Environmental and food justice speakers convened at McGee Avenue Baptist Church April 22. From left: Corinne Haskins, Aspen Madrone, Shaniece Alexander and Michael Smith. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In a new garden behind the McGee Avenue Baptist Church in South Berkeley, edible greens are beginning to sprout. Neighbors have dropped in to tend plots, and UC Berkeley students came last week to plant seeds and paint bright colors on planter boxes made out of stacked tires.

The garden is one of the early products of a new nonprofit, the Center for Food, Faith, and Justice, which rents a building behind the church and shares some of its staff and members. On April 22 the center brought in a number of environmental justice leaders and health professionals for a day of free workshops, discussions, blood pressure checks and a nutritious lunch. Billed as an “Earth Day symposium,” the event will likely become an annual tradition, say CFFJ staff.

The center opened in 2016 and has five part-time staff members. Reverend Liz Coleman, Pastor Michael Smith and their colleagues had come to believe that launching an independent organization was the way to address some of the interconnected social and environmental issues they witnessed in their South Berkeley community.

“It was the synergy between the huge health disparities we’re seeing and a huge influx of violence,” said Coleman, who is also an attorney for children in the foster care system. “There’s a connection – if a child is growing up in a neighborhood with poor health and poverty, the child is going to turn to violence.”

The city’s most recent health status report, from 2013, notes that residents in South and West Berkeley have greater health risks than those in other neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have the largest black populations, and one out of every three black children in Berkeley lived in poverty when the report was published. The report found that black Berkeley residents have far greater risks of mortality, diabetes, childhood asthma and heart disease than white residents.

In the garden at the Center for Food, Faith & Justice there are planter boxes made out of painted tires. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Although CFFJ is nondenominational and partners with many secular groups, Coleman and others at McGee Avenue Baptist knew the church was in a rare position to reach people. But it is challenging work, they said.

“It’s hard to get people to understand, much less get engaged in environmental issues,” Coleman said. There are significant barriers to healthy living and community engagement for many of the members of the congregation, she said.

“Aside from eating well, there are access issues. And how do we combat heart disease? Or blood pressure,” Coleman said. She noted that she herself did not take her own health seriously until she had her blood pressure checked at a CFFJ event and found out it was dangerously high.

CFFJ now operates an array of initiatives including all-ages cooking classes and fellowship programs for young people who want to do neighborhood outreach work in the areas of nutrition, sustainability and housing. There is a separate fellowship for young people interested in urban gardening. Coleman also runs a youth court program at Berkeley Technology Academy.

The center has teamed up with a number of organizations and city programs, some of which set up booths at the Earth Day symposium to offer walk-in health check-ups and educational information throughout the event.

One of the partner programs, Thirsty for Change, a campaign run by Healthy Black Families, Inc., uses revenue from Berkeley’s soda tax to encourage healthy eating and drinking in South and West Berkeley. Participants can take healthy cooking and shopping classes. On Saturday the staff laid out baggies filled with sizable amounts of sugar, displaying the startling quantities contained in a number of popular drinks.

The Thirsty For Change campaign demonstrated the hefty amount of sugar in common sodas. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Also present was Heart 2 Heart, the city’s anti-hypertension program with LifeLong Medical Care, offering blood pressure checks; and the city’s youth tobacco-smoking cessation program, which also brought along a gnarly exhibit item — a large transparent tube packed with discarded cigarette butts collected from Berkeley streets.

Meanwhile, a number of speakers addressed a small crowd in the church sanctuary. Smith kicked off the discussion, commenting on the challenge of making progress on “environmental justice and food justice, and particularly how it impacts communities of color.”

“Folks will say, ‘What does this have to do with us?’” he said. “It has everything to do with you. If you’ve ever heard of the Flint water crisis — there are many Flints around the country. If you can begin to understand what is going on with some of the proposed policy cuts in agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, that has everything to do with our communities.”

Following was a keynote address by Reverend Ambrose Carroll, from South Berkeley’s Church By the Side of the Road, and a  panel featuring Corrine Haskins from the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative, Neil Thapar from the Sustainable Economies Law Center, Rosalie Fanshel from the Berkeley Food Institute, Aspen Madrone from the Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative and Shaniece Alexander from the Oakland Food Policy Council.

Haskins described some of the work she is doing in Berkeley through the gardening collaborative, an Ecology Center program sharing resources among gardens in the city and pushing for policies supporting urban agriculture, such as allowing more farm animals in backyards.

“If you don’t have a place you can go within walking distance and get wholesome food, then you have the right to demand to have that same quality of life that’s in North Berkeley and places like that,” Haskins said.

Alexander said she is working to involve more people of color in decision-making around food and health policy.

“There’s a whole lot of people of color on the ground, doing the work. That’s a fact,” she said. But there are far fewer at “the policy level…pushing our city government and institutions to really stand behind healthy and sustainable food and making sure it’s beneficial to everyone regardless of where you live and what you look like.”

The audience was small but receptive, and others came later in the day to participate in a range of workshops.

Next year, if there is more interest, the Earth Day symposium might be a full-blown block party, Coleman said. By then, the garden should be overflowing with vegetables.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...