Farming While Black: Dismantling Racism in the Food System

Savannah Kuang, Foodwise Staff
February 7, 2020

“I literally could not get vegetables for my children,” said Leah Penniman at a recent talk hosted by Foodwise (formerly CUESA). “There’s a package store, a McDonald’s, KFC, etc. There was no bus line and supermarket.” 

Leah and her husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff had limited access to fresh produce while they were living in the South End of Albany, New York. The only way they could get farm-fresh produce was through a farm-shared CSA program two miles away from her home, walking each way and carrying the produce with their children. 

The term “food desert” defines an area that lacks access to good-quality fresh food, causing food insecurity, especially among communities of color. But many food justice activists argue that providing grocery stores with fresh, healthy food isn’t enough to solve food insecurity alone. 

Because most farm subsidies go to white farmers, which makes up over 90 percent of the agricultural workforce, less than 2 percent of America’s farmers are Black. Just a century ago, Black Americans made up to 14 percent of the country’s farmers. This decline is due in large part to racist and discriminatory policies by the USDA that excluded Black Americans from agricultural programs. Activists like Karen Washington use the term “food apartheid” to describe the deep segregation and social inequities that exist throughout the food system, encompassing systemic racism, health, economics, and land.

That’s what drove Leah, author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, to start Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)-focused community farm in Grafton, New York, to dismantle racism and injustice in the food system.

Farming for Community

Opened in 2010, Soul Fire Farm started out with a doorstep delivery program, bringing fresh produce to neighbors. Then they expanded with summer youth programs and adult trainings as part of their dedication to bring forth a new generation of Black and Brown farmers, and for folx to start their farms.

“One of the things that happen often is that when young people come out to the farm, they have this [idea] of a farmer—an old white guy with overalls…which doesn’t come from nowhere,” said Leah. Because farming is predominantly a white profession, she said it’s imperative for people of color to see farmers who look like them. “Even if they don’t want to become farmers, they’ll start to say, ‘Well, what else might be possible that I didn’t think was possible?’ Maybe, me being an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a parent…it’s possible, even when I thought it wasn’t.”

Reclaiming Heritage and Land

A huge barrier for Black and Brown farmers is finding land and capital to start their farms, which Leah saw as a systemic issue that needs to be tackled head-on. That’s why she calls for organizing regionally and nationally, working on reparation initiatives, policy changes, and asking Democratic candidates about what they’ll do to support Black farmers.

Through farming, Leah aims to reclaim her heritage and land that was stolen from her ancestors, who braided seeds into their hair before being kidnapped into slave ships. Soul Fire Farm dedicates their land to raising vegetables, fruit, eggs, pasteurized meat, and herbs through ancestral techniques rooted in Afro-indigenous history—many of which have been appropriated by the predominantly white sustainable farming community without credit and recognition. 

Some of those practices include worm composting (inspired by Cleopatra’s recognition of earthworms), soil testing methods, raised beds (created by the Ovambo people), fanya-juu terracing (which means “throw it upwards” in Kiswahili), and regenerative agriculture through crop rotation.

Historical Challenges for People of Color

Leah is hopeful that farmers of color continue to reclaim those farming practices for the next generation. But she asks, “If Black folx have contributed so much—past, present, future to sustainable farming and food justice, why are we not thriving?” She cites five main reasons:

1. The entire nation is built on stolen land. 
European colonizers control most of the land that was originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples. “That land theft continued, and Indigenous peoples continue to have their lands taken,” said Leah. The Ku Klux Klan burned down homes of people of color just for owning a small piece of land, and hundreds of thousands of Black farmers were forced off their properties.

2. The U.S. food system exploits Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.
Labor laws don’t currently protect farmworkers nationally in the same ways as workers in other industries. “Nationally, there’s no federal minimum wage if you work at a small farm. There’s no day-off incentive, and no right to overtime pay, different child labor protections, and so forth,” said Leah.

3. Black-Indigenous farming methods that respect and care for the land have been replaced by industrial agriculture, which is one of the largest drivers of climate change.
This causes land loss and soil depletion, which reduces pathways to sequester carbon. There is a loss of that Indigenous farming knowledge, while communities of color are most heavily impacted by climate change.

4. Food apartheid means that people of color are food insecure, which also means health inequality.
Areas that don’t have access to fresh food are more likely to be food insecure and at risk for diet-related diseases. The lack of access to farmland can prevent communities from thriving.

5. Communities of color have been disconnected from the land, bearing inherited trauma from oppression.
Young people especially are often disconnected from the land, which prevents them from having a relationship with nature and healthy food. This is why Leah is bringing that connection back to the youth as part of the healing process. “Part of our healing is to get in touch with that deeper truth of our relationship to land and not allow the oppression that we’ve experienced…our ability to feel, our legacy, and our birthright as children of the earth,” she said.

Healing the Food System

Despite these many injustices in our food system, Leah believes the solutions are found in the communities most impacted. The first step is shifting power and resources to communities that need them.

She recommends giving your time and money to BIPOC organizations working on these issues as a huge step towards healing the food system. “There are a number of organizations you can give to,” she said. “If you have time to give, whether it’s ten hours per year or ten hours’ worth of money, you can contribute to healing the food system.”

Overall, Leah thinks it’s necessary for all of us to drive change and heal the food system. “I believe that all the problems we’ve created as humans beings can be certainly solved,” she said. “If you eat food and you live on land, it’s incumbent for you to take action.”

First, second, and third photos courtesy of Soul Fire Farm.

Listen to the full audio from Farming While Black. For a complete list of action steps, click here.

Join CUESA at the next talk, Food Democracy 2020 | Civic Engagement through Food, on Thursday, February 27.

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