At first, Kelly Carlisle may seem an unlikely advocate for urban farming, having only chanced upon a love of gardening. Out with her child and seeking air conditioning one hot summer day, Carlisle ducked into a store which happened to be a nursery, and a scrawny lemon tree caught her eye. She took it home, repotted it in an empty trash can, and her love of growing food was born.
What’s not surprising, however, is that Carlisle, a U.S. Navy veteran, would become a warrior for food justice.
In 2010, she was riled by a flurry of news reports about her hometown of Oakland, Calif. At that time, teen prostitution was on the rise, Oakland ranked as the country’s fifth most dangerous city, and four out of 10 Oakland students dropped out of school.
“Having been in the military myself, I was appalled,” says Carlisle. “I served so that all Americans have the opportunity to have their best life, to live the way that they want to live, to be able to have opportunities come to them and feel empowered to take advantage of them.”
Around that same time, San Francisco’s then-mayor (now California governor) Gavin Newsom announced a plan to establish a college-savings account for every kindergartener. Inspired by this model, Carlisle saw an opportunity to make a difference in her own city. And the seed that became Oakland’s Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project was planted.
Carlisle decided she wanted to share her newfound passion for growing food with kids—and make a way for them to invest in their futures.
The phrase “acta non verba” is Latin and translates to “deeds, not words,” or as Carlisle’s kids would often say, “don’t talk about it, be about it.” And that’s just what she did.
Carlisle read up on how to start a nonprofit. “The first paragraph on the first page said, ‘Do you have an idea to improve your community? Tell everyone.’ And so I did,” she says. She eventually connected with someone who provided a quarter acre of land in the city, and within a year, Acta Non Verba’s first urban farm was a reality.
Acta Non Verba’s mission is to improve the quality of life for youth and their families, and today—10 years after its inception—it pursues that mission largely through two key programming areas: seasonal camps for kids and a community supported agriculture program.
Helping Kids Build Equity
Twice a week, Acta Non Verba’s BeetBox CSA packs up food grown at the organization’s youth urban farms for customers to pick up or have delivered. The CSA supplies fresh produce for 300 people—a number that has grown from just seven customers before the pandemic through partnerships and acquisitions.
A full 100% of the profits from the CSA goes into individual savings accounts for the program’s young participants. Students who spend 18 hours participating in Acta Non Verba’s activities within a year are eligible to have their own savings account, regardless of income, to use for educational endeavors, like college applications or tutoring or music classes.
In addition, as kids get older, they can gain more experience, such as being junior counselors for Acta Non Verba’s after-school programs or day camps.
Camp ANV for kids ages 5 to 15 takes place each season. Some 175 children come through the camps each year, and the program enjoys a nearly 70% return rate.
While urban-farming programs for kids are the fuel that powers Acta Non Verba, its camp activities go beyond farming, cooking and field trips. Campers enjoy a well-rounded experience, with drumming, dancing, swimming and visual arts as well. “We want to make sure that these kids know that if I’m interested in science or bugs or soil, I can learn more about that,” says Carlisle.
“I think success means kids walk around a little bit more confident. They become adults who know their rights and know who they are in a larger community, and know that they have power, and knowledge and brilliance.”
Guided by Kellogg’s African American Resource Group and our wellness brands Special K, Eggo, MorningStar Farms and Kashi, Kellogg has launched “Black History. Every Month.: A Call for Food Justice,” shining a light on the barriers to food justice and elevating the work of local heroes fighting to remove them.
“The donation that’s going to be made will help us do a lot of things that are hard to do without money,” says Kelly Carlisle, Acta Non Verba’s founder and executive director. “I hope that more people get exposed to Acta Non Verba’s work, and we would love to expand our programs to different parts of Oakland, and other cities.”