Scholarship and Activism Help Cultivate Community Farming Movement

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by Katti Gray

Just weeks after the three crop-yielding hoop greenhouses went up on the backside of one of Northeast Baltimore’s  battered, but still striving, Black high schools, vandals struck.

“A troubled kid. Somebody who probably doesn’t know what was going on in here,” says John Ciekot, executive director of Civic Works, the nonprofit human services and youth development organization that erected the year-round, tunnel-shaped greenhouses eight months ago.

After postulating a reason for the destruction at the site of what’s officially known as Real Food Farm, Ciekot makes what he believes is the more essential point. His six-person paid staff and the neighborhood and high school volunteers who are the sweat and sinews behind the greenhouses kicked right back in. They repaired the plastic sheeting, which drapes steel molding. They kept tending that canopied dirt, delighting that it delivered back to them edibles not readily found in the area and definitely not at prices affordable for many in what is a mixed-income but disproportionately poor section of the harbor-side city.

Red romaine, green romaine, mache and oak leaf lettuces, frisee, micro greens, New Zealand spinach, radicchio, escarole, arugula, mizuna, Easter egg radishes, white turnips, mustard greens, Swiss chard, collard, kale, squash, cucumber, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, snap peas — all are organically produced under the 12-foot high, 20-foot wide and 150-foot long hoop houses. They sit atop what eventually will be six farmed acres outside Lake Clifton High School where students helped to sell the more than 1,000 pounds of produce yielded thus far and are experiencing a reorientation of their taste buds and food know-how at a site that is one in a nexus of communities of color joining the grow-your-own food movement.

“They’re used to eating, I guess, iceberg,” says Jazmin Simmons, after leading some Lake Clifton students on a greenhouse tour in early May. “Our lettuce has these reddish leaves and is very vibrant in color. They weren’t sure what it was, so we explained to them that it was lettuce, that it’s organic. Now they’re running through school knowing what organic means, what mustard really tastes like. It is really nice to see that.”

In Baltimore, as elsewhere, a comparative lack of grocery stores with a wide menu of healthful choices is helping fuel urban — and sometimes small-town — back-to-the-land initiatives whose adherents, until now, had been largely White and/or fairly well-to-do. Increasingly, though, they also are hailing from the neighborhoods where poor nutrition is at the root of chronic health problems and at a time when health-care costs are fodder for policy debate. From MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee Will Allen’s non-gated farm in Milwaukee to the New Orleans Food and Farm Network urban fields to the organic garden that Southern University’s sustainable agriculture researchers helped establish at an Opelousas, La., homeless shelter, activity around who gets fed and what they eat is surging.

Last month, Paul Quinn College in Dallas announced that its Food for Good Farm will cover the campus’ former football field, becoming a site for teaching, food delivery and farm-related business development. And at least a half-dozen HBCUs are among campuses, affiliated with the 218-member Association of Public and Land-grant Universities that are running community gardens, university farms, community-assisted agriculture (CSA) food retailing and similar farm-to-table projects.

 

Agricultural Divide

These are welcome events for many agronomists, food researchers and food activists, but it is a change not without its own degree of handwringing over how to convince more minorities and the less well-off that this is the way to go, while also pushing for more diversity in the so-called urban farming revolution.

“As a people, we have something of a disconnect and are deeply ambivalent over our involvement in agriculture,” says Dr. Owusu Bandele, a retired professor of sustainable agriculture and animal production at the Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. “A lot of people equate this with slavery, despite the fact that Black people, around 1910, had 15 million acres of farmland.” (The tally now hovers under 3 million, with the decline attributed to a mixture of private-land theft, personal bad luck and government malfeasance still being hashed out in class-action lawsuits.)

Those facts are not lost on Detroit food activist Malik Yakini, a presenter at a first-of-its-kind summit on urban farming at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus in March. It is advisable, he adds, to couch today’s urban-farming movement within a history of Black land loss or other race- and class-based inequities. Those losses, he contends, have taken a kind of psychological toll; people who are used to buying pork rinds at the corner bodega but no fresh fruit begin to think that’s normal and harmless.

