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.
Triple Bottom Line
by Sophie Mendelson, ‘15
So I have this crazy idea.
It’s an idea about what the farm of the future could look like. Big topic, I know, and right now the idea is still pretty half-baked, I’ll be the first to admit. It’s fanciful and incomplete, with untested foundations, erratically constructed extensions and a leaky roof. But seeing as it’s an idea about collaboration, and the first step toward any kind of collaboration is communication, I’m going to lay it out for you anyway.
This idea, like so many, starts with the identification of a problem: loneliness. I believe that loneliness is a problem that is often overlooked in the discussion surrounding sustainable, small-scale farming. When trying to envision the farm of the future, we spend a lot of time talking about economics and chemicals – how can farmers make a living? How can they reliably produce food without harmful technology? What new economic models and low-impact technologies can we implement? These are all important questions, but I think equally important is the question: how can we make the farming lifestyle sustainable? In other worlds, how can we help farmers not to be so darn lonely?
In my personal experience, loneliness has been THE NUMBER ONE hardest part of farming. Isolated geographically and socially, farming is often a solitary business. There is a huge difference between working fourteen-hour days with a group of people and working those same hours on your own, and I’m not just talking in terms of productivity. For me, the former is exhausting but satisfying, while the latter leaves me flattened and struggling to suppress a creeping sense of desperation. It’s no wonder that so many young farmers start out with enthusiasm only to quit after a couple of years in the field!
So here is my crazy idea: the farming cooperative. I may be twisting the word “cooperative” to fit my purposes here, because I don’t mean a totally consensus-based, commune-like farming model. What I have in mind is more closely matched to the Zingerman’s business model (check out A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building A Great Business by Ari Weinzweig if you’re intrigued). I’m talking about a farming model in which several quasi-independent farms, all located in the same geographic region or even the same property, collaborate to coordinate operations and market their products under one front. You could have, for example, a vegetable farm, a dairy farm, a meat farm, a fruit orchard, and a processing facility for value-added products that all run mostly independently from each other, but draw on each other for support and all market through the same outlet and under the same label.
In my idealized and untested fantasy version of this model, the farm cooperative would work to meet “the triple bottom line” (to steal, and then tweak, a phrase from Dina Brewster): economic, environmental, and spiritual. Economically, marketing through one outlet would provide consumers with an incentive to buy from the cooperative, as they could meet most of their grocery needs through the products collectively assembled. Environmentally, the cooperative model encourages a diversified farming approach, where multiple kinds of farming are all taking place in coordination with each other on one piece of property, allowing farmers to close nutrient cycles and feedback loops. And now here’s the biggie: spiritually, the cooperative addresses to major issues for farmers. First, it provides a built-in community. This model of farming necessitates the involvement of many families and many workers, de-isolating small-scale farmers and creating a social environment. Second, it makes it so that one farmer doesn’t have to keep track of everything that is going on in a diversified farm all by his or her self – each operation is managed by a separate set of people, who then collaborate to bring their operations in concert with each other, thus diffusing the responsibility and easing the need for manic multi-tasking. Oh yeah, and each operation can help out other operations during times of particular need, like harvesting tomatoes or slaughtering chickens, strengthening social bonds and reducing the need to bring in extra labor during these times.
So far, that is the extent of the crazy idea. I would love, love, LOVE to talk to people about this, so please don’t be shy! Help me poke some holes in this thing so that we can build it back up even stronger.
Ad-hoc intern Kendra Dawsey ‘14 on her trip to a conference on racial equality in the food movement:
On October 5th, college students and others with an interest in the food movement gathered for a panel on Race and Place in Food and Co-op Movements, which doubled as a fundraiser for CoFed. CoFed, short for ‘Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive’, is an organization that started on the West Coast, devoted to equipping college students with hard skills to create cooperatively-run food enterprises on their campuses. The event took place at Colors restaurant in New York City, a restaurant that uses local ingredients and trains local employees, and is owned by a national organization that prides itself on respecting restaurant owners. I was fortunate enough to attend the panel with the help of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and it was so exciting to see tons of young people interested in promoting racial equality in this movement.
The speakers at the panel included many prominent people in the current food movement such as Kolu Zigbi, the Program Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems and EAT4Health and the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation, Curt Ellis, co-director of King Corn and The Greening of Southie, Tanya Fields, an entrepreneur who founded both Black Girl Inc. and The BLK ProjeK, and Karen Washington, founder of two farmers markets and a board member of NYC Community Gardens Coalition. To start the night off Yoni Laudau, co-director of the organization, spoke about CoFed with praise. He noted how much the project had blossomed from its roots in a borrowed minivan. Then Christine Johnson, the Northeast Region Organizer for CoFed, greeted the excited crowd. Afterward a brief speech, she sat down and asked the panelists questions on their experiences.
