Sunday, October 3, 2010

Understanding Freedom Farmers

My love and desire to study black farmers grew organically, so to speak.  I come from a family of African American urban farmers, yet never called ourselves such, the farmer part that is….My Dad moved to Detroit from Mobile, Alabama.  We always had a garden in the backyard and he would often enter into friendly contests with neighbors over who could grow the best looking produce.  My Mom is from Eden, North Carolina and was raised on farm land.  She was one of her generation whose parents grew the farm and sent their children off to faraway places for higher education.  My paternal Grandma grew food in her apartment before there was a term for container gardening.  Every year, my sister’s green thumb was demonstrated by the best tomatoes in the neighborhood.  She often threatens to sit armed at the end of the driveway to catch people helping themselves to her hard-earned harvest! 

As an undergraduate I became fascinated by African American women activist’s autobiographies.  My love for the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur developed my understanding of the formation of an activist identity and political engagement over the lifecycle and across the world.  While preparing my dissertation for publications, I decided to compare the autobiographies of South African women activists, who were engaged in dismantling Apartheid.  Many comparisons were evident; what I marinated on was the consistent reference to gardens as a community space where social responsibility and political education were allowed to blossom (I know, that one slipped).  Gardening was used as a troupe, especially in African American women’s writing.  I immediately thought of Alice Walker’s powerful quote, “Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength--in search of my mother's garden, I found my own.”  I knew, before I moved back to Detroit many years later, that my research interests would investigate the nature and functions of community gardens in urban areas.  Still, I had NO idea this road would lead me where it has!!

In 2006, I met Baba Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) while organizing a conference that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967.  This conference organizing group of mostly activists, exposed me to many Detroit legends whose work I had admired for many years.  

My introduction to DBCFSN was one of those moments that scholars rarely come across.  I approached the group and discussed my research project and my desire to study black farmers in Detroit. Baba Malik was clear on how I could be of assistance to the organization and he listed the intellectual and institutional support that he thought the group needed and that I could provide.  At my first meeting, they asked me questions that were swift, probing, thoughtful, and clearly demonstrated their knowledge of the research process and a desire to understand my approach to the work to which they had been committed.   

The beginning of a beautiful relationship!!  I am so grateful for DBCFSN’s acceptance of me into their family and their willingness to entrust me to relay their stories and take their voices to political, academic and activist places.  While we were in Milwaukee, I was given the title of “Garden Griot,” one that I promise to honor.  I feel especially grateful that they are willing to share their experiences as activists/farmers with me. 

There are many things that listening to my farmers has taught me.  I never approached the group as if I was the authority, I was always the student.  I asked questions about their motivation for gardening and about their access to healthy food.  What they told me and what I learned has changed my life and the way I view the world.  Asking questions about their motivation to farm/garden they told me about the obvious connection between farming and resistance.  Their actions were clearly about food security and connecting food to liberation.  While yes, they are concerned about neighborhood beautification and increasing access to clean and healthy food, they accepted their role as stewards of the environment and engage in farming as a demonstration of a community-based, food system model that could translate to community-based control of education, public safety and so many other social issues that Detroiters face.   

One of my favorite quotes from Assata Shakur’s autobiography fully describes my work as an academic/activist in this food justice movement. “I actually believed then and still believe that activism is fun! I think that the movement has done more for me as a human being than I will ever be able to do for the movement....I think that being an activist on this planet is a privilege and a pleasure.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

Black voices in food justice

Unearthing African American voices in food justice

Just returned from the Growing Power’s “Small Farm and Urban Agriculture” conference in Milwaukee with Will Allen and I have confirmed a few things. First, I realize that there really is a “Good Food Revolution.” There are many who believe in the importance of locally grown, high quality food using sustainable (regenerative) practices.  Second, there are many soldiers in this revolution.  People come to identify with this movement from a variety of perspectives such as health and wellness, concern for the environment, neighborhood beautification, youth intervention and food justice/security.  Some of the reasons for their mobilization are that locally grown food is often healthier, especially when eaten within days of being harvested.  Local foods are better for the environment, particularly when organic pesticides and fertilizers are being used.  Gardens and gardeners are symbiotic.  They are mutually really beautiful and illustrate in the power of working together.  With the increase of gardens and farms, especially in urban areas, there is a resurgence in public art and green spaces that were once considered vacant, abandoned and eyesores.  There are few folks who would argue against developing gardens and farms, the vast majority of citizens see the benefit of the importance of this movement and there are many believers.

