Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners: The Intersection of Race and Environmental Justice in the Food System
The weekend of November 8-10, I had the honor of attending the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners conference in Brooklyn, New York. Before you hear what I have to say about the conference, however, I want you to know that I went there as a listener and observer, and that the following are things I heard and saw. It feels important to first situate my reactions in some context, so that anyone reading will better understand how they might have been shaped.
I have known for a while that I care deeply about fighting for a better food system, but my critical eye towards food as it concerns justice and sovereignty has only just begun to take focus. I found that most of the conference-goers I spoke to were growers, activists, and organizers working in primarily black communities. I am a white junior environmental studies major, studying food and agriculture and working on Yale’s educational farm. As such, the conference may have had a much different meaning, energy, and purpose for many people there. I learned and heard some incredible things, and I want to share them. But as much as we are all implicated in any given piece of the food movement, you should proceed knowing that my personal stake in this conference was mostly one of learning and attempting to better understand food in the intersection of racial and environmental justice.
“Good morning,” Dr. Monica White greeted the crowd assembled in the Boys and Girls High School’s auditorium, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brookyln. “My heart is full today.” These were apt first words for her keynote; the love and friendship in the room was palpable. Before White had stepped up to the podium, there had been drumming, a song, and a Yoruba prayer in which audience members were invited to honor their families and friends. This was no passive audience, either—throughout Dr. White’s address, many among the nearly 300 people in the room would call out in agreement or encouragement. Unlike at most lectures, speeches, and addresses I’ve attended, it felt like everyone was listening, digesting, and participating in what the speaker had to say.
Dr. White’s presentation was titled, “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement 1880-2010.” While she made sure to address the history of structural oppression that black farmers have faced, she quickly moved to point out two things.
First: that we have to stop focusing our conversations about black growers around sharecropping and slavery, in order to counter the message that growing food is oppressive. Black people don’t have a negative relationship with the land, she emphasized. They have a negative relationship with systems that have committed violence against them and the land.
Second: “The discussion of resistance in agriculture is not new.” In studying black freedom movements, we read a lot about boycotts, marches, strikes, and sit-ins. Without minimizing the importance or necessity of these types of resistance, Dr. White categorized them as “disruptive.” Growing food, which takes energy away from racist institutions and focuses instead on building community, is “constructive.” “There’s nothing more powerful than growing a garden,” she said. Disrupting systems of oppression and constructing new spaces of freedom, it seemed, must be mutual and concurrent projects.
Plenty of examples of constructive resistance followed. One was George Washington Carver’s “movable school,” a wagon equipped with supplies, seeds, and fertilizer that traveled throughout farms Alabama in 1906, demonstrating plowing techniques and other useful agricultural innovations. Another example was the rise of black farmer cooperatives during the civil rights movement, designed to pool resources in the face of discriminatory farm supply companies.
These accounts of black agrarian resistance sparked something in the auditorium. Dr. White’s words rippled through an audience of fiercely nodding heads and occasionally drowned in shouts and cheers. Remembering that this work is already underway, that better worlds are being created in the present, fills the heart with a sort of energy and readiness to jump in. But Dr. White made sure to temper this energy with sensibility: “Respect and honor process,” she urged. “Never hurry. Take it slow.”
After the keynote came the first breakout session, and as per usual, when faced with a list of workshops to attend, I felt totally paralyzed by possibility. Flipping through the conference schedule and seeing sessions titled, “Wisdom Rising: Garden Tales from Our Elders,” “Healing is a Revolutionary Act,” and “Ambivalence into Action,” I finally settled on “Providing Access to Local, Organic Food to Low Income Families Through Community Supported Agriculture,” mostly because CSA’s as alternative food spaces had been a focus of some of my readings for class. Community Supported Agriculture is like shopping exclusively at one farmer’s market stand, only you pay the fee for the whole season’s produce upfront. This boosts the economic viability of small farms, providing them the start-up money for buying the summer’s seeds, fertilizer, new tools, and so on, while also taking on the farm’s risk of a bad season, crop failure, and drought. Though CSA costs vary, they are usually several hundred dollars for a season.
Elizabeth Henderson, an author, farmer, and founding member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), welcomed me into the circle of desk chairs as she passed around some handouts about accepting food stamps, alternative CSA payment plans, and the CSA as a strategy for food justice. I immediately felt puzzled; in all my eagerness to critique CSAs as a niche food market for the wealthy, it didn’t occur to me that a) CSAs should be made more accessible despite their elitist image, or b) There are a lot of people working hard to make this happen! And I got to sit in this workshop with about a dozen of them!