“In many ways we see this food work broadly as being a catalyst and model for work in other areas of social justice,” says Yakini, founder of the Detroit Food Security Network, which runs a two-acre farm in the heart of Detroit, where 83 percent of the estimated 808,398 residents are Black, according to the Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey, and whole swaths of Black neighborhoods have been identified as food deserts.

“What oppression like that does is instill a sort of hopelessness until the light bulb goes off in people’s heads. If we can control our own food sources, maybe we can make our own clothes and run our own schools and be more self-determining in general,” says Yakini, the founder and principal of the Cheikh Anta Diop University Preparatory Academy, where students maintain an organic garden.

Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, a community food systems researcher at Wayne State University, also was a panelist at the University of Michigan’s March gathering. “There is an increasing recognition that food is an extremely important sector of community life,” says Pothukuchi, who trained initially as an architect and urban planner.

As a point of scholarship and activism, urban farming is finding its way, she says. For example, Pothukuchi argues, the term food desert is evocative but also a misnomer.

“Deserts themselves are a rich ecology,” she says. “They are not barren. And in terms of looking at urban planning, the term sometimes ignores the potential of urban areas to feed themselves. It negates the potential for improvement. It creates a black-and-white concept and doesn’t allow for a sense of emergence.”

Urban farming is bound to have its variations. One project, Detroit Fresh, is pairing local growers with corner grocers in communities where residents lack private transportation or available, affordable public transit to larger supermarkets outside their neighborhoods. In part, Detroit Fresh operates with the understanding that mom-and-pop corner stores aren’t as deeply pocketed as chain supermarkets and not every neighborhood resident will have the wherewithal or means to grow their own but they, nonetheless, can have access to good food.

“What we’re doing,” Pothukuchi says, “is knitting back together those elements of a food system in communities where those systems dried up and disappeared.”

 

Living Off the Land

“Twenty-five years ago, it seemed as if everyone had a little garden plot,” says Milagro Berhane, a senior researcher at Southern University’s agricultural center. “You don’t see that as much in the urban setting anymore because food got so cheap that many people stopped growing their own. The sad fact is that 3-for-$1 canned food simply doesn’t have the same nutritional value.”

That reality helps drive the agricultural center’s grow-your-own outreach, which encourages everything from container planting by people with limited outdoor space to communal gardens like the one Southern helped set up in Opelousas.

“Our main thing is to reach low-income communities through community gardens, schools (and) churches,” says Berhane, whose family farms three acres in Baton Rouge’s city limits. “We teach them everything from preparing the soil to irrigation to being kind to the environment.”

“It’s an emerging activity,” says Paul Hassen, spokesman for the land grant college’s association, which lists North Carolina State A&T, Alabama A&M and Virginia State among universities that have launched farm-to-table projects. “It all falls into the effort to look at sustainable farming, local farming as institutions adopt those ideals to their locations. It really becomes an effort, determined college by college, as they look at how to invest in their locations and the needs in their regions.”

As they do, Baltimore’s Real Food Farm aims to sustain itself by making community education and sustainable jobs hallmarks of its efforts as it yields a projected 150,000 pounds of food annually. Heritage High student Qunate Thomas, one of the hoop house volunteers, says he is proud to share that vision, which has inspired his own dreams. “I’m here learning because I’d like to be a chef someday,” he says.

It’s the sort of aspiration Ciekot likes to hear. “If we can find a way to work with our future as well as our deep past then we’ve done something that’s truly about betterment of community … and reflects some profound discoveries about ways of putting simple, elegant food on the family table.”

“So much of the answer,” says Bandele, who used to run his own eight-acre organic farm, “is trying to bring about a comprehensive change in people’s mindsets, starting with our youth, so that whole communities begin to understand that they can afford to eat well. This is part of our history, being connected to the land in sustainable ways. George Washington Carver was advocating composting, crop rotation (and) cutting down on erosion. We’ve got to get back to that richness.”

“We come from sharecropping,” says Baltimore’s Joyce Smith, noting that fraught period during which Blacks, nevertheless, learned valuable lessons in farm production. Smith, an Open Society Institute Fellow in urban farming who has assisted Johns Hopkins University researchers on diet-related health disparities, adds, “If we can reacquaint the community with the value in all this, we will get the buy-in that will make that difference in people’s day-to-day lives.”

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