Posts Tagged ‘Color of food’

The interviews, pictures and abundant information gathered from farmers of color this spring and summer are underway to be transplanted and transformed into the Color of Food book.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about making all that work possible, over the next estimated year, while trying to keep my own head above water.

For the past two years I’ve been making my way, trading farm work for room and board, working odd jobs, living off my minuscule savings and taking the occasional open couch invitation from family and friends. All because I have been driven to dig.

An insatiable hunger for digging into the food system has consumed me. Digging my hands into the soil; digging into the lives of our forgotten farmers; digging down into the true meaning of community, sovereignty and justice; and digging underneath the many layers of ugliness, intertwined with resilient beauty, which comprise our agricultural system.

The journey it’s led me on is comprised of its own layers; layers of success and excitement along with those of worry and hard times.

With the state we’re in today, it’s no secret that society puts value on the wrong things. Hardly anybody wants to truly help our farmers. Young farmers are struggling to find money for land. And it’s as if folks are trying to get blood from a stone when applying for funding with amazing projects in agriculture and urban food systems that would change the world.

So you can imagine my despair over the years in asking myself if I could really find the support to do this work. I’ve been caught in the impossible Catch 22 that so many of my fellow activists, farmers and dreamers are caught in: clawing for the time and support to realize our movement’s dreams while facing the nightmares of its reality.

In short, since Brown Girl Farming and the Color of Food’s inception, I’ve been asking myself “how the hell am I going to pull this off with impact, living as a dirt poor, land-less farmer with no voice to be heard?”

Then, somehow, you all gave me a voice. A collective voice growing with every farmer and food sovereignty-passionate person that showed interest. You all eased my worry and gave me hope for these crazy project ideas. The support for this documentary getting off the ground poured out in a huge way.

And just when I returned home, trying to make impossible calculations like Mitt Romney on how to close the gap in what is needed to complete this project and publish the Color of Food book, the voice you all created was heard.

I’m writing all this to say that today the Color of Food received funding that will ensure the completion, the printing and publication of the photo documentary book on farmers of color across this country! Farm Credit has gotten behind us, and I can’t thank them enough.


A huge thanks to all of you donors, readers and media who have showed interest and helped spread the word about this blog and the Color of Food.

I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to keep on diggin’.

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This is the last ‘Behind the Wheel’ post, as I am now off the road from the Color of Food / photo documentary tour, and am back home working to put the stories and images together from all the farmers of color I interviewed, so they can be shared far and wide!

This morning, I returned from the mechanic with heartwrenching news. In fact, I feel like I should have been wearing black with a prepared eulogy in hand.  Lucille, my home and the Color of Food headquarters for the last 5 months, is dead.

Miss Lucille was the 1990 Oldsmobile station wagon that carried me safely across the United States this summer to interview over 60 farmers for my photo documentary – the Color of Food.  She, after being garaged most of her life, drove thousands of miles for five months straight, endured over 100 degree temperatures, traversed dirt roads across rural America, climbed the steep mountains of the West and ventured through the isolated prairie lands of our Native reservations. And she did it all with style and grace.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve become attached to a material thing, so much so that I’m even blogging about it. But this beast of an automobile morphed into a real person for me and others who had the privilege to know her out on the open road. This car really had her own personality – she did things her way and took her sweet time doing it- but she gave me a priceless gift.

Not only did Lucille keep me safe for every moment on the road(living up to her namesake, B.B. King’s guitar who he claims saved his life), but she was responsible for getting me face to face with the many farmers this country needs to know:

Black farmers in the South who invited me into their homes and shared with me photos of their ancestors, stories of first buying their land, struggles of escaping disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the pride of providing for their families and communities from their own land.

Hispanic farmers on the border of Mexico transitioning from farmwork to owning and running their own farm businesses, or those that are farming the same land their family has farmed for 300 years, growing traditional foods and irrigating with the same indigenous practices that have been used in their region for hundreds of years.

Asian farmers who are introducing their traditional foods and vegetables into communities where food diversity is severely lacking, as are healthy alternatives.

Native American farmers who are proving that dry farming (no irrigation) is not only possible, but a way of life for many indigenous cultures in the driest parts of our country; while others fought battles with water rights in the face of drought -which is an extremely significant issue with a global farming community facing drought, climate change and an opressive movement of GMO/drough resistant seed takeovers. These farmers  invited me, an outsider, in to learn about sacred traditions with corn, traditional foodways and ceremony.