As I found out when we were all introducing ourselves, most people in the room were community organizers, CSA managers, or otherwise involved in community food work. Eager to spark a debate, I delivered my little my piece about how CSAs have historically been inaccessible, white and upper class spaces. Everyone nodded kindly in my direction—“Very true,” someone murmured—then got back to what they were there for: to trade tips on sliding scale fees, setting up Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) for families using SNAP, and other ways of making CSAs available to everyone in their communities, regardless of socioeconomic conditions. While I have been reading paper after paper deconstructing and critiquing alternative food networks (like CSAs), the participants in this workshop have been actively working to reshape these food networks to better suit the needs of their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. It brought to mind exactly what Dr. White had just spoken about: constructive resistance moves beyond diagnosing the problem and denouncing the harm it causes. It is a form of fighting back that empowers struggling communities to flourish in the face of that harm.
The first breakout session was followed by lunch, during which I wandered down Fulton St. in search of vegan food (after eight blocks with a handful of delis, I found only broccoli and rice). Back in the high school cafeteria, I inched my way into a lively conversation about what it means to truly understand the values of a given community before proposing development-based solutions. This discussion struck me in particular because of my work with New Haven Farms, an organization that provides a subsidized CSA from its garden plots around Fair Haven. The CSA members, all diabetic or pre-diabetic patients from the Fair Haven Community Health Clinic that fall 200% within the poverty line, have certainly expressed appreciation for the program, but this conversation made me feel less convinced that this model of food production is what Fair Haven necessarily wants or needs. Though I still support New Haven Farms’s effort to build a better community food system, I wonder how people benefitting from the program could have more of a voice in shaping it.
After lunch came the second breakout session, and I chose to check out “Facilitating Change in the Food Justice Movement,” run by D’Artagnan Scorza from the Social Justice Learning Institute in Inglewood, CA. Scorza began by drawing a set of concentric circles on a large sheet of paper, with “high-need communities” (an intentional choice of words, avoiding deficit-framing like “low-income”) in the center circle. Outside the very largest circle he wrote “Governments,” “Corporations,” and “Foundations.” In the intervening rings, he drew out a hierarchy in which broad public interests such as health and economic viability occupied the outermost circles, and “food justice organizations” lay just outside “high-need communities.” The idea here, he said, is that the agenda for the food movement is usually set from the outside (governments and foundations) in. In order to reverse this trend, and to have high-need communities set the agenda so that larger powers are working specifically towards their goals, community members need to own their narrative, shift public funding to smaller, community-based initiatives, and develop leadership.
With that, Scorza passed out “Collective Impact Initiative Planning” worksheets, and we were encouraged to work together to enumerate goals, objectives, visions, and strategies for advancing the interests of our own communities. The worksheets separated strategies into those relating to policy, physical place, and promotion, and included spaces in which to list target population groups, key partner organizations, and forms of direction action.
As everyone began filling out their sheets, I glanced uncomfortably around the room, then back at my own paper. Scorza had laid out everything I needed to think about in one thoughtful graphic organizer, where I could start brainstorming ideas for bringing food justice to my community. It was the question of my community, however, that kept me from picking up my pen. Who could that be? I tried to picture the 5,000 other Yale students who are mostly my age and taking classes at the same institution as I am, and the 5,000 different places they came from before they moved to New Haven. My connection to other Yale undergrads, though significant, felt superficial, and our collective stake in creating a community together shaky and uncertain.
There was no doubt that I felt a strong community among my housemates and other friends, but this community was perhaps too small and too homogenous to count. And, without discounting the various forms of oppression we encounter daily, I figured the genuinely most pressing interests of my household’s “community” could usually be addressed by someone picking up more toilet paper and dish detergent from Stop & Shop.
There was home, of course. I grew up the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, where streets of neutral-color colonial-style houses bled into each other. There was crime, but not too much. There was some serious wealth disparity, but nobody talked about it. The political initiatives that received the most attention and support were those driven by self-described “progressive” middle-aged and wealthy moms, which is why teacher’s aids and special education assistants were laid off during the recession, but solar panels got installed on streetlights. Food activism, in the form of shopping at Whole Foods, was rampant.
In the two years since I had left New Jersey, I already felt more passionate about New Haven than I ever had about the place I called home for most of my life. So where was my community? I returned my attention to the classroom, where people were beginning to talk about their plans for direct action. I neatly folded up my graphic organizer, stuck it in my bag, and quietly slipped from the room.
