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How to End a Food Apartheid


Apartheid ended in 1994, right? Not according to Leah Penniman, a young, black farmer living in the South End of Albany, NY where a modern day apartheid is taking place. At the root of this issue? Food. Or better said, the lack of access to affordable, healthy food options in Black communities across the country – a staggeringly disproportionate number when compared to White communities.

But Leah and her team at Soul Fire Farm are working to change that.

The following is an excerpt from Farming While Black by Leah Penniman. It has been adapted for the web.

Our first order of business was feeding our community in the South End of Albany. While the government labels this neighborhood a food desert, I prefer the term food apartheid, because it makes clear that we have a human-created system of segregation that relegates certain groups to food opulence and prevents others from accessing life-giving nourishment. About 24 million Americans live under food apartheid, in which it’s difficult to impossible to access affordable, healthy food. This trend is not race-neutral. White neighborhoods have an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black communities. This lack of access to nutritious food has dire consequences for our communities. Incidences of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are on the rise in all populations, but the greatest increases have occurred among people of color, especially African Americans and Native Americans.

At Soul Fire Farm we had to invest in the soil in order for her to yield the food our community needed. Working hard to build up the marginal, rocky, sloped soils using no-till methods, we managed to create about a foot of topsoil. Into this rich, young earth, we were finally ready to plant over 80 varieties of mostly heirloom vegetables and small fruits, centering crops with cultural significance to our peoples. Once per week we harvested the bounty and boxed it up into even shares that contained 8 to 12 vegetables each, plus a dozen eggs, sprouts, and/or poultry for the members of our South End Community. The farm share was a subscription program based on the African American Kwanzaa principle of Ujamaa, meaning “cooperative economics.” As Dr. Maulana Karenga once explained, “In a world where greed, resource seizure, and plunder have been globalized with maximum technological and military power, we must uphold the principle and practice of Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) or shared work and wealth. This principle reaffirms the right to control and benefit from the resources of one’s own lands and to an equitable and just share of the goods of the world.”

Desiring to move beyond the casual and exploitative relationship between producer and consumer that capitalism celebrates, we developed long-term relationships of mutual commitment with our members. In early spring members signed up for the program and committed to spend whatever they could afford on our farm’s bounty. We used a sliding-scale model where people contributed depending on their level of income and wealth. In turn we committed to providing members with a weekly delivery of bountiful, high-quality food throughout the harvest season, which lasts 20 to 22 weeks in our climate. We delivered the boxes directly to the doorsteps of people living under food apartheid and accepted government benefits as payment, such as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This reduced the two most pressing barriers to food access: transportation and cost. Using the farm-share model, we can now feed 80 to 100 families, many of whom would not otherwise have access to life-giving food. One member told us that their family “would be eating only boiled pasta if it were not for this veggie box.”

While it was and continues to be essential for us as farmers to maintain a commitment to food access, that work alone is inadequate to address the systemic issues that led to food apartheid in the first place. Racism is built into the DNA of the US food system. Beginning with the genocidal land theft from Indigenous people, continuing with the kidnapping of our ancestors from the shores of West Africa for forced agricultural labor, morphing into convict leasing, expanding to the migrant guestworker program, and maturing into its current state where farm management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly Brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in food apartheid neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illness, this system is built on stolen land and stolen labor, and needs a redesign. We were aware that we could not solve the entire problem on our own, but neither could we cast our silent vote for the status quo through complicit non-action. We needed mentorship from our elders.

We invited veteran civil rights activist Baba Curtis Hayes Muhammad to our table to discuss the role of farmers in the movement for racial justice. “Recognize that land and food have been used as a weapon to keep Black people oppressed,” he said. “Recognize also that land and food are essential to liberation for Black people.”

Soul Fire FarmMuhammad explained the central role that Black farmers played during the civil rights movement, coordinating campaigns for desegregation and voting rights as well as providing food, housing, bail money, and safe haven for other organizers. With his resolute and care-worn eyes, immense white Afro, and hands creased with the wisdom of years, this was a man who inspired us to listen attentively so that we might stand on the shoulders of activists who had gone before.

“Without Black farmers, there would have been no Freedom Summer—in fact, no civil rights movement,” he said. He asked us, “How are you contributing to today’s movements for racial justice?”

