Food Justice Teachings at Alameda County Juvenile Facility Camp Sweeney


During the past three months, Planting Justice has been developing a partnership with the Alameda County Juvenile Facility Camp Sweeney, initiated by Wade Finlinson, the Landscape Supervisor for Alameda County General Services Association.

Our first day working with young people and staff at Camp Sweeney was a whirlwind of permaculture gardening. In the weeks prior to our arrival youth and staff had been prepping the garden space by repairing fences, terracing garden beds and doing serious weeding. The location has a great amount of sunshine on a west facing slope in the Oakland Hills and also has a lot of stinging nettle, grasses and pressure from local turkeys and deer. Staff had put some careful energy into sprouting and nurturing corn and sunflower starts. We quickly learned that the garden is a place staff and youth are able to channel their energies productively, apparently when youth are having a tough time the garden is a place people go just to sit and relax. 

We were so excited to support the improvement and a successful Spring planting for this unique garden. When we arrived for our workday we began with a tool safety intro and got going with the last of the bed prep. Some youth finished weeding and clearing beds while other youth moved large stepping stones out of the path. The path was then mulched with wood chips and the stepping stones were replaced. The main garden has six terraced beds each 50 feet long and planting areas along the fence in which we planted thornless boysenberries and cucumbers. Youth planted up the main garden, a few previously landscaped beds near the cafeteria windows and a small patch adjacent to the garden. We planted an array of summer crops, by planting them in April the plants are able to get some good maturity in time for the warm weather to bring blossoms and fruit. We planted tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, sunflowers, a strawberry patch, a raspberry patch, and herbs like oregano, thyme, sorrel, basil, dill and parsley.  Next to the garden we planted a large patch of pumpkins and watermelons. On another area in the facility we planted a mini food forest led by our staff member Julio Madrigal.


It was a full day of garden and landscape work which was rewarded with fresh and revitalizing green smoothies Planting Justice style with dino kale and almond butter! Our staff member Anthony Forrest helped students make smoothies and talked with them about the benefits of the green drink. We left knowing that many hands make light work and that this garden was certainly in good hands.


On May 5, 2015 we reunited with the youth at Camp Wilmont Sweeney. We found the organic garden exploding with herbs; veggies and fruit like tomatoes; eggplant; lemon verbena; cucumber; peppermint; calendula and much more. The young men reported that they found  watering and weeding and harvesting to be therapeutic. The garden is a welcome addition to the 50 bed minimum security program for youth ranging in age from 15-19. In addition to assisting with the garden build as a part of Camp Sweeney’s restorative justice programming, Planting Justice facilitates workshops in food justice, nutrition education, and permaculture design. Some of the same young men who built the garden with the assistance of the Planting Justice team participated in two of our lesson plans: Farmworker Rights and  Pesticides are Poison. The youth got a chance to learn about the complex history of farm worker rights in the US, including the  historic collaboration between the United Farm Workers and The Black Panthers during the UFW grape and lettuce strike. These lessons also yield fun and engaging ways to keep their organic garden pest free.



In theme with making tasty salad dressings for the salad that had a cabbage crunch, we read the poem written and translated by Gloria Anzaldua, “Mar de Repollos” or "A Sea of Cabbages: For Those Who Have Worked in the Fields ". The youth discussed the meaning of the poignant piece around the life and perspective of human beings toiling in the hot sun to pick the food that we scoop from comfortable, air conditioned grocery store bins and shelves every day. The poem is a fitting kick off to talking about the history of farmworker's rights in the US and globally. We got a chance to cover some of the rich history of people fighting to make America the place that many dream it will be--fair and equal, where everyone has a shot at being healthy and happy.  Our conversation also highlighted the role of art in connecting struggle to the plight of activists who are taking tremendous risks in the face of often dangerous, life threatening opposition to make change in our communities a reality. The participants made connections to their own experiences either working in the agricultural sector or their family members who do.


The sweetest part of this lesson is being able to read the poetry while we prepare and sample several delicious salad dressings. Each student takes part in chopping, grating, measuring and tasting each ingredient, which includes balsamic honey mustard and tahini. The dressings enhance the raw, cabbage crunch medley of greens and purples that the youth made feast of. While  we discussed which salad dressing was the tastiest, the youth discussed the unfair working conditions for farmworkers: the long hours in often blazing sun; the lack of minimum wage, and the absence  of appropriate health care benefits. We also gave some thought to the probable fate of the farmworker in the poem, "Sea of Cabbages."


The next part of our discussion, Pesticides are Poison, was a perfect segue to find alternatives to the harsh reality that farmworkers deal with on the daily; working in conditions that are even more hazardous because of the pesticides which are sprayed while they are working, sometimes overhead via aircraft. We also covered the impact of pesticides on our food and the health issues surrounding the legal use of these killer toxins, which cause long term, serious health issues to anyone who is exposed to them. The youth learned about the history of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which came into dominance after WWII when the munitions industry lobbied Congress to funnel their surplus ammonium nitrates into the agricultural industry, so that the same chemicals we use to make bombs are sprayed into our soil and onto our food!


