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Urban Gardening And Bicycling Help Elevate Health In Richmond

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Isabel Angell
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In this episode of What Works, we're going to Richmond to hear about a garden project that brings nourishment to a community that lives in a food desert and we'll visit a bike program that helps kids get their own wheels.

Urban Tilth’s Community Gardens Are More Than Just Gardens

There are over 100,000 people living in Richmond, California, and only a few grocery stores. That means that most of the neighborhoods in Richmond are technically food deserts, a result of redlining, systemic racism, and economic reasons for major supermarket chains. But Doria Robinson doesn’t like to use the term food desert when she talks about her hometown.

She says it’s more like a food swamp. “There are a lot of places to get kind of — air quotes — food, you know? Food-like products. There's just not a lot of places to get healthy food."

Doria is the executive director of Urban Tilth, a community garden project that’s been around for over 16 years. They operate seven community gardens in Richmond. At those gardens they teach permaculture classes, run a CSA program, give away free produce, and teach people how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. They’re trying to build a bridge over that food swamp.

“Right now our primary push is to develop a really phenomenal anchor for transformative transformational work in North Richmond around food or community empowerment, that has the infrastructure to make impact for many generations, not just one,” Doria says.

Doria learned what there was to be gained by investing in her community when she was young. Growing up, she watched her grandfather and members of his church work together to develop economic power for Black people in Richmond. They bought property together, built houses, and then passed on what they had to their kids and grandkids. It left a mark on Doria.

“It was revolutionary what they were doing, right? Sixteen black families actually purchasing and holding land together ... And so when I come into wanting to do work that helps, benefits community, I have that reference.”

Urban Tilth's North Richmond farm is three acres between two busy roads with chickens, and bees, and rows and rows of food they’re growing. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, they post up at a spot in Richmond where they give away excess produce from our farms and from the packs. The free farm stand has been especially popular this past year, after so many people lost their jobs because of COVID. The pandemic hit Richmond particularly hard — about 10% of residents tested positive at one point or another.

Now, on top of running seven community gardens, and their CSA programs, Urban Tilth is in the process of opening a food co-op in North Richmond. It's still in the early stages, but if they’re successful, Richmond would finally have a grocery store whose main priority is its community.

'The Bikes Are Just A Conduit': How One Richmond Organization Uses Bikes As A Vehicle For Change

Whether you’re a native to the Bay Area or if you’ve lived here for only a couple of years, chances are you’ve encountered at least one big group bike ride rolling through the streets. And if you’re in Richmond, chances are even higher. That's because it's home to Rich City Rides, an organization that uses bikes to gather the community and create change.

Rich City Rides family, kids and community cycling the through the Bay Trail.

Rich City Rides uses bicycling to help Richmond residents make physical activity a part of their daily life. By promoting fitness, they aim to prevent and manage health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and more.

Najari Smith founded the organization back in 2012 after getting involved with the city’s bike advisory committee. Small group rides every few months turned into large group rides almost every week. After those started gaining popularity and the right business space popped up, he created a worker-owned bike shop just two years later. It was the first bike shop in Richmond.

The bike shop’s co-founder, Taye McGee, says the shop is also a safe space where kids can talk to him about anything that’s going on while they build bikes together.

"The bikes are just a conduit," he says. "The kids come up for the bikes and then I get to talk about all types of other stuff."

Taye and Najari also try to make group rides a safe, supportive space. They guide riders on safe bike routes and they visit different parks, all while wearing giant speakers on their backs, blasting music throughout neighborhoods.

Rich City Rides Friday Night Ride! 2013

Najari says before the pandemic, 40 to 50 people would often show up to the group rides. Regardless of the number, he says each new rider is living proof of the impact bicycles can have on the city and people of Richmond.The first impact is simple: Health. Cycling has a ton of benefits for the body. Regular cycling makes the heart stronger, which then reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Riding together, Najari says, is a way to get more people to reap those benefits.

Plus, since the organization’s inception, Najari and his team have given away over 2,700 bikes. Old bikes people donate to Rich City Rides go directly into the hands of Richmond residents.

"We do our best to make sure that those bikes are able to be recycled. They don't end up at the landfill and they’re put to use ... Our community members are able to utilize them for transportation, to get healthy, to inspire others to ride, and to ride more often," Najari says.

The weekly riders have also become something like a watchdog for the community by reporting illegal dumping to the city when they pass it by on their rides. Piles of garbage along streets and vacant lots have become common in the city, and it has created what Najari says is an untrue reputation for the community.

"It’s like an unfortunate propagated myth that the communities where the dumping happens is the community that’s dumping on their own community. I just don’t believe that, you know."

He talks about one instance where they rode past a run-down boat on the side of the road and reported it. The next day, somebody put trash in it. He says the city never came to pick it up, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to report waste. And sometimes, they clean it up themselves by organizing volunteer cleanup days.

The weekly group rides have not only become a way for riders to care for themselves, but also a way to care for the whole community. Whether it’s through getting people to ride together, talking to kids, or helping to report dumping, the bike riders of Richmond push the pedals forward for healthy civic change.

Support for this series comes from Renaissance Journalism's Equity and Health Reporting Initiative, with funding from The California Endowment. Thanks also to the Association for Continuing Education (ACE).

Sonia Narang is the editor and project manager for KALW's Health & Equity series. Before that, she managed elections coverage for the station. Over the past decade, Sonia reported social justice stories from her home state of California and around the globe for PRI's The World radio program, NPR News, The Washington Post's The Lily, and more.
My pronouns are he/him. I’m originally from San Diego, but moved to Santa Cruz for college in 2014, where I studied literature and creative nonfiction at UCSC. In 2018, I moved to Oakland and began to pursue a career in audio-journalism. I’ve worked as a reporter for KPFA for the last year, where I’ve covered a wide range of issues from climate change to prison lawsuits to political candidacies to policing in the bay area. I’m interested in telling stories that demystify systemic inequalities, whether those be gender, race, or class based.
Carla Esteves is a 2020-2021 Audio Academy Fellow with KALW. Her reporting interests include environmental justice, housing insecurity, climate change, business and economy.