Why Urban Agriculture Should Be Important to Black People

“Black people growing food on a farm is too much like slavery.” – anonymous

Unfortunately some African Americans have said this or perhaps they thought it and didn’t say it; either way the results are the same. Why do black people need urban agriculture yo? Is it relevant? Is it practical? Why should black people be immensely involved in the currently explosion of urban agriculture going on throughout the country? I want to take a couple minutes to give my brief opinionated but informed take on why I think urban agriculture should be important to people of African descent in American cities.

Many black and Latino people live in food deserts. A food desert is an area that has limited access to healthy fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables. Basically this is a place where there aren’t any major grocery stores within a mile or more with a vibrant affordable produce section. There may be a plethora of bodegas and convenience stores with candy, chips, soda and Ramen noodles for sale though. The issues of food security has even been brought to the national stage by Michelle Obama citing the inaccessibility of fresh fresh fruit and veggies as one of the reasons for many diet related illnesses that plague the African American community. She even started a “People’s Garden” on the White House lawn; taking special time to note that it was organic.

Didn’t mama teach you to eat your veggies? According to Policylink; nationwide study findings show low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer chain supermarkets and 1.3 times as many convenience stores compared to middle-income zip codes. Predominantly black zip codes have about half the number of chain supermarkets compared to predominantly white zip codes, and predominantly Latino areas have only a third as many. Well what if there aren’t any vegetables at your local bodega to buy? If your are eligible for the SNAP program you can purchase seeds to start your own veggie plants but what if the SNAP program ended tomorrow and next months EBT card update didn’t happen? What do you do? Maybe join a community garden to grow your own food? Grow veggies on your balcony? Windowsill? In your backyard? . All it takes is water, soil, sunlight and love! I know it sounds cliche, but taking care of a plant requires time, attention and care much like any loving relationship. I mean its either that or you wait for some savvy investor to convince a grocery store to move into your community.

Its all about nutrition though. Access to healthy foods means I can get to the vegetables and I can prepare a healthy dinner for my family. But even with access many people in our community have lost the traditional recipes and culinary arts that our grandmothers and great grandmothers made famous. Many foods found in overabundance in American kitchens nowadays are fast food, high fat, fried in corn oil, quick pop it in the microwave, heat it up in the stove right quick but with black people leading the line in diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer and obesity; perhaps it is time to shift away from processed foods and soul food and get closer to whole food. Growing your own veggies makes you wanna prepare them, try out new recipes and learn new ways to diversify your palate. Plus it is important to know where your food comes from. The food that is best for you nutritionally is the food that took the shortest time to get off the vine to your plate. Also by growing it yourself you ensure there aren’t any harmful hormone imbalancing, cancer causing pesticides or herbicides in it. You also avoid the risk of eating more GMO foods that have not had any long term studies to prove they are safe for human consumption.

Another reason is for economic empowerment. For the more passionate community gardener who may have had an overabundance in cabbage; have no fear! You can make green by growing greens! There are farmers markets (or you can start a farm stand in your neighborhood) available to get rid of your fresh veggies and put some money in your pocket at the same time. There has been an explosion of the last ten years in the demand for local foods that are organic and produced sustainably. Get hip enough and start accepting SNAP benefits in your community to sell veggies. According to the USDA 48 million people in the USA use snap benefits to feed their families. If you live in a low income community or a food desert I am sure there are more than a couple people within a mile radius of you who face the same difficulty finding fresh veggies just like you who may not have time to grow their own food but will be willing to purchase from someone who does. Insert economic empowerment opportunity here:_____________. The Black Panther Party connected with the black community through its free breakfast programs and social change organizations would do well by connecting to the community using fresh veggies in similar ways.

Growing food together brings the community together in a very real way. Living in urban environments can be stifling and disconnecting especially in our fast paced highly technological world. We are so connected to the cell phone, tablet, laptop and iPod that we hardly smile and make eye contact with our neighbors anymore. Nothing quenches that communal thirst for convo than walking outside to the garden, especially if you have children. The sharing of seeds, trading produce, learning tips for how to grow and prepare veggies that were grown along with helping one another become successful in our growing efforts is great for cohesive bonding not to mention just plain ole getting to know one another. Gardens and urban farms create a meeting space for interactivity between old and young, which is something we need more of in the black community. Also community gardens are excellent areas for teen programs to give our youth something to do that actually serves a purpose for the empowerment of the community that can give them a sense of purpose, and we definitely need more of that too.

Its good for the planet to grow food locally. The industrial agriculture business has wreaked havoc on our planet introducing pesticides and herbicides to our air, water supply, soils and bodies. Our reliance on food imported from other countries puts a strain on fossil fuels through their use to ship food from thousands of miles away to grocery stores that may not even be close to our community. Meanwhile we have thousands of vacant lots and abandoned buildings in our neighborhoods and cities that go idle and unused. By growing food locally we cut back on the use of gas and oil needed to move trucks on the highway that constantly emit pollution in the air. We also cut back on our use of plastics and other waste that end up in our oceans and landfills due to the food not needed to be boxed up and sealed for freshness for weeks until it gets to our tables. With the rise of genetically modified food, a result of the mono-cultural methods we use, humans run the risk of upsetting the balance of life in the ecosystem at great harm to other living things, not to mention ourselves. We all have to live on the planet and we want it to be in better shape than what we found it. Also, we want our communities to look nice and beautiful and more green plants growing that are productive and bringing life to our urban centers; the more connected we become to our planet. And we definitely need more of that.

