By Nichelle Harriott, policy specialist and DC EcoWomen member
I remember a time, growing up in a small rural community in the Caribbean, where my grandfather would disappear into the backyard on Sunday for about an hour and return with a chicken– dead and defeathered– for my grandmother to prepare for lunch. Back then your eggs, peas, and even orange juice came from the backyard. And, if for some reason you didn’t have enough, you called your neighbor over the fence.
These were my first impressions of food and how we eat. Food was not about driving to the grocery store, examining labels, or wondering whether you should pay the extra $2 for the organic version. I may be showing my age here, but while my childhood experience may be from another generation, our food system has changed. Drastically.
Food deserts abound in poorer communities, especially communities of color who, now removed from living in close cooperation with the land — like my grandparents did, fight the challenges of distance and decreasing paychecks to put fresh, healthy foods on their tables. These communities face very real food insecurity challenges that tend to go ignored.
Our diets have also changed. Indigenous varieties of corn, once in shades of black, red or blue have been replaced by yellow– the color corporate agriculture has decided we should prefer. Not only that, but this corn is genetically engineered to resist the pesticides we spray on fields, killing beneficial insects, and poisoning our waterways. Instead of chickens running in open backyards, like those at my grandparent’s house, thousands are crammed into tiny holding cages, often unable to walk and fed antibiotic and hormone-laced grain until they become so large and deformed that they cannot stand.
Let’s face it. The way we grow food and feed our families has changed. And while we are told large monoculture fields, factory farms, intensive chemical application, and corporate takeover of our seed banks is the way we will feed a growing global population, we are beginning to see the ravages industrial agriculture places on our environment and farmworker health.
However, there are sustainable ways we can grow our food system, put healthy foods on our tables, eliminate food deserts, and take pride in the stewardship of the land. Taking the lead are often small beginning farmers, many of whom are farmers of color returning to the ways our grandparents farmed with a few tweaks of their own. These farmers, along with farmer-led organizations that support them, are building collaborative networks in their communities integrating sustainable food production that enhances the environment and social health of people, while improving safe handling, distribution, and consumption of the food they produce.
African-American, Latinx, Native-American, Hmong farmers and others are finding ways to reintroduce indigenous varieties of fresh and healthy food back into their communities. These farmers are building their skills, training other farmers, focusing on building healthy soil, conserving water, and providing habitat for wildlife. They are in rural and urban communities, in food hubs, farmer’s markets, community gardens. They are involved with groups like the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGS), bringing together farmers of color, educators, chefs and food justice advocates around conversations like, “Where does our food come from and who provides it?” and “Why don’t we see more Black farmers at the farmer’s markets?”
Unfortunately, at the national level, these farmers are often overlooked for federal funding to expand and retain their operations. For many years, federal policies did not grant the levels of support to farmers of color as they did to their white counterparts. This inequity has historically led farmers of color — often cash-strapped and unable to access credit or pay back loans — to lose their farms, pushing them out of business.
But things are changing and many organizations like the
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Rural Coalition, and others, are working on policy to increase farmers of color’s access to agriculture research and funding to sustain their farms. In December 2018, Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, the piece of legislation that oversees much of U.S. agriculture. There are some significant improvements to programs that support agriculture research for organic and sustainable systems, which will help beginning, underserved/farmers of color, and veteran farmers. These improvements include more funding for training and support. With new funds, these farmers will be able to get the support they need and help feed their communities.
The diversity of what we eat should be reflected by diversity in our food system and the farmers and workers who put food on our tables. A movement of farmers of color are primed to do just that while challenging our relationship with food. Will you join us?
Learn more about these farmers and organizations. Support sustainable food systems that also fight for food justice for all. Recommended Resources: Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGS) https://www.blackurbangrowers.org/; National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition http://sustainableagriculture.net/; Rural Coalition https://www.ruralco.org/
Nichelle Harriott has spent 10+ years working to educate consumers about the food they eat and advance environmental health and agriculture policy. She is currently a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and lives in Maryland where she plans her next travels.