Urban farmer Sophia Buggs doesn’t like the term “food desert.” After all, her plot of land sits in the middle of a neighborhood that would likely be written off as such a desert: the south side of Youngstown, Ohio, checkered with vacant lots and boarded-up homes in a Rust Belt city that has lost roughly 60 percent of its population since the 1950s.
Buggs is devoting her life to proving that this scene of blight is also fertile ground for food and herbs to grow — and community to be fostered. “There is nothing ‘desert’ about this farm,” she told AlterNet. “Food desert is another code way of saying ‘black.’ Yes, our neighborhood is black. This is my hood, and this is where I grow. I don’t like that term because, typically, someone has a garden but it didn’t make the list. We have enough words that negate our community.”
Buggs is the operator of the aptly named Lady Buggs urban farm — 1.3 acres filled with raised beds, fruit trees and wild edibles, including raspberries, lilacs and red and white clover. Bird houses bring in pollinators, and an inexpensive, do-it-yourself greenhouse known as a “hoophouse” allows plants to grow all year round. Buggs is proud to have created her agricultural home snuggled between vacant and lived-in buildings, right next to her own house, which she inherited from her grandmother six years ago.
“My mission is primarily to make the world a much more vibrant, healthy space, to make the soil better than when I found it and make the people better than when I discovered them,” said Buggs, explaining that she is a fourth-generation grower with strong ancestral ties to the land.
The Lady Buggs farm is one of many urban agricultural projects dotting cities across the United States.
Full Harvest Farm was established in East Oakland as a project to secure black autonomy by growing plants from marijuana to tomatoes. “Our farm is about community resilience and black liberation,” said Karissa Lewis, co-founder of Full Harvest, in an interview with the justice and ecology organization Movement Generation. “Whether we’re dealing with gentrification or food deserts or racist policing, in America it always comes down to land and power. So we’re taking the land back. And that way, we can start to take our power back as a community.”
In April 2015, Victoria Massie, reporting for Blavity, compiled a list of nationwide “black farmers to buy from instead of Whole Foods,” after a Baltimore branch of the grocery giant handed out sandwiches to police (but not protesters) in the midst of the 2015 Freddie Gray uprisings. “Supporting structural racism shouldn’t be organic, even if your kale is,” wrote Massie. “Let’s continue to make sure our money goes to our community when it comes to our produce.”
For Buggs, the work goes beyond growing produce and includes classes on cooking, farming and eating well that are specifically tailored towards poor and working-class communities. “We don’t talk about blenders and food processors,” she said. “We talk about good, old-fashioned cooking with a pot that is affordable. We avoid words that keep certain communities out of the conversation.”
She emphasized that her green thumb is tied to her ancestral connection to the land and spiritual practice. “For many years I have loved nature, and I think that I really discovered the ritual part of nature that I absolutely love is turning wild edibles into medicine or bundles for burning or spiritual ceremonies,” she said. “This is tied to my ancestry, as my great-grandmother was an herbalist. I feel that my herbs are more powerful because I am personally growing them from seed to table.”
Buggs is cultivating land in a city hit hard by poverty and depopulation. According to the US Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2015, Youngstown lost 3.5 percent of its population. A recent survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that in Mahoning County, where Youngstown is located, one in three children lives in poverty. This is significantly above state child poverty rates, which were at 23 percent in 2014, a significant increase from 19 percent in 2008.
In addition to poverty, residents face structural barriers to accessing healthy and fresh food. Journalist Amanda Smith reported for the local news outlet WKBN 27, “Most people in the city of Youngstown live miles away from the closest grocery store.” According to Smith, roughly one in five residents doesn’t have a car.
These barriers, said Buggs, should not be taken as an invitation for large grocery corporations to set up shop in the area. “I don’t want Walmart in my neighborhood,” she emphasized.
In this environment, she said, “It is important to recognize nature’s bounty. What we’re left with is not having a lot of access to fresher foods and products, and there are not a whole lot of jobs available. There is blight here — vacant and boarded-up homes — yet somehow I’ve been able to find my blessing in the midst of this.”