I had desperately wanted to catch some of the “Radical Women of Color in the Local & Good Food Movement” workshop, co-run by Tanya Fields, who spoke to the Yale community at a Chewing the Fat event hosted by the Yale Sustainable Food Project and Pierson College last winter. Clearly, many other conference-goers had the same idea—the classroom for this session was packed. As I snuck in, introductions were still going on. A man in the corner gave his name, then added, “and I’m here because I’m healing from years of internalized patriarchy and chauvinism.” The rest of the room (mostly women of color) laughed and snapped in encouragement. “That’s right,” came a voice from the other end of the room.
If you didn’t catch Tanya Field’s Master’s Tea back in January, you’ll have to trust my sad attempt to capture her energy in text: she is one of the most unapologetically radical women I’ve ever encountered. Her voice is loud, her words are candid, her laugh is full of warmth, and her mind is full of brilliance and determination. This time, however, instead of her speaking before a quiet group of contemplative Yale students, her energy was met with that of dozens of other women who exuded a similar sense of audacious self-love and sisterly empowerment.
“What is being a radical woman of color?” Fields asked the room. Some answers included “speaking your truth,” the ability to be vulnerable with one another, being firm in your beliefs, not apologizing. “I’m not going to sugar-coat what I have to say,” said one woman. Fields knows the price of self-expression for a woman of color all too well; just before she came to speak at Yale, she had been uninvited from speaking at TEDxManhattan’s Changing the Way We Eat conference. “Being your optimal self, it’s expensive,” she told the room. “What is the cost of being radical, and how do we navigate that?”
This workshop, too, had an activity—along with Dara Cooper, a BUGS organizer and the other session leader, Tanya broke us into groups and assigned each of us a quote from a radical woman of color (including one quote from herself). My group got the following quote from Angela Davis: “The idea of freedom is inspiring, but what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense, but have no food, what is that? The freedom to starve?”
We were encouraged not only to talk about how these quotes applied to our work, but how they could help us reimagine our work going forward. Fields and Cooper stressed this point—as our groups talked about the meaning of these words, they asked us how they will transform our future actions.
My group talked about the language of freedom. We discussed how, since we speak the world into existence, we can reimagine ourselves and our work by coming up with new language to express our ideas about changing the food system. (Fields: “We’re talkin’ ‘bout some real hippie-dippy shit here.”)
The workshop ended all too quickly, but before we left, Fields and Cooper had us call out the names of our heros. With smiles, claps, and calling out “ashe!” (a Yoruba word meaning “the power to make things happen”), we honored Harriet Tubman, Audre Lorde, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Turth, Ida B. Welles, and many others (including many of our mothers and grandmothers).
As all of the conference-goers took their seats once more in the auditorium for the closing keynote, my mind spun with thoughts and questions. As Ben Burkett, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, took the stage, I found I could hardly focus. What was my main takeaway from this conference? What could I do with these thoughts and questions? Was I just going to write it them all down and stash them away, or was there some immediate change I could make to my own process, like Tanya Fields was pushing us to do?
Well, here I have written down a whole lot, and for now, I think I must somehow hold on to the energy that these speakers, workshop leaders, and conference participants inspired in me. I will remember the incredible amount of work already being done to change food systems, and how much the people doing this work have been and continue to be challenged by racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of injustice. I will remember that communities must voice their own narratives, and while I continue to think about New Haven food policy, the problems therein should be named by the people facing them. At the same time, there is much work to be done, and finding my place in the food movement must be a process that happens simultaneously with offering what resources, energy, and work that I can to the work that is underway.
Farm intern Justine Appel ‘15 gives a personal account of the Lazarus Summer Internship:
It’s impossible to pick which day of the Lazarus Summer Internship was my favorite, but here are some contenders: The day we pressed 1,300 soil blocks (imagine eleven large wooden flats loaded with brownie-like cubes of soil) and filled them with lettuce seeds so tiny they looked like coffee grounds. The day I hung hundreds of feet of twine from the top of a hoop house so that our climbing beans could grow upwards into a beautiful curtain of vines and leaves. Maybe the day we sliced up 25 basketball-sized cabbages, soaked them in brine, and packed them into big white buckets to ferment into incredible sauerkraut (if you think sauerkraut is gross, you clearly haven’t tried making your own). Perhaps the day we visited the gorgeous Thimble Islands, and when the tide was too high to continue clamming, went trolling through the water at such a high speed that we would go flying whenever we hit a wave and couldn’t contain our screams and laughter. Definitely the evening of our visit to the Yale-Meyers forest, eating blueberry crisp out on the porch and sharing stories as the sun went down.
