their ability to reason. This petition is not just about asking the University to meet student and community needs. It is about providing the University an opportunity to pause, and to reconsider the situation. I think it will become clear that the sustainable alternatives to commercial development better address the University’s needs as well.