I never would have had the chance to spend this time visiting with and learning from so many of this country’s amazing and resilient communities and the people who are feeding them, had it not been for Lucille. She started as a gift from those who supported the Color of Food’s fundraising efforts, and now with her death (which only occurred once she was sure she’d gotten me safely back home), she’s ending as the gift that made this whole project possible. She worked hard to ensure all of these voices were captured, so I will work hard to make them heard.  

Thanks Lucy. I will miss you dearly.

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As part of my COLOR of FOOD Documentary series, I want to share this great piece about kitchen gardening in Asian America. Sent to me by Nina Kahori Fallenbaum from Hyphen Magazine.

But first, I encourage all of you B.G.F. readers to help make the COLOR of FOOD documentary a reality and DONATE HERE — right now your donations are being matched so you’ll be giving double!

Now, enjoy Nina’s story:

THERE IS A SCENE I’ll never forget in Spencer Nakasako’s 1998 documentary Kelly Loves Tony. A Mien mother cooks an inky-black brew of homegrown herb soup for her daughter to bathe in after giving birth. Charming scene in the mountains of Laos? Nope it’s East Oakland, CA, and she grew the wild potion alongside a concrete driveway next to a chain-link fence. It is here that Kelly’s mother and other Southeast Asian families have turned parts of the “Murder Dubs” into arable land using ancient know-how and, sometimes, seeds smuggled through war zones and refugee camps. I once saw a Mien woman in full native embroidery, patiently tilling a vacant lot beside a porn shop on a busy Oakland street. This is Asian America, and our sometimes-incongruous immigrant habit has a new English name: “kitchen gardening.”

Kitchen gardeners’ are people who grow their own food. It might seem too simple to warrant a special term, but the rise of American-style supermarkets around the world has lead to fewer people with hands-on experience nurturing backyard plots of vegetables and herbs, let alone fishponds or the occasional chicken. But with the spate of recent food poisoning scares and a still-shaky economy, our attitude toward the humble backyard garden is changing.

In 2008, Kitchen Gardeners International gathered more than 100,000 signatures to convince the future president to replace part of the White House lawn with an 1,100-square-foot organic kitchen garden. Now, politicians from Ohio to Maryland to California are eager to show off their own kitchen gardens outside state capitals and city halls. Where do Asian Americans fit into this revival of kitchen gardening? Right at the center, it turns out.

“Even here in the inner city, I wanted to show that we can do it cheaply. Plants and food should never be inaccessible,” says Kayomi Wada, director of the Giving Garden, an affordable urban garden on the campus of the University of Washington Tacoma. As an undergrad, she lobbied administrators to create an Asian American studies curriculum, and in the process, discovered that large parts of the university were built where Tacoma’s prewar Japantown once thrived. Now a graduate student and service learning coordinator for the environmental studies department, Wada is determined to create a living monument to the area’s rich Asian American past. The Giving Garden broke ground on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2008, and its crops will be donated to local food banks.

My mother, Betty Kano, is an artist whose next commission won’t be on canvas: she’s planting a garden using a sustainable farming model called permaculture, adding a Japanese twist in celebration of four generations of our family working the foggy landscape of Northern California. Along spiraled furrows fed with recycled water, she’s planted gobo, daikon, mitsuba and hechima, a type of Okinawan squash. The results will be displayed at the California African American Museum in early 2010.

While kitchen gardening was once our meal ticket, returning to agriculture is an iffy proposition for city dwellers like myself. It’s hard to imagine my sunglass- and sneakerwearing, American-born brethren in straw hats and stepping in fish poop. But let’s keep it real: For every self-appointed descendant of a “samurai” or “Ming scholar,” there were hardworking relatives tilling fields of rice and roots. Growing strawberries, shrimping or packing lettuce put many an immigrant child through college, or at least enabled someone to gain a foothold in order to emigrate.

And why hide it? Agriculture is our knowledge base. It was the use of traditional Chinese grafting techniques that enabled farm foreman Ah Bing to cultivate the nowubiquitous Bing cherry in the late 19th century. Philip Vera Cruz worked alongside Cesar Chavez to establish the United Farm Workers union. Koda Farms in California helped spread the gospel of brown rice to American hippiedom. In 2008, Asian Americans made up only 1.2 percent of people employed fulltime in agriculture, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those numbers don’t account for all the kitchen gardeners still growing bitter melon and cilantro from balconies and back steps.