Even as we continued to provide nourishing food to our people living under food apartheid in six Capital District neighborhoods, we knew we needed to do more. So we started to organize. We expanded our work to include youth empowerment and organizing, specifically working with court-adjudicated, institutionalized, and state-targeted youth. Arguably, the seminal civil rights issue of our time is the systemic racism permeating the criminal “justice” system. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to national attention the fact that people of color are disproportionately targeted by police stops, arrests, and police violence. And once they’re in the system, they tend to receive subpar legal representation and longer sentences, and are less likely to receive parole. The 2014 police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown were not isolated incidents, but part of a larger story of state violence toward people of color.

Black youth are well aware that the system does not value their lives. “Look, you’re going to die from the gun or you are going to die from bad food,” one young man said while visiting Soul Fire Farm. “So there is really no point.” This fatalism, a form of internalized racism, is common among Black youth. It’s a clear sign that this country needs a united social movement to rip out racism at its roots and dismantle the caste system that makes these young people unable to see that their beautiful Black lives do matter.

We started the Youth Food Justice program in our third year, aiming to liberate our young people from the criminal punishment system. Through an agreement with the Albany County courts, young people could choose to complete our on-farm training program in lieu of punitive sentencing. It was imperative that we interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that demonizes and criminalizes our youth. We felt that young people instead needed mentorship from adults with similar backgrounds, connection to land, and full respect for their humanity.

In the 50-hour training program, young people learned basic farming, cooking, and business skills. More important, they learned that they were necessary, they were valuable, and they belonged. We took our shoes off and placed our bare feet firmly on the warm earth. As we walked past the garlic field, the swallows swooping over the buckwheat flowers, the grandmothers in the ancestor realm whispered their love for us. The most hardened and defended child, who earlier asked, “What’s the point?,” began to weep. His grandmothers reached for him through the earth under his feet and reminded him that there was a point. He and his peers found meaning in tending the crops that would feed their communities back home, and teaching adults the skills they had garnered. They sat in a circle and analyzed the brokenness of the criminal punishment system, compiling necessary policy changes that would be championed by the New York State Prisoner Justice Network. They made bows and arrows in the forest, threw stones in the pond, and allowed themselves some laughter.

“My original charge was loitering, and then once I was in the system, everything got harder and started getting out of control,” shared one young man on the first day of the program. As others spoke, we learned that his story was not unique—in fact, most of the young men’s first arrests had been for loitering. I shared with the group that loitering laws were part of the vagrancy statutes included in the Black Codes. These were laws written to control and re-enslave the Black population after Reconstruction, a set of policies that followed the Civil War. Some things have not changed.

We agreed with the position of Malcolm X in his “Message to the Grass Roots,” a speech he delivered in 1963. “Revolution is based on land,” he said. “Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” We saw the Youth Food Justice Program as an opportunity for these young men to heal relationships with their communities, the land, and themselves, as well as to recognize their potential to be agents of change in society.people in greenhouse

However, it was not enough for young people to simply feel connected to land. We knew the land and belonged to the land, but the land did not belong to us. Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives put it simply: “Land is the only real wealth in this country and if we don’t own any then we’re out of the picture.”

Brutal racism—maiming, lynching, burning, deportation, economic violence, legal violence— ensured that our roots would not spread deeply and securely. In 1910, at the height of Black landownership, 16 million acres of farmland—14 percent of the total—was owned and cultivated by Black families. Now less than 1 percent of farms are Black-owned.

Our Black ancestors were forced, tricked, and scared off land until 6.5 million of them migrated to the urban North in the largest migration in US history. This was no accident. Just as the US government sanctioned the slaughter of buffalo to drive Native Americans off their land, so did the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Housing Administration deny access to farm credit and other resources to any Black person who joined the NAACP, registered to vote, or signed any petition pertaining to civil rights. When Carver’s methods helped Black farmers be successful enough to pay off their debts, their white landlords responded by beating them almost to death, burning down their houses, and driving them off their land.

According to the think tank Race Forward, even today, Blacks, Latinx, and Indigenous people working in the food system are more likely than whites to earn lower wages, receive fewer benefits, and live without access to healthy food.

Owning our own land, growing our own food, educating our own youth, participating in our own health care and justice systems—this is the source of real power and dignity.

Our Black ancestors and contemporaries have always been leaders in the sustainable agriculture and food justice movements, and continue to lead. It is time for us all to listen.


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Farming While Black

Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land


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