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Organizers Say Urban Agriculture Is Not Just a Hobby, It’s an Act of Resilience

These activists are working to decolonize the food system and shape the narrative around urban agriculture.

Steffanie Tulk fills an order for customer Susan Burkhardt on October 23, 2020, at Village Farmstand in Evanston, Illinois.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the massive disparities in our food system and the structural changes necessary for a future where the most vulnerable control their own health outcomes. The devastating impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color were compounded for a population historically redlined into segregated communities which are heavily polluted and lack access to quality food — a result of systemic racism pervasive in housing rights, health care and urban policies.

The food justice movement takes an intersectional approach to fight for healthy food as a fundamental right. Fannie Lou Hamer was a pioneer in the movement with the founding of her Food Farm Cooperative, but who are the new leaders addressing failed policies at the federal, state and local level? The answer to unequal food access might literally be in your backyard. The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) is a network of over 500 individuals and organizations who are part of a growing community fighting for a healthier tomorrow. In this interview, NESAWG Executive Director Tracy Lerman discusses the food justice movement’s objectives, while Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black, unpacks the historical narrative of Black land owners.

We also hear from Malaika Gilpin, co-founder and co-director of the One Art Community Center in Philadelphia; Kirtrina Baxter and Sonia Galiber, organizers at Soil Generation; Charlyn Griffith, a fellow at Wholistic Art and an active member of Soil Generation; federal policy associate at the National Young Farmers Coalition Vanessa García Polanco; and Niaz Dorry, the executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Tracy Lerman: Our stakeholders are very diverse, from producers to people working on food access and consumption and everyone in between: the whole food system. A lot of people within that system are often at odds or in direct hostility toward each other and so we’re trying to help people have conversations outside of this really polarized context that we find ourselves in. We also use it as a way to lift up the work happening in a particular city or community and give those stakeholders an opportunity to showcase what they’re doing.

It feels really important to me that the food movement — which has traditionally been the province of white privileged people who can afford to eat organic, local, expensive food — we really want to shift the focus away from that and toward eliminating food apartheid, making sure that people who were supporting the people who are most impacted by these issues and not patronizing them by telling them how they ought to eat or assuming they don’t know how to make good decisions for themselves, really addressing inequality and inequity. We’re not trying to save people; we’re trying to support work led by people who are really struggling the most in this current time. The main constituency that we work with are modestly paid (or sometimes unpaid) activists who work at the micro community level, and so just having an opportunity for them to really talk about what they’re doing and meet other people, we feel is so important to the kind of food system work we’re trying to lift up and move forward.

Malaika Gilpin: We [at the One Art Community Center] are in the middle of West Philadelphia, in the middle of a very marginalized community, and One Art is somewhat of an island in the middle of that. So sometimes I describe this as an eco-arts village, it’s a community space, it’s a space for healing, it’s a space for art programming and it’s a space for growing food. So, our goal is to be a hundred percent sustainable and we want to show people of color coming together and creating a sustainable community together. We also want to take the model that we’re creating here and just bring it to as many places within the U.S. and outside of the U.S. as possible.

Laura Flanders: The activists at NESAWG are also about changing policy. We followed some of them down to City Hall for a “Save Our Gardens” rally demanding an end to the eviction of urban farmers and more transparency in the use of public land.

Kirtrina Baxter: I would say about roughly 80 percent of our gardens and farms in this city are insecure, which means that they don’t have legal access to the land. So they might be on the land without permission, they may have a lease or a license, but they don’t have legal permission to be there, and what happened in this city — because gentrification picked up, development picked up the last two years — places where folks had been gardening for over, sometimes 30 years, are being [pushed out] … we knew that we had to do something to stop that.

Sonia Galiber: I think one of the reasons that we found this action to be really important is because there really isn’t a way of getting a temperature test of how council people or people in power feel about urban agriculture. You know how people feel about gun control, you know how people feel about women’s rights, but urban agriculture isn’t being taken seriously as a political act of resistance and resilience. When folks think that urban ag has a white face and it’s a hobby, that does a disservice to all of the communities that have started urban gardens as an act of resilience and a way to feed themselves — in a way to support themselves. And so, this [has] also been an opportunity for us to shape the urban ag narrative to represent our own communities so that folks can understand that urban agriculture is not a hobby, it is an act of resilience.

