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.   


  1. This is a very exciting and timely blog subject!! As a mother of two teens, I find it increasingly difficult to encourage healthy food choices...even when I cook reasonably healthy food, they groan, grimace, and gag about eating their vegetables. They seek every opportunity to go for the salty, greasy, crunchy, sugary...I know I have to be ever vigilant but it helps for them to see others their age engaging in the healthy. Which means we need to spread the word far and wide, mainstream it...make our own media to influence the masses. Thanks you for this!!

  2. Nice, consistent blog. My buddy Khalfani Herman referred me to your blog. Apparently, he met you today at the SSSP conference and felt as though we would mesh over the subject of food and justice. I am currently working on a study in NC that looks at local food and farming systems in four different regions of the state. For the past year I have been organizations in Halifax, Edgecombe and Nash Counties.

    Are you noticing any differences between local food groups that are led Black community members and those spearheaded by Whites for Black communities?

    I agree with you that Black farmers and their families are revolutionaries. I have learned so much more about the struggle of Black farmers and their families since moving to NC. If you are not already familiar, I suggest you look up the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association (BFAA). They're based in Tillery, NC (Halifax County). I have worked with them a bit since being here.

  3. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you so much for your comment. Please email me ( Would LOVE to talk more about this!