I am grateful to be among those who see the community benefits of urban agriculture.  I have also returned from Growing Power more determined to engage and unearth the voices of African Americans in the battle for food justice and food security.  There are many reasons that African American communities have been and are critical to the resurgence of urban agriculture.  I can only touch on a few.

1)  Here is what we know:  Race influences access to clean and healthy food.  Known as the grocery store gap or the supermarket shortage, among communities with similar demographics such as education, income and occupation, but differ in terms of race, African Americans are less likely than whites to have access to grocery stores (if we call that access to clean and healthy food, but that is another blog!).  In an earlier post, I mentioned that in 2002 article in the American Journal of Public Health findings show that 32% of white census tracts (neighborhoods) have at least one supermarket, only 8% of African American census tracts have one supermarket.  Poor neighborhoods have 55% of the grocery store square footage of  wealthier neighborhoods.  Given these harsh realities, there is no wonder that African Americans suffer most from diet related illnesses.  Preventable diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are “preventable.”  These illnesses are progressive and debilitating and can be avoided.  Ashley’s data finds that gardeners/farmers consume 3-5 times more fruits and veggies than their non farming counterparts…that’s substantial.  Urban agriculture offers a space for exercise and improved access to clean and healthy food with the potential to prevent or reverse the damage caused by unhealthy diets.

2)  African Americans are critical to urban agriculture as collectively, we must be at the forefront of the food justice/food security movement to challenge the racial and economic oppression that contributes to food insecurity.  Many of those who fight, organizationally, for food justice and food security are not those who experience food insecurity.   Look around many of the meetings for food justice and those looking back at you are rarely faces of people of color.  How can it be that those who experience food insecurity are not present at these meetings?  One reason is that African Americans are often engaged in forms of resistance with others who share race as a collective identity.  Often these acts of resistance take place within the context of African American organizations, such as Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, affectionately called the “Black Panther Party of the food justice movement”.  Is the presence of African Americans in interracial organizations enough? Of course not.  In order to respond to the social realities and conditions of communities of color, people who experience these conditions must be at the forefront of these movements, it is through demonstrations of agency and being in control of their own liberation are those who are oppressed able to create structures and institutions that respect their humanity. 

3)  The third reason that African Americans are essential to the urban agriculture movement is that through this movement, we are the ones transforming our neighborhoods and we are able to point to the farm as an example of what could be.  In my interviews with D-Town farmers, what is important is that not only do farms represent self-determination, these farms are a visible example of what happens when people pull together to change their environment, to change their reality and to come up with solutions for the conditions they experience.  These urban gardens, providing spaces for social interactions, with the urban art projects, with the community activities that take place like blood pressure/diabetes screening and education, operate as an oasis, a green space within our cities for healing.  The farm has become a tangible example of collective work, self-reliance and political agency.  In repurposing this vacant land, D-Town activists are engaged in reviving a city left behind by racism, poverty, politicians, the automobile industry, merchants, supermarkets and grocers who once serviced Detroit residents, one plot at a time.

African American farmers are revolutionaries!  In spite of everything, the odds, the hard work, the struggle and the challenges, they are reclaiming their responsibility as stewards of the environment.  Through their work, the earth becomes a food source, a community center, a hospital, a social network, a playground and yes, a place for political education.  The earth performs as an instrument, or a strategy used in the transformation of our spaces and our community.  This relationship is not unilateral…both benefit and heal and grow and through the power of struggle, both are allies for their collective liberation.   

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Eastern Market

Eastern Market

Every Saturday when I was a little girl my Dad and I would go to the Eastern Market in Detroit.  I remember purchasing fruits and veggies, freshly butchered meats, spices and feta cheese from Rocky’s. Afterward we would buy something to snack on and sit and people watch.  Eastern Market was one of the places where people of different ethnicities would gather.  One could purchase foods from many places around the world along with those who appreciated a connection to their respective Motherlands.  My Dad would often ask me to tell a story about the people we saw, who I thought they were to each other, what they were doing and what I thought was the nature of their interaction, thus began my realization that I was a social scientist. 