Baxter: And it always has been. So, like the reality of this movement is that it’s shining light on the fact that people have been growing food in community and cities and urban spaces for decades, and a lot of those people look like me and a lot of people look like you because that’s how it’s always been. And so, because very recently, white folks have gotten more involved in doing the thing, all of a sudden there’s a white face on what’s happening, but we’ve been effectively changing that narrative within the city here, which has been a great boon for us, I think, and for the growers.

So what’s involved in making this sort of change and who is taking part? We had a chance to sit down with some of the organizers at NESAWG, who are working on food justice across the country and ask them about the many forms their work is taking.

Charlyn Griffith: I think that imbalances of power and people feeling powerless has impacted the imagination of every individual that has been colonized on this planet and we have to dig through those layers.

Somebody put forward an idea that said, we will make more profits if we do things this way, and may have considered and didn’t care, or may have not considered the repercussions of that choice to put profits over people. That is not a thing that is made up, it’s a lived experience and it’s a critique and … an accurate analysis of the way that this system fails. So, with regards to art, it frees up space and it lets you drop off some of the experiences of trauma and some of the horror of the things that have hurt you to imagine something different. Racism runs very deep in this word. So decolonizing the food system and the future of food is really what we’re willing to do to decolonize our own practices and the future of us. The story of the future of food is the future of us.

Vanessa Polanco: Well, many people in our generation, they care deeply about food, and oftentimes I see mostly youth of color that care more [for] food because they have experienced food insecurity [through things like] … reduced lunch, or they have [experience] in how to use food stamps and they get more impacted [by] this need to connect with the land in the landscape…. Most immigrants, their first job when they land [in] this country is in the food system. So it’s like we have so much power in the industry, so much labor force that we bring into the food system. So I just want some visibility. We are an important part of this system and we want to be part of those conversations, we want to be stakeholders, we are not just consumer power, we also have decision-making power.

Niaz Dorry: We set out in late spring on a two-month tour of primarily rural communities and the purpose for the tour was for me in my new role to get to meet some of the members of the National Family Farm Coalition and to get reacquainted with those we work with at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. We visited 67 communities, we traveled about 13,000 miles. We’re told that rural communities are the enemy of urban communities, that they are the places where people who don’t see everybody else [as] equal live. And so, this idea that these two parts of our society are so separate, are so different from each other, is another way to keep us apart.

An author, farmer, educator, environmental steward and rabble-rouser for food justice, Leah Penniman is the co-director of Soul Fire Farm. There, she and her colleagues grow, harvest and share with their community as a sacred act.

Leah Penniman: We started out as a family farm; we knew that we wanted to grow food for our neighbors. We’re living in the South end of Albany, which is — the USDA terms it a food desert neighborhood. We prefer to talk about food apartheid because deserts are natural phenomen[a], and racism in the food system is very unnatural.

The Movement for Black Lives is very much about ending police-sanctioned violence against our people — against Black and Brown people. So we know about police brutality and murder, and we know about mass incarceration — that’s all over the news and it should be; it’s really important. But a lot of times what falls away from the conversation is that the top five killers for Black and Latino people in the United States are diet-related illness[es] and that’s not accidental. There are all these policies in place that our state created that caused this disconnect between Black folks and good food, and similarly, over our history, our access to land has very much been influenced by U.S. policy, USDA discrimination, by violence from the Ku Klux Klan that targeted Black landowners.

In the early 1900s was the peak of Black land ownership, and [according to] the 1910 census, Black folks owned and operated about 14 percent of U.S. farms, and that was at a higher percentage than we made up in the population. And so, there was a long time throughout history when the most likely occupation you’d find an African American person [in] was farming, and now that’s the least likely. Many of our people have confused the oppression that took place on land with the land itself, and so there’s a lot of ancestral, almost cellular trauma that’s associated with wild spaces and with land. The truth is that we do all belong to land and we have a right to belong to land and reclaim agency in the food system, but there’s a healing process that needs to happen, and part of that is knowing our history.

I’m really influenced by my ancestors, including my adopted Hebrew ancestors. So the Talmud teaches us not to be overwhelmed by the grief and despair of the worlds, that we’re not obligated to finish the work, but we are obligated to always take a step in the direction of completing the work.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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