If I were to say the word ‘gardener’ what mental image would pop into your head? Maybe an elderly person or a Susie homemaker of sorts? Well today that stereotype is breaking down with the growing “local/organic food movement”; more and more young people and urban hipsters (think plaid, tight jeans, and bicycles) are beginning to grow their own food, build their own local food systems and advocate for healthy, organically grown food. So now the word ‘gardener’ or ‘urban farmer’ may make you think of that young Midwestern dude turned New York hipster, or the blond-haired, blue-eyed young Susie homemaker with tattoos down her arm. This is all wonderful for our generation and for the future of our food system, but in my intimate exploration of this movement I can see one glaring problem.
Where are all the brown folk? And the poor folk? It’s obvious to me that there are key people being left out (people that are getting the short end of the stick in our food system with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and absolutely zero Whole Foods in their neighborhoods, much less any decent grocery stores).
Brown people and poor people are not showing up in your mental images of urban farming, gardening or composting. Yet it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not taking part in that lifestyle. I think there are a few factors at work with this problem.
For one, people forget that growing food and reusing waste is more a part of many Indigenous, African, Caribbean, and Latin American cultures than it is of the everyday urban American culture. This trend is new to many city or suburban-dwelling Americans of this generation, while other cultures have already been living sustainably. In my work with East New York Farms! in east Brooklyn I am seeing that the predominant populations of Afro-Caribbean and Latino Americans have been growing food on empty lots of the neighborhood or in their backyards for decades. They have more community gardens than anywhere else in New York and are introducing crops from their native countries, teaching youth to get involved and eating healthily. Yet when reading about the food movement in New York, I could barely find any information on this beautiful and diverse community-driven effort. If these small efforts were given more attention, I think the faces representing the local food movement could be very different.
Also, the mainstream media, as usual, tends to cover more of the trendy, mainstream pockets of progressive movements and leaves out those that may be a bit more hidden, a bit more of a patchwork, or – to be frank – are led by brown people. This is an unfortunate truth and while it is of course not always the case, it proves true the majority of the time. In my search for articles and blog posts about urban farms sprouting up across this country, I am always happy to see the projects led by minorities getting a bit of coverage here and there, but they are few and far between. The majority are just covering innovative growing ideas and new projects that are wonderful but will only benefit those that can afford to shop at the Whole Foods around the corner. We are not seeing enough media coverage on the projects that are focused on growing food for those that only have liquor stores and 7-Elevens on the corner.
Finally, the last problem is that there are just not enough brown and poor people involved in these projects. The lack of attention given to the agriculturally-focused communities of color is definitely to blame for the lack of people in that community getting involved. Would you want to join a movement that seemed like it was only for people that were unlike yourself?? I think another reason the food and urban farming movement is lacking brown faces is because this work has a long association with working for the benefit of white folks. Malik Yakini, the Director of the Black Food Security Network in Detroit, says it best:
“One of the challenges of organizing African-Americans for this work is that many of our people associate agriculture with enriching someone else … slavery and sharecropping enriched whites with our labor,” he said. “What [we need to do] is reframe agriculture for African Americans as an act of self-determination and empowerment.”
We need more visions of brown people farming. This doesn’t mean others’ work in this movement is pointless, but when it comes to changing our food system, the people most impacted need to be leading the charge. So if you are a person of color or of a certain economic class in this movement, spread your message far and wide to inspire others like you. If you are not, then – as I once heard Malik say – your goal in this movement should be to work yourself out of a job and empower those communities you are working in to take over and lead the way to a just and healthy food system.
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