Eastern Market was such a part of my upbringing that continued through my graduate years. When I was in town, our visits included checking in on my Grandma.  I still make the Eastern Market apart of my Saturday ritual, for some nostalgic reasons, Dad no longer goes with me, and some practical reasons, it is one place, of many, where I can purchase my fruits and veggies from farmers.  My visits are such a high point of my weekend.   I love seeing people from the local food movement and the artisans who sell their wares at the market. 

Originally known as the Detroit Farmer’s Market opened in 1841, the Detroit Eastern Market opened its doors in its current location in 1891.  Current estimates suggest that approximately 45,000 people frequent the open air market every weekend.  Progressively, the vendors are retailing the produce that they purchased wholesale, yet, “Grown in Detroit,” offers a space where local Detroit farmers are able to bring their harvest to market.  Other farm families like Vang Farms and Hampshire Farms, offer Detroiters sustainably grown, exotic greens, beans and grains.  Dan Carmody, President of the Eastern Market and his staff, have done a great job restoring the market, renovating and finding funds for this Detroit gem.  
Aside from the fact that farmers are the coolest, nicest, friendliest and politically conscious folks you can find, there are three reasons why it is important for you to know your farmer:

Contributions to the Local Economy

Issues such as African American land loss and the admitted discrimination by the USDA against black farmers brought to the fore the importance of the faces and families behind the food that we see in the grocery store.  Many of these farmers are generational and the money earned over the growing season allows their families to survive throughout the year.  Most of the food that we see in the grocery stores has been shipped as far away as 4,000 miles.  Food miles, or the distance between where food is grown to where food is consumed, have huge implications on the grower, the purchaser and the environment.  When farmers sell their produce locally, they contribute to the local economy through the purchase of goods and services, they employ local people, and they reduce the amount of air toxins in moving food from one place to another.  Not only this, knowing your farmer provides an opportunity to influence what they grow. 

Locally Grown Fruits and Vegetables are Healthier

Food shipped 4,000 miles is not allowed to ripen on the vine.  It is picked early, and in the case of the tomato, gassed using a petroleum-derived, flammable gas, (C2H4) in order to produce the texture and color of being fully ripened1. I use the tomato as an example.  It is far from alone on the list of synthetically ripened produce.  There is no comparison between the “grown” tomato and the “gassed” tomato in terms of its nutritional content; likewise in taste.  Many of us tomato aficionados can identify the homegrown, heirloom tomato blindfolded with our hands tied behind our backs.  As vegetables are allowed to ripen naturally, they reach their peak in terms of nutrition. 

Local farmers can also be encouraged to grow a variety of crops, instead of engaging in monocropping, growing only one kind of crop year after year.  When farmers diversify their crops they pull different nutrients from the soil and are able to grow fruits and vegetables more naturally.  Monocropping, takes the same nutrients, depleting the soil of its potential to grow healthy food and forces farmers to use often artificial means to fertilize, which leads to soil and groundwater contamination.  Many of these fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides cannot be washed off with water and are thus consumed.  In this one example, we have spoken about the contamination of water, food, soil, air and the body.  Something to think about…

Know your farmer, know your food

I know this sounds clich├ęd but it is true.  When you know who grows your food, you are more in control of what goes into your body.  You can also learn about and try new fruits and vegetables, as farmers are usually eager to share their knowledge and information.  Ask Mama Jackie of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), each week at the SEED-Wayne farmers market.  She has a new recipe based on the produce that appears on the table.  Similarly, in the Bordeaux region of St. Thomas, Mama Benita, a native Detroiter, told us how the farmers wanted to grow bok choy.  When they first brought the vegetable to the market, no one knew what to do with it or its health benefits.  Within a few months, Mama Benita said, it was “difficult to keep bok choy on the table because the community has grown a taste for it.”  Knowing our farmers teaches us respect for the people whose hard work and dedication bring our food from “seed to table.”

My last point is that knowing the people who grow our food allows us to vote with our dollars on what we eat, how the food is grown, and how people who grow our food are treated.  With each dollar we spend, we are making a statement.  Each dollar spent with the people who grow our food is a vote for the local economy, for healthier food and for a cleaner environment.  These are dollars are not spent supporting big agri-business and the contamination, pollution and exploitation of communities and countries for their land and their labor. 

