Pathways: Profiles of Local Food Systems Changemakers

ab banks, Agroecology and Wellness Coordinator, Berkeley Food Institute; Wellness Coordinator, People’s Program

Urban farmer ab banks says we can’t have food sovereignty without land sovereignty.

July 5, 2024

By Melissa Cervantes, Isabel Martin, and Olivia Rounsaville

At your current BFI role you’re the Agroecology and Wellness Coordinator, and the People’s Programs Wellness Coordinator. How does holistic wellness play into food systems and caring for the community? 

ab: All of my farmer friends and just like farmers in general have an interesting relationship with wellness. We sometimes ignore our body wellness and ignore our wellness in general, but since I’m a massage therapist and since I really care about people’s wellbeing and physical health, it has exposed me to the idea that they’re inseparable. When you are able to understand the value of land as wellness and having autonomy over your food as wellness, then you understand why it’s so important. For us to have that same respect for farmers and to bring that full circle and to localize our food systems and give farmers the autonomy to grow culturally relevant food, that all plays a huge role in our community wellness and our farmers’ wellness.

What drew you to being the farm lead for People’s Programs? 

I’ll tell you a story about how the farm started. The first thing that happened was we were passing out food, but it was mainly hotdogs and soups. I am a farmer so I felt like a hypocrite passing out food that might not have been the healthiest for those people who were struggling. Some time went by and we linked up with a group called Black Earth Farms and they started bringing us some fruits and greens and organic foods. I was satisfied with that. I thought that was good enough because we mainly wanted to give people food that they’d actually eat. Some time went by and it became apparent that we needed access to land to not only give access to healthy foods to the houseless people, but also the communities because that was also another gap that we realized. We were giving food to the houseless people but the families in Acorn, in the flats, and in the towers, which are the Acorn projects, they also need access to healthy food. We began to try to find land and eventually one of our friends had some property in West Oakland where we could build a garden and she was able to get the garden started and offered us the land. She said, “Hey, I want you to come help me run this garden and we can take the produce and give it to the families around the neighborhood.” So that’s how that started. Then it evolved and evolved and we eventually lost access to that land. We were searching for land again, and we finally connected with Fannie Lou Hamer Black Research and came to this land.

Can you tell us about the principles that guide the people’s programs? 

People’s Program is a new African scientific socialist organization. We’re guided by Frodo nines in phase three, which is the philosophy that Julian was looking at. He’s a Black Liberation Army veteran and he wrote this amazing book called We Are Our Own Liberators. Those are the principles that guide us. We are our own liberators, everything that we need, we feel like the people have the full autonomy to get it done. In the full fervor, we have enough power within the people to get everything we need to get done. So everything you see that we’re doing, we call them decolonization programs because we understand that we need to be the ones that liberate ourselves.

One of our biggest things is that when people come to the land, they’re able to learn farming skills. All the people that we serve, we invite them to the land so that they can also learn how to make a seedling, how to prepare a bed. You teach a man how to fish, you know, he has fish forever, versus just giving them the fish, right? It’s really important that we also give the knowledge to the people that we serve. We’ve got to create systems that are good with or without us.

We also think about food autonomy and food sovereignty. It doesn’t work unless people are also having access to grow their own food. We need to talk about land sovereignty because people need access to land to grow their own food. And that’s one of the cornerstones of the ideology around food sovereignty that people will need to grow their own food. We need to localize the food, and farmers should have autonomy over what they grow.

Can you tell us a bit about the role of partnerships and relationship building in the success of the program?

Our grocery program every other Friday gives out 100-plus bags or boxes. When we first started again, we just passed off the food that we had, but we realized that there was a gap. We have so many produce partnerships with a whole bunch of different urban agricultural farms, rural farms and other food bank operations. It’s really important to come together in that way. At any given moment, we might be at capacity in terms of how much food we have at one program to get into another program. Being able to get into farmers’ ears and talk to other produce partners and be like, “Hey, if you have any extra food, please send it our way.” I think one of the obvious big things about that is, of course, a lot of farmers don’t have access to their own food because they have to sell it all because they can’t even afford to eat their own food at the price rate. I think it’s important that you make connections with the farmers next to us. I feel like this is an important time that we want to figure out ways in the food system to really come together, that we come together and we make sure that we get all the food out and that none of it goes to waste. Especially being at BFI, I’ve been able to meet tons and tons of people from other organizations that are doing similar work, and be that connection from the nonprofit world to the community farmers. The more that we’re able to work together, the more fruitful our engagement we have with each other.

What does a week in your role look like? 

My week is a little hectic. I spend some time at BFI, pretty much nine to five or really ten to six because I work with students and students like to have late workdays. Throughout the whole week, I’m coordinating not just with People’s Program but other community organizations that are trying to start a farm.I give tours of the land and work on the land to make sure that this land is giving produce to the people that need it. It’s a privilege to have an acre of land in the middle of Berkeley. Luckily, we have a student liaison who is able to drop off the food and also make sure that the food on the People’s Programs plot gets to families in West Oakland. I’m also running the research plot, making sure that we’re collecting data, making sure there’s infrastructure, having meetings with stakeholders, having meetings with donors.And I make sure the different plots complement each other. When People’s Program has extra produce, it goes to the Basic Needs Center on campus, or when Berkeley Student Farms has extra food, it can go to People’s Program. I also manage communication with other partners too, with Berkeley Food Network and Deep Medicine Circle.Part of my job is situating myself in the middle as liaison for all of these different farms to make sure that we get the food out where it needs to go in an ethical, fair way.

How has your experience shaped your skillset?

One thing about being in a community based organization for as long as I’ve been in this field, I’ve been able to really survey the terrain in the land and make honest decisions about what the people I’m serving need. Not based on my feelings, right, but by having conversations with the people. I feel like I have such a good relationship with all the people I serve to the point where they can guide our programming. The people that are in whatever problem you want to solve are closest to the problem. So they’re closest to the answer. And that’s our philosophy. 

When you’re that close to the people you’re serving everyday, you know how much work you have to do. I’m a hard worker just off the strength that I know that people eat things because I see it and I’m interacting with it on a weekly, daily, hourly basis. 

What advice do you have for current students exploring careers in the food system?

I have a lot of advice for students because I feel like the farm road unfortunately can be predatory in terms of jobs out there. There’s a lot of jobs out there that attract young farmers to work on their land where you’re not necessarily getting paid enough. You might be in a situation where you’re not even really learning what you came to learn. So the first thing I’ll say to a young farmer that’s just leaving college is: Don’t settle for a job that you’re not learning in or getting paid enough to live. We do understand that farming, in general, is not a very lucrative job for a lot of people. So my other thing I’ll say is look into value added products like pickles, soap, and tea blends. Find the valuable products that are lucrative because you can sell a cucumber for cents on the dollar of what you can sell a pickle. All of these like things that are hot commodities, find ways as farmers to learn how to do them and sell them. Don’t fall into the trap of working for somebody that doesn’t respect your time or give you enough money. And the last thing I’ll say is learn marketing and learn business skills. I know a lot of us farmers just want to farm, and I agree, I just want to farm as well, but we need the skills to market our product well. There’s unfortunately tons of red tape, business planning, and business development that you need to know. 

Any other last thing you’d like to share?

It’s very important that we talk about land sovereignty before we ever talk about food sovereignty. Having access to food is just one part of the problem. People not having access to land is obviously the biggest problem. So all the people out there that are focused on getting access to food or getting culturally relevant food, I want us to also think about what it means to give people access to land.