Once plans for the White House garden were underway, First Lady Michelle Obama noted, “You know, the tomato that’s from your garden tastes very different from one that isn’t.”

Spoken like a true Asian grandmother saving money and eating deliciously at the same time.

NINA KAHORI FALLENBAUM’s interest in kitchen gardens began in 2000 in Japan, where she lived for four years. “I started a ninth-floor balcony garden and got hooked. Japan is a great place for amateur gardening advice – and obsessions.” The San Francisco Bay Area native was surprised to learn how central Asians and Asian Americans have been to American agriculture, and she hopes the trend continues into the present day, no matter how incongruous it sounds.

**This post is part of a Color of Food series on my blog where I’ll be sharing stories from other POC farmers. If you’d like to share your story as a farmer or descendant of farmers of color, email me > natasha at thecolorofood dot org

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This weekend I’m celebrating. We’ve finally launched the online directory and map, The COLOR of FOOD,  to the public, listing and locating farmers of color as well as other food system and food movement communities of color.

The COLOR of FOOD community believes these voices must be heard or we will not have a truly just food revolution. The directory creates a space to identify, map and connect our communities, while demonstrating successful models for changing the food system and addressing the systemic racism that lies within its structure. This systemic issue is the root of so many disparities we see today, specifically food access, farmworkers’ rights, farmers’ land rights and the health of our communities.

Below are some words from the growing community!

“White supremacy permeates every aspect of American society. It clearly manifests within the food system and the burgeoning ‘good food revolution’.  That is why it is especially important that African-American, and other non-white farmers and gardeners network, and are encouraged and supported.  The COLOR of FOOD contributes to that work,” says Malik Yakini, COLOR of FOOD Board Member, IATP Food and Community Fellow and a founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and D-Town Farms in Detroit, MI.

The North Leupp Family Farm is part of a network of independent grassroots Diné (Navajo) and Hopi organizations… [and] we need to become part of a nationwide network of Indigenous Peoples and People of Color. This can only become a reality if we know who is out there. Net sites like The COLOR of FOOD gives us that opportunity,” says Hank Willie, North Leupp Family Farm (NLFF) of the Diné (Navajo) Nation in Leupp, AZ.

“I’m so glad to find [The COLOR of FOOD]! I’m Chinese heritage, born and raised in the US.  I’ve done food and urban gardening/ag for many years and have farmed rurally.  I’d love to be in your directory and to have the young adults of color with whom I work and who are training as urban farmers both be in the directory and use it as a resource.  I’m so glad you’re doing this,” says Irene HongPing Shen of Brooklyn, NY.

“This site and work are necessary, many have spoken about it for sometime…about how necessary a directory would be in this movement,” says Tanikka Cunningham, Executive Director of Healthy Solutions in Washington D.C.

“We are of course interested in being listed and working with this initiative. We have worked for many years to keep the people of color rural communities engaged and united to good effect, and with the additional voices of the larger food sector, we can do much more,” says Lorrette Picciano of Coalición Rural.

For More Information:

It is quick and easy to join the directory or to help spread the word among farmers, workers and food leaders in our beautiful Black, Latino, Native and Asian communities. Please visit our website for more info and to sign-up for the directory. Also join us on Facebook!

The COLOR of FOOD is a new non-profit initiative focusing on the intersection of race and food by raising the voices of Asian, Black, Latino and Native American farmers and food system/food movement communities in the dialogue on just and healthy food. We do this by highlighting models of farm and food initiatives led by communities of color, telling farmers’ stories, and repainting the picture of food and agriculture for people of color. Visit http://thecolorofood.org for more info.

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Many of you have been following my Color of Food series on Grist.org, in fact that’s how some of you found my blog! But for those that haven’t, I wanted to share the complete series here now that the season has ended along with my articles there.

See below for any articles you may have missed!

The Color of Food

In search of black and Latino farmers in the sustainable food movement

6 Oct 2010

In search of black and Latino farmers in the sustainable food movement image I’m stuck on this concept of blending contrasts. It may have to do with being the only brown girl I know interested in farming (although this really shouldn’t be a contrast at all); or maybe it has to do with going from D.C. political advocate to farmer-girl overnight.

