As the outrage over police brutality towards Black Americans, and the discrimination and inequities facing the U.S. Black populations, has washed over this country over the last weeks, we’ve been forced to examine the system that has led to this and our own part in it.
Each of us needs to find that piece of the collective work of undoing and re-doing, breaking the old and mending what’s broken, that is ours to do.
From listening, to learning, to standing at the front lines of protest, to donating to bail funds, to working on Black voter suppression, to writing and media, and (for those of us who are white) the often very uncomfortable homework of confronting our complicity in systemic racism, our obliviousness about our own unearned advantages, and the harm caused by our well-intended micro-aggressions.
Each of us has a piece of the collective work that’s ours to do.
Since I work in farm organizing, write about local food, and most days — including on these days of grief and anger since George Floyd’s death — have my hands deep in garden soil, it seems that one of the pieces that’s mine to work on is advocating for social justice and racial equity in food, farming and gardening.
* * *
Here’s one uncomfortable truth that reveals my own privilege right off the bat: those words — food, farming, and gardening — are words that I tend to associate with good and happy things. But the story of agriculture and food in this country is, from its beginnings, a story of trauma, violence, and injustice. The very foundation of U.S. wealth was grown on stolen land by stolen people. Native peoples’ land was taken away from them; enslaved African men, women and children were forced to work in farm fields. Long after emancipation, Black Americans were systematically excluded from access to land or robbed of their lands.
The end result, as Gosia Wozniacka writes, is that “Ninety-six percent of farmland owners are white and 95 percent of U.S. producers — about 3.2 million — are white, while there are only 45,500 Black farmers. It’s a far cry from the 950,000 who worked the land in 1920.”
Look at those numbers: land ownership among Black Americans is 1/20 of what it was 100 years ago. Yet even though Black Americans don’t tend to own farm land, they do farm work. The majority of farm workers are Black and Latino; they tend to be poorly paid, treated as invisible and, ironically, are often themselves food insecure, even as they grow food for the rest of America.
And then there’s the inequitable access to healthy, nourishing foods: grocery stores offering higher-quality, healthier food options tend to be located in predominantly White communities. To mention just one aspect.
So, given that history, how do we rise up for racial justice as food lovers, farm lovers, gardeners, farmers, urban homesteaders?
What Black food and agricultural leaders are telling us to do is to first listen. Then do our homework and understand some of that history, why things are the way they are. And thirdly, support Black farmers and other Black leaders in food and agriculture.
food sovereignty action steps
Sooner or later, as you dig into this, you’re going to come across Leah Penniman, the farmer at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York and the author of Farming While Black. In March, I got the opportunity to participate in a brilliant and eye-opening workshop led by Penniman about ending racism in the food system. The Soul Fire Farm website has a document with about 200 food sovereignty action steps for supporting racial justice in the food and farming system. It’s a powerful document and a great place to start. Some powerful action steps from that document include:
- Uplift Black and Brown expertise, both ancestral and current.
- Enact reparations to POC-led projects
- For white people: “Rather than trying to “outreach” to people of color and convince them to join your initiative, find out about existing community work that is led by people directly impacted by racism and see how you can engage.”
Also, if you’re a white farmer, check out National Young Farmers Coalition’s A Racial Equity Toolkit for farmers.
Support Black Farmers in your area
If the history of farming in this country is a wound, many Black farmers have found that farming itself can be a salve for that wound. That food sovereignty itself — being able to work with the land and grow food, against all odds — is healing.
Look at Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm, Ayanna Jones of Sankofa Village Community Garden, Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, Ron Finley “The Gangsta Gardener,” and the many urban farmers that have made Detroit famous for its urban farming: they’ve reclaimed land and, when in urban areas, made their neighborhoods healthier and safer places to live, reviving a sense of community and cooperation.
But there’s more. As Tanya Fields, the founder of Libertad Urban Farm in Bronx, New York, says:
“For us to come in and reclaim these spaces and say that we have right to have access to this land so that we can have some sort of sovereignty and autonomy, even if it’s just a handful of peppers we grew that day, couple of strawberries… The ability to say, “I grew some of my food” and say, “I have some control over what went into my body, and I made the decision as to what that was going to be” — that is radical, that is necessary.”
How to find and support Black-owned farms in your area? Check out Shoppe Black’s list of Black-owned farms and food gardens.
Support organizations fighting for racial justice in the food system
- Soil Generation
- Federation of Southern Cooperatives (for the Southern U.S.)
- Black Urban Growers
- Planting Justice
- Soul Fire Farm Reparations Map
Support Farm Workers
As Simran Sethi writes, the Covid-19 crisis has made all too evident that farm workers and migrant laborers — a majority Black and Hispanic population — are people whom “we treat as invisible when [the system] is working and only notice when it’s not.”
How to advocate for those who feed us? Head over here to read the rest of Sethi’s thorough and powerful article on empathy towards farm workers could transform our food system.
Eat a “Social justice Diet”
We’ve been famously called to “vote with our fork” but, most of the time, it’s been about promoting good land stewardship by going for organic, or local, or vegan, or whatever the case may be. Too often we have omitted racial justice in the food system as something that we can move the dial on with our individual choices.
Here are some ideas.
- Support initiatives that enable Black & Indigenous people to eat culturally appropriate, nourishing, traditional foods. One of my favorite examples is the Cafe Ohlone, mak-‘amham, in Berkeley, CA. mak-‘amham means “our food” in the Chochenyo Ohlone language and the cafe serves only traditional Ohlone foods, made with ingredients indigenous to California.
- Ask questions about where your food came from and how it was grown. To shift policy, we need to become a food-literate society again — a society where people invest in food, take the time to prepare it and eat it, and care about the land it was grown on and the people who grew it.
- Buy regionally and eat seasonally. It’s what Ray Levy-Uyeda calls a “social justice diet”: “If consumers and voters understand the environmental implications of what they’re purchasing and which businesses they’re supporting through their consumption, then food policy at the federal level might look different.” The industrial food system, supported by billions of dollars of federal subsidies, is a juggernaut that is degrading both human health and environmental health. Every time you buy fresh directly from a local small family farm, you are taking a little power away from that system. You have that power. Use it.
There’s so much work to be done in this realm. We don’t yet have a social justice food system, but we have to start asking: what would that look like? As my friend, food writer and butcher Meredith Leigh writes, it has to start with confronting the uncomfortable:
“We force ourselves to become accountable to the inequities that we don’t have answers for, the fact that the farm to table movement springs first and foremost from an environmentalism that did not fully include social justice. And when we begin to deal with that, we realize all the other conversations that we have been ignoring because we have had the privilege or the permission to do so.”