The first was a personal moment when they became interested in the intersection of race and place. Karen Washington, who has been growing food for 20 years, realized the importance after calling the census bureau for statistics on farmers. She was astounded to find out that there were only 110 black farmers in in all of New York State. She said, “We have to do something … We are talking about an equitable food system but it can’t be equitable if a portion of people aren’t farming.”
Curt Ellis became interested during the production of King Corn. In one town where filming took place, all of the farm workers were from the same town in Mexico, one that had its own corn to be harvested. However, working in America gave the families of workers enough money to send back home. Curt Ellis is currently co-director and Executive Director of Food Corps, an organization that seeks to address systemic food issues at the local scale. The organization takes into account the realities of race and poverty and how it affects food access. He says, “It is our priority to understand how the food movement discriminates in race and in class.” Food Corps uses service members with a specific knowledge of the area they are to be placed in, and involves schools in the process of giving youth a lasting relationship with healthy food.
Perhaps most illuminating was the situation described by Kolu Zigbi. At the age of 17, before attending college, she went to visit her father’s rural village in Liberia. The farmers of the village constituted most of the population, and they grew enough native rice to feed themselves and also sell outside the community. However, the people lacked the automobiles and other means take their goods to the market, located far away. There was one bulldozer available in the entire village, but to use it, you had to take out a loan from the World Bank in the form of expensive seed—despite the fact that the farmers had seeds of their own. Therefore, they had no means to sell their natively grown rice without being forced into debt by the World Bank.
Additionally, US aid to Liberia is frequently given in the form of free rice. This rice was sold by the government to the citizens to pay off loans. Zigbi asked herself why international aid was putting farmers in debt instead of helping them develop. Reflecting on this point, she concluded, “race is a tool for exploitation.” She went to talking about her experiences with organizations in general. “Too many foundations are colorblind … the idea of talking about race becomes so personalized, no one looks at it like an academic reality.” By claiming not to see race at all, some organizations turn a blind eye on the unique histories and realities of each race, especially with regards to the food movement. Lack of access to healthy food disproportionately affects people of color in America, due to the complex way race and city planning have played into each other in this country.
Tanya Fields was the last to come in due to a babysitter flaking out; she walked into the room with apologies and two of her children. Hearing her speak from experience as a single mother and entrepreneur in the food movement was an excellent and moving way to end the night. Fields talked about how she had struggled to get grants when she wrote honestly about her background. “I thought I would list what I had done and people would make it rain,” she said, drawing laughs from the audience. “But that did not happen … ” She went on to explain that those who give out money for grants will still go for a college graduate over someone with a lot of experience, but less formal education. There is also the constant barrier of try to get jobs as a black woman, when many in charge place stock in having a white face on their organization. Later, she said, “When I submit a proposal to philanthropist … we have to start dealing with institutional racism.”
The panel ended with a conversation on how to start change. Washington said that overall, movements need to be grassroots, not political, and change must start within communities. Fields reiterated this point: “There’s a myth that people in poor communities don’t know anything, or they need help. They don’t need help, they need liberation.”
The entire night, I heard comments that articulated feelings I had regarding the general food movement in America, and helped open my eyes to the complexity of situations regarding race in the environment. I get to spend more time at Yale and afterward learning about these issues. I hope everyone in the room came away from the meeting with a desire to continue this very important discussion.
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about how sustainable agriculture tends to defy easy answers— and how that quality is one of its most compelling. So to start the week, here are two stories that demonstrate exactly how thorny thinking carefully about where your food comes from can get.
First there’s a domestic tale from our neighbors to the south in New York, where backyard chickens are laying eggs with detectable (but not necessarily harmful) levels of lead. Soil contamination, especially in urban areas, is a huge issue for many would-be backyard gardeners; the Yale Farm site was chosen in large part because unlike much of the rest of the city, it has lead-free soil. There are quick, cheap soil tests that you can do to determine whether soil is plantable or not, but no such standards exist for raising chickens or other backyard livestock— leaving many families without guidance, wondering if their attempts to raise their own are actually doing them more harm than good.
Then there’s the international: entrepreneurs in Haiti are trying to stimulate local economies by having natives grow the peanuts given to malnourished children in their communities. It’s a smart idea in theory, creating jobs on farms and in processing plants, intending to enrich the population rather than keeping them dependent on foreign aid. The catch is that the peanuts are vulnerable to fungi and toxins, requiring intensive chemical management— and that the multinational companies importing peanuts work on a massive scale and do so much more cheaply than these small-scale startups can. So far the UN has been willing to buy the more expensive product, supporting the long-term vision at work, and it will be interesting to see if the Haitian farmers can create a more competitive price without sacrificing the unique elements of their business model.
And because it’s Monday, a little bonus something fun: David Chang, Adam Gopnik and a host of others talk food on The Moth Radio Hour.