West Oakland’s Essential Food and Medicine is Nourishing the homeless, the seniors, and the impoverished, body and soul

By JR Valrey, Black New World Media

Life in 2020 has taken the nation, if not the whole planet, into warp speed because we, the people, are forced to be more independent in solving some of the problems in the world. Some see that as we are being pushed past a point of desperation, while others see it as a new beginning to an independent way of thinking. The 2020 Covid pandemic has taught us that regular human services are hard to come by during this current pandemic period, and during the most intense fire season that California ever had, so depending on ourselves can be the difference between survival and death, in today’s matrix. 

The Bay Area has always spawned innovation, with it being one of the most western areas in the United States away from the economic and cultural power center of New York and the political and military power center of Washington D.C.. It has always been where the free thinkers who want to think outside of the groupthink bubble escape to and congregate, the Pullman Porters, Marcus Garvey’s U.N.I.A.,, the Black Panthers, Richard Pryor, Tupac Shakur, and Malcolm Shabazz, just to name a few while Black revolutionary thought, early jazz, pop lockin, turf-dancing, rebellions, and more, make this place what it is. 

Today, Essential Farms, is an urban farm in the middle of the hood in West Oakland, that is doing their part to battle hunger and malnutrition in the shanty towns of West Oakland, the town’s senior communities, and more. AshEl Eldridge and Xochitl Moreno sat with me to explain the importance of their work. 

JR Valrey: What inspired you to get involved in horticulture and plant medicine among other things?

Xochitl: The plants themselves called us. I’m in the third year of a clinical herbalism program at Ancestral Apothecary School in Oakland. My path to plant medicine is truly an ancestral one. My grandfather is a horticulturalist from Australia and my father’s family from Mexico have used plants to heal themselves for generations. 

AshEL: I met a healer from Peru through my masters program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology that introduced me to plant medicines from the Amazon that deepened my relationship with plant medicine.

JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with Essential Food and Medicine?

Xochitl: We cofounded EFAM as a response to the fallout of the COVID 19 crisis left in the community. In a climate of fear and shock we found it important to nourish the roots of people’s health by reminding them of the many plant and elemental allies humans have been benefiting from since time immemorial. Many forms of aid that the unhoused community relied on vanished at the beginning of shelter in place. We saw the need to feed peoples bodies, minds, and spirits. 

AshEL: Pre-Covid, I was mostly a musician though I have also always been an educator and community organizer. When Covid hit, I drove Lyft and delivered juices and other natural medicines to folks sheltered in place. A mutual friend introduced me to Xochitl. 

Xochitl: Through various mutual aid networks, I had gotten involved in efforts to redistribute surplus food from the OUSD free lunch to the houseless. Concurrently, I had been supporting the UFAD (United Front Against Displacement} sanitation project building handwashing stations and water access points. When we joined forces and began transforming donated produce into nutritious soups, juices, smoothies, and tinctures, it was clear from the very beginning that we were making an impact. Our work was meeting the needs of the most impacted people and created an avenue for folks sheltering in place to be involved though volunteering with juicing or distribution in the camps or making donations for the same products we were giving out for free for those who needed it. After the first week of doing the work, we decided to formalize the organization understanding that these issues existed before Covid and were exacerbated by the crises. We wanted to build an organization that could address these issues in the long term and that was proactive and creative in building solutions.

JR Valrey: What exactly happens with the fruit and vegetable part of the farm? Why did you start making medicinal smoothies and juices for people in need?

Xochitl: We receive food donations from local food banks such as ECAP (Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program), North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church, Wanda Stewart from Common Vision and Hoover Elementary, and a network of other farms and peoples backyard gardens.  The NorCal Resilience Network connected us to the Willow Blish from Slow Foods East Bay, the Mushroom Farm in Pescadero, Tract Trust, Gil Tract Farms, and the O2AA Artisans Aggregate in West Oakland. O2AA, urban farm and makerspace, kindly opened their doors to us to serve as a base of operations. They help turn our juice pulp and food scraps into soil and host our popup at their weekly CSA box program.

JR Valrey: Where did you learn these recipes? Can you tell us a few different fruits, vegetables, and plants that help with different ailments, to give examples? 

AshEL: The recipes shift every week based on the produce and donations we receive and depending on what’s in season. Some of the staple recipes came from my time running a non profit/profit called SOS Juice. 

Our Trine of Hydration (lemon, apple, ginger, and sea salt) is full of lemons which contain Vitamin C, which boosts the immune system, and helps to regulate healthy blood pressure. The sea salt adds electrolytes that rehydrate the body. The Beet the System (Beets, Lemon, Apple, Ginger), is a great blood cleanser and blood pressure regulator, supports digestive, brain, and kidney health, and helps reduce inflammation. Every week we make a new smoothie of the strong, where we incorporate everything from flax (fatty acids and omega 3s) to spirulina (rich in protein, significant amounts of calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins and iron), and sea moss, which has 92 of 102 essential minerals that the human body consists of.

JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about your smoothie program, who exactly do you serve, in terms of ailments?

Xochitl: We pass out juice and smoothies at the encampments at least twice a week, at a senior home every Friday, and distribute to specific immuno-compromised individuals upon request. The houseless community deals with the immune system issues, addiction, and trauma. The seniors we serve commonly suffer from diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, loneliness, and isolation. The juices, smoothies, tinctures, and salves, all are composed of fruits, vegetables, and herbs that boost immunity and create health.

JR Valrey: How is this program funded? Is it a Black or people of color program, or are y’all just some of the people helping and learning?

Xochitl: We are a grassroots project primarily run by our crowdfunding efforts in addition to micro grants we’ve received from the NCRN.

Here is our GoFundMe www.gofundme.com/f/essentialfam. We are BIPOC lead and operated and strive to enlist the leadership of the communities we serve as volunteers and collaborators. Our organization is also a learning organization, providing space for professional, social, and spiritual development. We also host community forums twice a month on Sacred Activism, Transformative Justice, and Community Healing.

JR Valrey: How could people tour Essential Farms? How could people join it?

Xochitl: Our website www.essentialfam.org has a form for volunteers. Volunteering is the best way to learn about our programs.

JR Valrey:  How could people contact you?

Xochitl: We can be reached at www.essentialfam.org on instagram @essentail.fam or emailed at essential.food.medicine@gmail.com



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