For more information on the history of the Eastern Market, check:
Grown in Detroit:
Eat local movement
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Bordeaux farmers:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Detroit, race, urban gardening

Just last week, Mayor Dave Bing released a “land use strategy,” or a plan adjusting the City of Detroit to the declining population and the vacant, abandoned land.  So much of what you read about the city is about the economic woes, the political drama and the foreclosure crisis.  What has most recently gained international attention is the urban gardening movement that is literally blossoming all over Detroit.  While some have asked about this “new” gardening in ‘da D, I have been quick to say that farming and gardening in Detroit are not new.  What is new is that people are beginning to hear about gardening and urban agriculture and the city is developing a new identity amongst environmentalists, foodies and activists of all shades of black and green.  Given Detroit’s history of agriculture, it makes a lot of sense.  There are three reasons for its resurgence: shrinking population, vacant land and food insecurity.

Shrinking population and vacant land

In 1900, Detroit’s population was approximately 225,000.  With the automobile industry’s boom, by the 1950s the population had grown to approximately 2 million.   Not only was this unprecedented in US history, this was way before consulting with urban planners on how to accommodate rapid city growth.  Most cities grew vertically, or up in terms of higher floors, Detroit grew horizontally, we spread out.  The land mass of the city includes approximately 140 square miles.  In other words, Detroit is large enough fit Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco inside the city limits with land to spare.  With outsourcing, unemployment and other social ills, Detroit’s population is predicted to fall under 850,000 when the calculations for the 2010 census are complete.  We now have about 40 square miles of vacant land.  One of the most exciting discussions and debates include how this land will be used. 

Food insecurity

Can you imagine going from five major chain, neighborhood, grocery stores to none at all within your lifetime? 

Contrary to every study conducted on food access in Detroit, a top ranking city politician has been quoted as saying that there is no scarcity of food in our neighborhoods…well, that depends on how you define food.  Of course, there are Coney Islands, or diners for non-Detroiters, who stay open 24 hours and convenience, corner and party stores in every neighborhood, but what they sell could hardly be defined as food.  With the majority of their income from liquor, lottery tickets and cigarettes, the food choices in these establishments are processed, canned, factory foods that are high in fat, salt and have very little nutritional value. 

The consequences for public health for poor people and communities of color where large numbers of people lack access to healthy foods, are enormous. They become even more pronounced when race and class are taken into account. African Americans are more likely to experience food-related illnesses that are directly related to their inaccessibility to healthy foods (Cummings and Macintyre, 2006; Baker et al., 2006). Among these are debilitating and chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease (Moreland et al., 2001, 2006; Zenk et al., 2005).

Detroit appears as an extreme, but it is not the only example of an urban area where poor people and communities of color lack access to clean and healthy food.  When we compare race, class and food accessibility, we find that even in comparable neighborhoods where indicators such as education and income are similar, yet the racial composition is different, predominantly-African American neighborhoods are still less likely to have access to grocery stores.  A 2002 article in the American Journal of Public Health findings show that 32% of white census tracts (neighborhoods) have at least one supermarket, only 8% of African American census tracts have one supermarket.  Poor neighborhoods have 55% of the grocery store square footage of  wealthier neighborhoods.
History of agriculture in Detroit

What is less known about Detroit is that there is a strong agricultural tradition.  In 1894, then Mayor Hazen Pingree developed a program to encourage the use of vacant land to allow unemployed citizens to grown their own food and to sell their surplus. Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s, with the migration of African Americans who were recruited to work in the automobile plants, most of whom had come from agricultural traditions, and many of whom were accustomed to growing their own food.  This, then, makes the current gardening revolution quite logical. 

While we could belabor the social problems that Detroiters experience, but what is more important and beautiful, I would argue, is that there is a resilience, a sense of creativity and a determination amongst Detroiters who are finding ways to put this vacant and abandoned land to good use…in the form of urban agriculture.  Instead of asking politicians, some of whom don’t believe there to be a food access problem, or approaching these major chain grocery-stores to locate within city limits, many citizens in the City of Detroit have decided to take matters in their own hands to addressing food access.  The purpose of this blog is to discuss race, class, food access, and urban agriculture.  Here we can discuss the ways in which urban agriculture in general and food security, specifically are connected to food security and food sovereignty movements, race, class and gender movements, environmental justice movements, local food movements, water and land use, and other social justice movements.