Of course this was our chance to work with the students to  make a harmless pest reducer, using easily accessible, everyday ingredients like onions and garlic or apple cider vinegar. The youth made the non-toxic spray and headed out to the garden, well tended and in full bloom. We explored the variety of hungry bugs nibbling on the squash; strawberry vines and herbs, growing in abundance. The youth took turns watering, weeding and using their new home made pest management sprays. While we enjoyed time in the garden together, we also chatted about some of the fruits and vegetables that are best homegrown, since eating “conventionally-grown” versions are very, very harmful to our health.


One of these is celery, which has no protective skin to shield it or us from the 64 chemicals they're ambushed with at spray time. Another one to look out for is strawberries. Over 59 pesticides have been detected in this beautiful red berry, when it is not organically grown. Peaches and apples were two of the other big ones not to consume if not organic. We provided the youth with a list called “The Dirty Dozen” that offers alternatives to these fruits and vegetables that receive less chemicals when “conventionally-grown” or have thicker skins that prevent these chemicals from absorbing into the parts of the food we consume. Too many of these youth live in neighborhoods where they don’t have easy access to buying affordable organic produce or growing organic food in gardens. The afternoon really highlighted and affirmed the goodness of enjoying growing and nurturing organic seeds, soil and integrated pest management in the garden. The youth all cultivated skills, knowledge and understanding that they will utilize in their day to day lives once reunited with their families, friends and communities.


Our final visit of the spring found the garden at Camp Sweeney in full bloom. Before we jumped into watering and weeding and catching up with our young gardeners about all the great things they were doing and achieving in their new, meditative, healing hangout, we all gathered in a circle to prepare for a fun and tasty workshop, Peace and Peanuts.


Participants were excited and engaged in the idea of making peanut butter balls while we discussed the concept of mindfulness. We got into it by talking a little bit about Thich Nhat Hanh and trying a practice called "Seeing Nature's Beauty in Us." Each young man chose a thing they love about nature and then likened that thing they liked about nature, to themselves. It took a minute for everyone to be comfortable enough together to feel safe doing this exercise, but it was heartwarming and fun when we all got into the groove. One student said he enjoyed rocks because he was solid and strong like one. After reading the poem "Washing Your Hands," each student did just that, in preparation for making the super tasty, salty, sweet peanut butter balls.


As we all explored the nutritious, organic and carefully chosen ingredients laid out before us, the young men went about the task of following the recipe to make the balls together, pouring the honey, doling out heaping spoons of oatmeal, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, flax seeds and working together with taste and portions to get the mix to the consistency and taste that everyone in the group agreed upon. Then we went to rolling the balls in between our palms and placing them gently on the platter provided. The last step, rolling them in coconut flakes, was done gently and with the understanding that we were all going to eat these together, so it was done with love and courteousness as the lesson suggests.


The most impressive part of this workshop is the serving piece of it. Going in line with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, after we made the balls and washed our hands, we talked about the journey that all of the ingredients made to get to the table before us and the idea that food can be lovely and gentle and nourishing or it can carry the energy of violence and poison and hostility and brutality. We also discussed the spiritual essence of eating and reuniting with that essence in order to bring more peace to our families, communities and selves. Bringing it back to the moment, we discussed the joy and laughter we shared in making the peanut butter balls and how that would enhance the energy and nourishment the balls gave us as we ate them together.


The final and most lovely act of our exercise was explaining to the young men the balancing qualities of humility in our society and how by following the teachings of the Buddhist leader, Hanh, we can build ways of humbling ourselves in order to better connect with others and really be of service to our communities. That day we stood in a circle together and held the tray of delicious balls in offering to one another, looking one another in the eye and then bowing in offering and acceptance. Everyone waited for the group to be offered and receive a peanut butter ball. We thanked one another in accordance with the practice and ate together. That was my first time having these and I have to say, if you have a chance to make them with your friends and family, try them :-)


The morning had a particularly special feeling to it as our conversation shifted to the importance of the peanut as a nitrogen fixer in soil. Of course this led us to a discussion about one of the superstars of food and earth justice, George Washington Carver; and his connection to the peanut. We talked about how Mr. Carver yielded his enormous talent for the good of the world community, lived always in humble dwellings and how one of his greatest personal joys was making bright colored paint from peanuts and using it to paint the homes of folks who used to be slaves to brighten their worlds...for free.


The peace and peanut fun didn't stop there. After we cleaned up together, we got the chance to go out into the garden so they could show us all the great baby blossoms of fruits and flowers that were growing out there. We pulled out the hose, got on some gloves, weeded and watered and talked and added some nitrogen fixing beans to their garden.


Since the sun was shining and some of the other students were also getting out of another class, we had company and the young men invited their friends and fellow gardeners to come and enjoy some of the peanut butter balls we'd all made together. As one of our participants offered a peanut butter ball to one of his friends in the garden, he said "no wait, I gotta show you the right way to do it." He bowed and offered his friend a peanut butter ball and then asked his friend to bow as he accepted it.

We quickly learned that the garden is a place staff and youth are able to channel their energies productively, apparently when youth are having a tough time the garden is a place they go just to sit and relax.