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Hitting the Big Apple’s food-justice buffet

26 Oct 2010

Hitting the Big Apple’s food-justice buffet imageAdded-Value’s website says its mission is to grow a “just food system” and empower youth, so I was a little surprised to walk onto the farm and see no signs of this. For the most part, the farm seemed to be a commercial operation catering to restaurants and a Community Supported Agriculture program and market serving a wealthier, white consumer base…It’s become clear to me that the lack of  direct involvement by community members in some of these projects is the first problem with this movement.

» read more


Food justice: It’s not black and white in Detroit

18 Nov 2010

Food justice: It’s not black and white in Detroit imageThroughout my journey I have found that white folks still fill most of the paid jobs at many food justice organizations and even urban farms that promote and support farmers of color. What does that matter? Some say it doesn’t, as long as the intention to get the work done is there. Others argue that the black community should be leading the fight. I stand somewhere in the middle. (Go figure.)

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Chicago has got it growing on

15 Dec 2010

Chicago has got it growing on image“In under-served communities there is often an undercurrent that things are owed to us. In a way they definitely are, but we owe some things to ourselves,” said Kern. “When I talk about farming with black youth, slavery comes up in the first 20 minutes, but the only reason I know anything about agriculture is because of my grandma. She had a garden in her backyard, but she didn’t do it for fun; she did it because she had to. Growing was her empowerment.”

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Postcard from the first annual Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference

30 Nov 2010

Postcard from the first annual Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference image

Gary Grant spoke to those of us who don’t live in the South about how alive racism still is there, especially for farmers. He painted a clear picture of how some of these regional USDA offices have Confederate flags and lynch nooses hanging on their walls. That sends an undeniable message to any black farmer walking in the door asking about why their loan is delayed.

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Brightening up the dark farming history of the Sunshine State

3 Jan 2011


It’s actually fitting that the end of my farming and food justice journey for this season has brought me to Florida. It is where I grew up and is home to my family, and it’s also home to many farmers of color that have emigrated here from the Caribbean and Central and South America.

The only problem is that some of the employers in these agricultural areas of Florida apparently think they’re the Spanish colonizers of 1565 … meaning slavery is OK in their book.

» read more

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You can check out my impression of Detroit during my short two weeks there in the latest post of my series on Grist.org: Peeling Back the Skin of Detroit.

Otherwise, I thought I’d document my time in D-Town through photos:

I arrived in Detroit and had arranged through the WWOOF program to stay and volunteer with Greg and Olivia, an amazingly cute and sweet couple engaged to be married next year, who run an organic urban farm called Brother Nature Produce. Olivia is a horticulturist raised in Detroit but comes from a family of farmers down South in Mississippi, and Greg is a former teacher of 15 years and has lived in Detroit for decades.

They have two “kids”: Vern and Aubin (named after streets in Detroit), a brother and sister duo that are the coolest, most bad-ass dogs in the city. Protectors of the farm and house, they also love to chase the wild pheasants that have populated the neighborhood and Aubin, the girl,  plays guinea pig for Olivia’s sewing machine creations.

The farm started as a garden in Greg’s backyard, then grew as he kept making use of the abandoned lots behind his house. Now there are 3 greenhouses and about a half acre of land. With plans to expand to another two lots next season, Greg and Olivia are growing mainly salad greens but are planning for varied veggies for a CSA as well as a flower farm.

Greg was gracious enough to take me around to many other urban farm projects, and one of which was the Catherine Ferguson Academy Farm. The academy is a school for pregnant teens and teenage mothers, where they are able to learn some parenting and care-taking skills on the farm by feeding and taking care of the various animals and plants.

We worked on many things from building compost windrows for the winter, to transplanting baby greens like kale and mizuna, to harvesting and shoveling horse manure for the beds and compost piles. Mind you, this is all taking place less than 4 minutes from downtown Detroit!

I went with Greg and Olivia early Saturday morning to sell their salad mixes at Eastern Market, where they set up their Brother Nature Produce table every week. The market was huge and bustling, one of the only places in Detroit that felt really alive.

The rest of the city, however, didn’t always feel so alive. Pictured here is one of the city’s typical abandoned homes near downtown.

The possibility of radical, innovative solutions in Detroit was definitely the vibe in the air, but after seeing some of the same old politics play out between the decision makers and the activists there, I also couldn’t help but wonder with a bit of despair what the future holds…

For more pictures see the photo gallery here

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