Food justice is the notion that everyone should have access to healthful food as well as the opportunity to grow, market and serve it. It’s also the idea behind a rising movement in the US, looking at how federal state and local policies have, or have not served everyone’s food needs. In this episode, Laura talks with farmers, workers, organizers, and seed keepers who seldom get much attention from the mass media. And then she goes to Soul Fire Farm near Albany, New York, and visits with Leah Penniman, author of a groundbreaking book “Farming While Black”, what Penniman calls a “love song for the earth and her peoples”.
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In This Episode
- Leah Penniman, Co-Director and Farm Manager, Soul Fire Farm, author, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land
- Malaika Gilpin – Co-Director, One Art Community Center
- Sonia Galiber and Kirtrina Baxter – Soil Generation
- Charlyn Griffith, artist & founder, Wholistic Art and Soil Generation
- Vanessa García Polanco, Community Sustainability at Michigan State University.
- Chris Bolden Newsome, Farm Manager, Bartram’s Community Farm & Food Resource Center
- Owen Taylor, TrueLove Seeds
- Tracy Lerman, Executive Director, Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
- Jenna Hansroth, President, Morgan County Association of Food and FarmsWV
- Cristina Martinez, worker, owner and chef of South Philly Barbacoa
- Niaz Dorry, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition
Where to Watch
You can watch this episode on your local WORLD channel at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, November 21, or on your local PBS station.
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Click here to watch online on YouTube. The episode will be made available at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, November 21.
– We practice here what’s called natural agriculture. I want everyone to try it on and say natural agriculture.
– Natural agriculture.
– People have been growing food in cities and urban spaces for decades. And a lot of those people look like me.
– We come here under the patronage of Mother Fannie Lou Hamer.
– People see food as something so menial. Something so insignificant.
– Land bank, hear our call, 6% is way too small
– Urban agriculture is not a hobby, it is an act of resilience.
– The story of the future of food is the future of us.
– It’s all coming up on the Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. On this week’s show, food justice. A new way of thinking about the most basic stuff of life. What do we grow? What should we grow? How do we grow it? Where? And who gets to decide all this? When we actually begin to think about food as a system, it soon becomes obvious that it is as political and socially important a topic as there is. In this program, you’ll meet some farmers, workers, organizers, and seed keepers who seldom get much attention from the mass media. Not surprisingly, they don’t look or sound like what some people have come to expect. Then we’ll take you to Soul Fire Farm and visit with Leah Penniman, author of the groundbreaking book titled, “Farming While Black.” This is the Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Welcome.
– 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 towards 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. So that’s why we had the urban farm tour earlier today.
– All right so welcome to the farm. Come on in. We practice here what’s called natural agriculture. I want everyone to try it on and say natural agriculture.
– Natural agriculture.
– Sankofa is from an Akan phrase which means there’s nothing wrong with going back and fetching what you left behind. This community garden features beds, and each bed you see represents at least one, maybe more, families in the neighborhood. I restrict it to Southwest Philadelphia for the most part.
– Seed keeping very much follows in line with the idea behind Sankofa in that when we’re keeping seeds, were keeping pieces of our ancestors. We’re kinda giving respect to those that came before us, looking back into time. But we’re also looking forward. Truelove Seeds is a seed company, and we focus on preserving culturally important seeds to the farmers that grow them. And we collaborate with farmers across the country who are keeping seeds of their place and of their communities and of their ancestors.
– The seeds are, in many cases, what we have left of some of the most important aspects of our culture. Having a tangible and consumable and replicable piece of who we are and who our ancestors are means really the world to a people who have been repeatedly dispossessed and repeatedly moved around. Seed keeping is keeping the physical seed, but it’s also really, really holding the story and holding the power around it. And that takes people and that takes continuity. And I think, particularly in my experience in the North, many African-Americans have lost that connection because our elders haven’t talked about it, or we’ve just become too busy and distracted with another form of life. And I think we’re seeing the devastating results of that disconnection, both from our spiritual practice and from our cultural traditions, which are absolutely dependent on our food and our old folks.
– 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 wanna shift the focus away from that and towards eliminating food apartheid, making sure that people who… We’re 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 that we’re all in. 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 systems work we’re trying to lift up and move forward.
– We 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 100% sustainable, and we wanna show people of color coming together and creating community, 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. This was going to be an earth ship, and if you don’t know about earth ships, really cool, 100% sustainable, completely off the grid. Everything including the waste is processed throughout the house. So we have multiple classes that happen weekly, and again, everything’s geared towards healing, but we don’t limit what types of classes that we have as long as it’s positive and uplifting, we work with the communities. If we have a teacher who wants to teach martial arts, then we’re teaching martial arts. And so we have a diverse programming happening during the week. We also will have workshops during over a weekend period of time, and then we also do a lot of events in our outdoor space as well as our indoor spaces. Creating safe space is really important. And what we find is that people are just… They’re brought in together, and we don’t do a lot of marketing at all. People just come because they know that, or they’ve heard they’re going to experience something wonderful here.
– 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.
– End the tax abatement.
– 6% is way too small.
– Over the last two years or about a year and a half ago, we started seeing a lot of our gardens being pushed into sheriff’s sale. So what we understood is that there’s already an issue with our gardens, generally, I would say about roughly 80% of gardens and farms that are in the 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 actual legal permission to be there. And what happened in this city because gentrification picked up, development picked up, the last few years, places where folks have been gardening for over sometimes 30 years, have been pushed into sheriff’s sale when that has not been a problem before. We knew that we had to do something to stop that. We wanna tell them today, we’re gonna hear some stories about some folks who’ve lost their land, some folks whose land is constantly threatened, and also some folks who just wanna be down, who understand the cause and they’re down, right? So we’re gonna give ’em our ear for a little while and listen to some stories and give ’em a lot of love, all right?
– A land bank, the land bank we have here was held as this bridge between community and the city, right? Because land relationships between the city and the community have been for a long time, really bad. And so the land bank was supposed to be this thing that came in and it was gonna solve all the problems. So what we’re seeing is that when this is supposed to be, because based on the law there should be a transparent process, we don’t know who the land is going to. There is land apparently going through the land bank, but it’s definitely not going to the folks that I know have been asking about it. So we know that we have to fight the land bank until they start responding to us. We appreciate the fact that we have a land bank, if the land bank will work for us.
– You know, 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 and 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.
– 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 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 got more involved in doing the thing, all of a sudden, there’s a white face on what’s happening. But we 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. And let’s hope that our city council listens to that. ♪ Sing a song ♪ ♪ Full of the hope that the present ♪ ♪ Has brought us ♪ ♪ Facing the rising… ♪
– 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 asked them about the many forms their work is taking.
– 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, 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, an analysis, 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 work. 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.
– Well, many people, many people in our generation, they care deeply about food. And sometimes I see mostly youth of color that care more about food because they have experienced food insecurity. They may be have eaten free and reduced lunch, or they have even had to use food stamps, and they get more impacted to this need to connect with the land and the lived landscape because they may be from minority groups or from an immigrant background like myself. Most immigrants, their first job when they land into this country is in the food system. So it’s like we have so much power in the industry and so much labor force that we bring into the food system. So I just want some visibility. Like we are an important part of this system and we wanna be part of those conversations, we wanna be stakeholders. We are not just consumer power, we also have decision making power.
– Our county is every single student qualifies for the free and reduced meals. So our poverty rate is really high in Morgan County. So for us, it’s trying to figure out how we can get local food and healthier foods to our students, to our families that are at that low income level. That’s really one of our main focuses right now, and education and trying to work on policy around all of it so that we can get people at that poverty level the food they need.
– For me, it was really gratifying when I had to teach K to 12 kids about where food comes from, mostly from urban areas. And something that we make a distinction is that sometimes kids will call the ground, the floor, and not ground or soil. And that’s when we see a huge disconnect that many people don’t know where the food is coming from. I think that most be people see food as something so menial, something so insignificant, when it nurtures our bodies, and it’s such an important part of our economy, important parts of our lives.
– We set out in late spring on a two month tour of primarily rural communities. And the purpose of 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’re 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. And so I just wanna encourage those who have preconceived notions around what anybody feels or thinks about, whether they live in middle of New York City or in the middle of Iowa, to suspend that, because if you don’t, then we’re setting up more of what we’re experiencing right now. We need to let go of those assumptions in order to really make the systemic changes that we need to make and organize in a way that truly does build power and builds a broader base for the changes we wanna see, because they’re not that different than the changes rural communities wanna see.
– Right now we’re in a moment where people are really hungry to address this question of inequality. I think for us, we just start from the basic notion that food is a basic human right and we all deserve access to the same quality of food regardless of all of those other things that impact how we came into this world.
– Before being forced onto slave ships, Leah Penniman’s African ancestors braided seeds into their hair. Their story, like the entire story of food and farming in the U.S., is complex. A story, not just of force and extraction, but also of wisdom and liberation. A tale of practices that have intricate cultural roots. No wonder Penniman’s work, like her recent book “Farming While Black,” is dedicated to those African ancestors. An author, farmer, educator, environmental steward and rabble-rouser for food justice, Leah is the co-director of Soul Fire Farm. There, she and her colleagues grow, harvest and share food with their community as a sacred act, they say. Let’s take a look.
