Farm-to-Table in Communities of Color

Yuppie-style food activism gets more complicated in communities where farming comes with historical baggage.

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

"Why would I want to go back to picking cotton?" That's one response you get when you talk to young people of color about farming and food sovereignty, says D.C. farmer and food activist Natasha Bowens. Yet food sovereignty is of vital importance in the broader context of social justice. According to a report by The Applied Research Center, 10 percent of black and Latino families lack access to adequate food--"three times the rate for white households." And while about a third of whites live in an area with a supermarket, only 8 percent of blacks do.

Bowens, author of the blog Brown Girl Farming and founder of The Color of Food, a directory of farmers of color, didn't start out in agriculture. She had never set foot on a farm. But after working at a D.C. think tank on issues related to food, she says, "I was interested in knowing where my food came from." She quit her job to devote herself full-time to farming and food justice. Focusing on communities of color affected by "the broken food system," as she puts it, Bowens worked her way through Detroit, Chicago, and Brooklyn, founding The Color of Food after meeting and talking with Farms to Grow founder Gail Myers at the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference in 2010. Bowens wanted to go a step further than simply identifying and listing farmers of color across the country. So she hit the road for five months to speak in person with more than 60 farmers of African American, Native American, Asian, and Latino descent.

What she expected to see were "farmers waiting on support from the government." When it comes to funding, black farmers receive about one-third or less than what other farmers receive, which has resulted, Gail Myers points out, in black farmers losing their land. In fact, this asymmetry led a group of black farmers to sue the USDA for damages, claiming discriminatory treatment. The farmers agreed to a settlement, and in 1999, over 15,000 claimants received restitutions. Soon afterward, Native American, Latino, and female farmers stepped forward with their own civil rights lawsuits against the USDA. Discriminatory lending has cost the federal government billions in settlements.

But while the USDA continues to try to make amends for its institutional racism and sexism, Bowens says, "I was really inspired by folks not waiting around." Instead, they were "stepping outside of the obstacles and the structural racism" to create the organizations and mentorship programs that they needed. They were claiming ownership of their land and food, which is precisely what the modern term "food sovereignty" means.

She met Cynthia Hayes of Savannah, Georgia, who runs the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON). This African American grassroots organization trains and mentors black farmers in organic growing, not only to promote sustainable farming, but also to help these farmers of color yield more crops and preserve their land. Bowens also met Sará Reynolds Green of Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. Green lives on a farm that has been in her family for over a century, where she teaches African-American youth the value of getting back to the land and growing their own food.

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Grace Bello is a copywriter and freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's, Nerve.com, BUST, The Hairpin, USA Today's Pop Candy, and more. She performed in the improv comedy troupe Wizard Sleeve.

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