African and Indigenous people of the Americas have a historic affinity toward agriculture. The earliest civilizations found in Africa and the Americas are distinguished by their development of deliberate methods of organized crop cultivation. Indigenous ethnic groups in the Americas taught European colonizers how to cultivate crops. The European slave trade depended on enslaved Africans who knew how to grow and cultivate crops in tropical and semi-tropical climates. The combination of the success (read survival) of those early colonists in combination with the immense amount of profit grossed from unpaid African labor is the what made European countries the wealthiest on the planet. However the agricultural traditions that sustained African and Indigenous cultures over millennium have been loss, by and large a result of the rise western civilization, resultant cultural ambiguity and mass urbanization of what had once been rural societies. It is time we go back to the beginning and bring those traditions to the forefront so that we can build a brighter tomorrow for our children sake.

Duron Chavis is a community activist and founder of Richmond Noir Market, McDonough Community Garden and Happily Natural Day. He is the father of 3 sons and lives in Richmond Virginia.

Racial Equity is Integral to Our Social Eco-System

In the early 18th Century the formal system we currently use for identifying plant and fauna was developed by a Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Linnaeus. Known as the father of taxonomy, Linnaeus developed a system for the naming, ranking and classifying organisms that is still used to this day. The legacy of his work is seen in binomial nomenclature; the first part of the descriptor describing the genus of the species and the second part identifying the species within the genus. An example of this is found in Homo sapiens; Homo being the genus and sapiens being the species. Flower lovers may resonate with the Strelitzia reginae otherwise known as the bird of paradise.

Linnaeus is also known for his classification of human beings into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus and Europeaeus. Prior to Linnaeus; classification was hardly what one could describe as scientific as most scholars of that time leaned toward Biblical or philosophical explanations of race. The idea that the human race would be broken into a racial hierarchy in Linnaeus’s description was problematic; ascribing negative traits such as lazy, stubborn, careless to groups other than of European origin while attributing his own European ancestry with adjectives such as gentle and inventive. Linnaeus’s classification exists as one of the first examples of scientific racism we see in contemporary history and just like his work with taxonomy; we live with the repercussions of this myth to this day.

Scientific racism is the use of scientific or pseudoscientific hypotheses and techniques to justify the belief in one group being qualitatively better than another group on the basis of the amount of melanin in their epidermis and the subsequent myth of a racial hierarchy that people of European ancestry belonged at the top; with all other people groups being inferior. The pseudoscientific ideas racial inferiority of any groups non-white held by leading European scholars and academics would then evolve into individual behavior, institutional policy and global worldview. The myth of white racial superiority served as an incubator of institutionalized systems of oppression that would benefit people of European ancestry to the detriment of cultures of indigenous ancestry for generations to come.

There is no coincidence that the myth of racial superiority would rise to prominence during the time that people of European ancestry would first encounter people of color throughout the world. The myth would then be used to justify enslavement, discrimination, colonization and the theft of indigenous lands, genocide, and erasure of cultural norms and ways of life. Despite current science having disproven the myth of a racial hierarchy; as a society we have yet to fully come to terms with its effects and repercussions and how the disparities we experience in the form of racial inequity are a direct result of an institutionalized falsehood – that people of European ancestry are better than every other group of people on the planet.

Racism is a human phenomenon that permeates our social eco-system. We tend to consider pollutants to our physical ecosystem of high levels of concern particularly when they are in our immediate environment. The health of our eco-system is quantified by the health of the individuals found within it. Racism as a toxic pollutant to our ecosystem on an individual human to human level looks like violence, racial slurs and discriminatory practices that cause harm for no reason other than a person shows up with less or more melanin than another. Racism on a systemic level shows up in policies; laws, and allocation of resources to specific groups on the basis of how much melanin they are born with. The myth of racial superiority has created disparities in health between communities of color and people of European ancestry with the latter literally living longer lives at higher states of wellness than the former.

According to Dr. David Williams; “Racial groups with a long history characterized by economic exploitation, social stigmatization, and geographic marginalization have markedly elevated levels of poor health outcomes”. Dr. Williams is Professor of Public Health and African American Studies at Harvard University and an expert in the socio-economic determinants of health. In his presentation to Hope in the Cities’ Community Trustbuilding Fellowship Class of 2014; Dr. Williams explained that segregation; discrimination, institutional racism, internalized racism and the psychological effects of being exposed to racism all serve as mechanisms for the perpetuation of disparities along the lines of race. One study showed that across virtually every therapeutic intervention, ranging from high technology procedures to the most elementary forms of diagnostic and treatment interventions, minorities receive fewer procedures and poorer quality medical care than whites even differences in health insurance, SES, stage and severity of disease, co-morbidity, and the type of medical facility are taken into account

As we reel from the chaos and confusion of Donald Trump as president of the United States; we are forced to confront the endemic toxicity of racism in our social eco-system. The idea that people of European ancestry being better than any other community of lineages on the planet has created systems of oppression that manifest themselves in the health and well-being of people of color. Despite our public abhorrence towards racial slurs and violence; the systemic mechanisms that create racial disparities are often overlooked while they perpetuate the legacy of inequity that those before us fought against. In the looming shadow of xenophobia that heralds our current administration; it is our responsibility to identify how racism has permeated the fabric of our social reality and not only expose it for the myth that it is; but also develop a remedy for its lingering after-effect.

Duron Chavis is an urban farmer and activist from Richmond Virginia. He serves as Community Engagement Coordinator of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden