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Fighting problems with zucchini

Green Initiative works to improve 'food desert' in Oakland

"It is easier to get drunk than it is to find food." An Oakland resident stated this when observing the contrast in numbers between liquor stores and grocery outlets in his neighborhood.

Foothill High students Mihir Naik and Sohan Shah took a step toward decreasing this difference by starting a club on campus last December called the Green Initiative. It focuses on providing healthy, organic food for Oakland residents by growing vegetables plus selling reusable aluminum water bottles to benefit a nonprofit group with the same goal.

"We hope to show the members of our community that by embracing sustainable practices they can make a positive impact on their environment and society," Shah said in an email.

The two teens rent a plot at the Pleasanton Community Garden and raise zucchini to donate to City Slicker Farms, which has been partnering since 2001 with the West Oakland community to grow and distribute thousands of pounds of its own fresh produce.

"City Slicker Farms works with its community to empower West Oakland families to meet their needs for healthy organic goods by establishing high-yield urban farms and backyard gardens," Shah explained. "They provide a solution to the lack of a real choice for fresh, affordable, healthy food, and also revitalize underused urban areas."

"I started volunteering at City Slicker Farms after my sister (a UC Berkeley student) introduced me to it," Naik said. "I did a speech on City Slicker Farms at the end of sophomore year. That was when I started thinking about it again, and I decided to start the Green Initiative so I could help out from right here in Pleasanton."

"We were both very impressed with the work they were doing to improve their community, and we wanted to bring some of their ideas out to Pleasanton," Shah said. "We got our friends and classmates involved by holding meetings at Foothill High School and communicating with them through social networks like Facebook."

"West Oakland is known as a 'food desert' because of the lack of fresh food sources," he continued. "The rate of diabetes and other health problems is high in West Oakland because people are forced to buy unhealthy fast food because it's the only affordable option. City Slicker Farms is fighting that problem by bringing fresh food to West Oakland through urban gardening."

Naik produced a Green Initiative video for an English class, now posted on YouTube, which explains that Oakland's lack of fresh food arises from three problems in the community: problematic banking, manipulative real estate practices, and racial sentiment. Grocery stores do not take root in some areas because their executives know only low-income families will populate the neighborhoods, it points out.

"Corner stores lacking fresh food, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants are the residents' only economically viable food options," Naik says in the film. "We want to make it easier for the students interested in fighting this problem to get involved in ensuring that the people of Oakland have access to one of the most basic necessities of life."

Their first harvest in June yielded 50 pounds of zucchini, Naik said.

"By establishing our Green Initiative garden we hope to demonstrate that it is both easy and cheap to grow fresh produce in one's own backyard," Shah added. "Buying produce from the supermarket can become expensive and increases one's carbon footprint, as the produce must be grown elsewhere and then shipped to the supermarket. Establishing one's own garden is far more sustainable."

Using aluminum water bottles cuts down on the amount of plastic used in the community, they noted. Theirs sell for $5.

"Our water bottles are an affordable alternative to constantly buying plastic water bottles, which when not properly recycled clog up landfills and release harmful toxins into the environment," Shah said.

They donate proceeds from bottle sales to the City Slicker Farms.

Besides keeping up their community garden patch and selling water bottles, Naik and Shah, both seniors, are looking for new members for the Foothill club.

"We are trying to find more juniors to keep it going once we graduate," Naik said.

"We hope that our classmates, teachers, friends, families and community will join us in our stand against food injustices in Oakland," Naik concludes at the end of his video. "We must prove that we believe access to healthy food is not a privilege of the rich but a protected right of all the people."

If they sell all of their aluminum bottles, it will raise $1,650 for City Slicker Farms, said Naik. To buy a water bottle or for more information, email ptowngreeninitiative@gmail.com.

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