– No, he’s a no. 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, but we prefer to talk about food apartheid, because deserts are a natural phenomenon and racism in the food system is very unnatural. We were talking to our neighbors about it, we got a lot of encouragement to start a farm and then to do doorstep delivery in that neighborhood. So that’s how it started. There was demand for training programs that were culturally sensitive for Black and Latino folks. So we kinda developed that. I feel like we’re very much in conversation with the movement and in conversation with our community. 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. And that’s not accidental. There’s all these policies in place that are 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 land owners. In the early 1900s was the peak of Black land ownership. In the 1910 census, Black folks owned and operated about 14% 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 would be 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. It’s not so much that we are like stepping into this white, good food movement. This has always been our movement, and history has done its best job to alienate us from land and to tell us that we don’t belong and it’s not our story, but it’s always been our story. And so it’s been important for us to find those anecdotes and evidence of the strength of our people related to land and uplift them. You know, Fannie Lou Hamer’s cooperative movement is, you know, now everyone’s talking about cooperatives, but that’s not new, she was figuring out how to pool money to get kids into college and to buy a new tractor and to pay people’s burial expenses and share land and share barns a long time ago.
– And maintain the plant to age you’re gonna-
– Yes, clear the whole, all the lower leaves. So our programming has grown a lot faster than our capacity to manage it. So when we have apprentices here or when we have training groups here, they literally sleep on the floor of our house or camp out. And then when it rains, the camp-out people will come and sleep more on the floor of our house. So we are trying to expand our infrastructure so that we don’t have to turn anyone away who wants to learn how to farm and work for food justice. So this is our latest project. We did a crowdfunding campaign. We’re two thirds of the way there. Our new apprentices will be moving in in April, and that’s pretty much when the programming season starts. So we have a few months to make it happen. You know, it’s a program space and a sleeping space for folks who come for Black and Latino Farmers Immersion, for our, we have a program next year for white folks who are interested in undoing racism in the food system. So we have a lot of programs and there’s a need for comfortable, warm, dry, space. And so that’s what this area is gonna serve. We wanna be not just environmentally sustainable, but really a model of financial solvency and sustainability and justice as well. So we only do direct marketing to families. We do a farm share program where a family joins. They call it Netflix for vegetables, right? So a family joins at the beginning of the season, they make a commitment to us that they’re gonna participate for the entire 22 weeks. We make a commitment to them to give a fair share of beautiful, healthy vegetables delivered to their doorstep. We’ve sort of bound ourselves together in this way that isn’t as casual as the capitalist market would have you define economic relationships where it’s like, do I want this or do I return it? And let me go to the next store and shop around. It’s really making this commitment to one another as human beings and also to this local economy. And so I think there’s a lot that’s right in that. And we just have to figure out how to scale it up to first our institution, and then also to society as a whole. So this is the East Field because it’s east of the rest of the property. And we are planting cover crops in a half acre in this field this coming year to prepare it for vegetable production. We just plant like buckwheat and clover and all of these plants that are alchemists that are able to take air and turn it into soil. They can take nitrogen from the air and carbon from the air and turn it into organic matter. And that feeds and builds up the soil so that the following year it’ll be ready to plant. So Wendell Berry has this amazing quote, “When people ask you what you grow, tell them your main crop is the forest which you will never harvest”.
– You know, I think it’s really important that we see reflections of ourself in the movements that we’re part of, and so I remember in my earlier days of deciding to start a farm, and there wasn’t a lot of publicity for the farm, maybe there was one article that someone had written, you know, “Today’s Black farmer doesn’t look like what you think, this young woman of color, not this older weathered, Southern Black man”. And I got this call from a woman in Boston who I didn’t know, just a cold call. And she said, she just wanted to hear my voice to know that it was possible because she’s a black woman who had encountered a lot of discrimination and obstacles in trying to become a farmer, not just from the white world, but from her own family. Like how could you do this? Go backwards essentially is how it was seen. And she was completely in tears because she just needed to know it was possible. I’m really influenced by my ancestors, including my adopted Hebrew ancestors. So the Talmud teaches us that, not to be overwhelmed by the grief and despair of the world, 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.
– That’s it for this edition of the Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Thanks for watching. I hope to see you back here next week at this same time. For more on this episode and other forward thinking content and to tune into our podcast, visit our website at LauraFlanders.org and follow us on social media @TheLFshow
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