Seeds of Change: Filming Food Justice in Oakland

A young documentary filmmaker turns her camera on the inner-city food movement in the new short film, "16 Seeds"

Gail Meyers educates Oakland youth about food and urban agriculture through her nonprofit organization, Farms to Grow. She and other black food justice workers are the subjects of the new documentary short, '16 Seeds.' (Photo by: Melinda James)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

UPDATE: Watch '16 Seeds' here ... and support the filmmaker with a small donation!

Melinda James admits that even when she began work on her new short film about food justice and sustainability in inner-city Oakland, CA, her eating habits were less than ideal. The 27-year-old tells TakePart that while living on her own after finishing film school at UC-Santa Cruz, she would buy the cheapest food she could find, “not really thinking about what’s put in my food and where my food’s coming from.”

That began to change, in a big way, as James spent more and more time with Oakland residents Gail Myers, Mia Burns and Mickey Martin, the subjects of 16 Seeds, her new documentary short. Dr. Gail Myers leads Farms to Grow, which runs educational programs focusing on local, organic food for Oakland children and other residents. Burns is a mother and grandmother from East Oakland who is trying to pass on her love of fresh, local food to her grandchildren. Martin, who is disabled, lives in low-income housing at the California Hotel and sells plants and produce at the farmers market. All three are playing a part in Oakland’s growing food-justice movement, and all three are people of color.

Determined to make a film about women of color, James nearly went to Chicago to document the city’s HIV-AIDS epidemic, which has hit black women especially hard. But after a friend told her about the explosion in urban agriculture in the Bay Area and food justice work being done in communities of color by people of color, James decided to stay closer to home, completing the short documentary as her master’s thesis for a film program at UC-Santa Cruz.

She was introducted to Myers through an old professor. Myers, in turn, introduced her to Burns. And she met Martin through connections at Phat Beets and People’s Grocery, two organizations working to expand food choices in a city where more than one-quarter of males die of heart disease. In the film, we see Burns cutting a butternut squash as she laments her children’s lack of nutritious food; Myers is shown struggling to get community members to show up to an event; and Mickey, emblematically, gives a tour of an organic community garden before going off to buy cheap, processed food at the 99 Cent Store.

The film eschews expert interviews and strings of statistics, allowing Myers, Burns and Martin to tell their own complex stories and to shape a larger narrative about food justice in Oakland. “Their perspectives hold a lot of weight, and I didn’t want to suppress that with a professional in the field who would just tell you a bunch of facts about what’s going on. I wanted to create a more intimate portrait that actually shows you what’s going on,” says James, whose mother is from Thailand and father is from Trinidad and Tobago, and who identifies as black. 

In a nation where African-Americans are almost twice as likely to be obese as whites, efforts to improve nutrition in communities of color have increased in number over the years. Too often, though, the neighborhoods in which people of color live make it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Myers points out in the film that in Oakland, there are “more convenience stores than grocery stores, and more liquor than fresh fruit.” There have been proposed solutions to this disparity, from giving youth practical nutrition information and experience growing their own produce to subsidized community supported agriculture (or CSA) shares for low-income residents, but as James discovered while observing Oakland’s various food programs for her film, many barriers still stand between people of color and food justice.

“Mickey’s story demonstrates the disconnect that there is around eating well for folks in the African-American community, folks in West Oakland,” she says. “That disconnect between having food that’s accessible to you but not really understanding, not really connecting with it. Not thinking about cooking, whether it’s time or not having the supplies to [eat well].”

James says she has revamped the way she looks at food, visiting the farmers market more frequently and investing in local agriculture. She is in the process of submitting 16 Seeds to a number of film festivals and hopes to release it more widely after that. Stay tuned to her website, About Her Films, for the latest updates.

UPDATE: Watch '16 Seeds' here ... and support the filmmaker with a small donation!

Are there inspiring food programs where you live being led by people of color?

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