The Lazarus Summer Internship is the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s summer-long program in which six Yale College students manage the Yale Farm. This includes preparing beds, seeding, irrigating, and harvesting crops, and finally selling them at the CitySeed farmer’s market at Wooster Square every Saturday. But what the internship offers beyond that is what makes it extraordinary. The interns get to go on weekly field trips to organic farms around Connecticut, and take weekly classes on topics such as the economics of small farms, food lexicon, and soil science. The educational dimension of the internship showed us how the principles and techniques of organic farming could apply to farms much bigger than our beloved acre, and farms that were more animal-based (including a sustainable oyster farm!) than ours. We picked the brains of brand new farmers, struggling farmers, farmers who managed large heated greenhouses, and farmers that had experienced significant losses due to pests and diseases.
At the end of the summer, we went to the Northeast Organic Farming Association summer conference: three days of classes and workshops taught on everything agricultural, from worm composting to efficient irrigation to increasing food access in impoverished urban settings. Between the beginning of June and the end of August, all six of us had gained not only an understanding of how to grow and care for a diverse array of crops, but also tremendous insight into the world of sustainable food and the many paths we could take to get more involved. The YSFP staff taught us not only how to make perfect pesto and how to properly grow leeks, but how to think critically about the big picture issues inherent in our food system.
The internship, like the Yale Farm itself, demands real effort from your mind and your body. Most days, I would come home and collapse on the couch with a book and a big spoonful of peanut butter, lacking the energy to even hop in the shower and wash all the soil out of my hair. But, also like the Farm, the rewards far exceeded the amount of work we put in. Fresh vegetables to take home every week, the opportunity to pick up several new skills and experiences every day, and the lasting bonds we formed with each other and with the incredible staff far surpassed the value of our monthly stipend.
I cannot recommend this opportunity more strongly. All of this past summer’s interns had different areas of interest, and different reasons for wanting to work on a farm all summer. If you love to learn, and more importantly, if you love to eat, you should spend the summer on the Yale Farm and see what crazy adventures it brings.
Farm intern Justine Appel ‘15 on why caring about food and agriculture doesn’t make her a hipster:
When I found out I was going to be a summer intern at the Yale Farm, I felt like I had secured a dream summer for myself: working outdoors, growing and eating wonderful food, and learning from and with people who cared as much about sustainable agriculture as I did. After volunteering on the farm throughout my freshman year, I was seriously looking forward to further developing my comprehension of the problems and challenges of our food system. But around the same time my interest in the sustainable food movement heightened, I started noticing a strong, adverse reaction to it.
One morning, I opened the Yale Daily News magazine to find myself labeled a pretentious hipster. When I expressed my frustration with factory farming to one of my close friends, she told me that I was developing extremist tendencies. When I told my mom that I was going to try to eat more seasonally, she became defensive about buying strawberries in December. “Don’t you like strawberries, Justine?”
Whether being gently mocked by a Portlandia episode or accused of attempting to make food into some sort of religion or art form, I can’t seem to escape the stereotypes associated with passion for farming and concern for how we can feed seven billion mouths without contaminating our air, water, and soil. What I thought were good intentions are often perceived as idealist, naive, and, most disturbingly, elitist.
I reject being placed in special category of people who think about the way they eat, one that is characterized by privilege and even by extravagance. Being food conscious is not something inherently white, wealthy, or seductively bohemian. Moreover, such a discourse is dangerous because it strips everyone outside a certain social category of his or her agency to eat well, affordably, and ethically. Accepting that eating sustainably and locally is somehow bourgeois is both denying history and legitimizing a system that restricts access to fresh, healthy food within poor communities.
Don’t dismiss the sustainable food movement because it seems like a hipster’s cause. People who think of it that way will tell you that you can’t afford to buy organic. But with the world population expected to reach 9 billion within our generation’s lifetime, what we really can’t afford is ignorance or denial of the agricultural challenges ahead. No, we probably can’t feed the world on small-scale organic farms, but we certainly can’t go on burning more fossil fuels in order to have our winter strawberries while 870 million people go undernourished. We should strive to create a world where no one is too poor, too disadvantaged, or most importantly, too busy to exercise their right to healthy food.