Activist Farmers Tell the Food System That Black Lives Matter

African Americans have been marginalized in the agricultural industry too.
(Photo: John Fedele/Getty Images)
Feb 19, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

The teens who work at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, aren’t your typical field hands. They aren’t just there for a paycheck or because they love working the land—but to avoid incarceration. As part of Soul Fire’s restorative justice program, Project Growth, juvenile offenders work with the farm and other area nonprofits, learning marketable skills and earning money to pay restitution for their crimes.

While weeding may appear to be a better option than jail, one young man who opted for farmwork over incarceration didn’t have especially high hopes for the 50 hours he had to spend at Soul Fire.

“I basically expected it to be like slavery, but it would be better than jail,” Asan told Yes! Magazine. “It was different though. We got paid and we got to bring food home. The farmers there are black like us, which I did not expect.”

“I could see myself having my own farm one day,” he added.

Criminal justice reform is just one of the social missions that Leah Penniman and her husband, Jonah Vitale-Wolff, are tackling at Soul Fire. The couple purchased the 72-acre property in 2006 when they were struggling to access fresh food in Albany’s South End. At the time, they had two small children, and Penniman walked more than two miles—one kid in a stroller, another on her back—to their CSA pickup spot. Now, they not only run their own CSA but have also developed a full roster of programming to fight racism and injustice in the food system, including an eight-month manager training program and shorter immersion programs for black and Latino farmers.

“The goal with both of those is to reverse the really dangerous decline of black landowning farmers in the U.S.,” Penniman said in an interview.

RELATED: New Documentary Looks at Why Black Gardeners Matter

Today, African Americans own less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmland, down from 14 percent in 1920. The decline has, in part, been blamed on the USDA denying black farmers loans as recently as the 1990s.

That structural racism was laid to bear in 1997, when Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina soybean and corn producer, sued the Department of Agriculture, alleging racial discrimination against black farmers. The suit resulted in a $2 billion settlement. “These discriminatory practices resulted in severe economic consequences for farmers, often preventing them from maintaining and keeping their farms,” Ohio Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement when the settlement was announced in 1999.

But efforts to correct the decline of black-owned farmland aren’t just a matter of history—food is a key part of today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

“When we talk about Black Lives Matter, the core issue has been state-sanctioned violence against black people, particularly in the form of police murder of civilians,” Penniman said. But homicides, she added, can’t compete with the top killers in the community, which are diet-related illnesses.

“I would argue that those deaths are not accidental or natural, that that also is a form of state-sanctioned violence,” she said. “The USDA policies that drove people off their land are just one component. We also have the farm bill, which invests billions of dollars into a food system that floods poor communities with processed foods and creates these food apartheids—food swamps that are void of life-giving food.”

The data would appear to back her up. “Unemployment and the lack of good-paying jobs are primary causes [of hunger and poverty],” said Eric Mitchell, director of government relations for Bread for the World. “But we also have to look at issues like mass incarceration and access to healthier food options to get a complete picture of why this persists.”

The nonpartisan group released an analysis of data this month showing almost 94 percent of the nation’s majority African American counties are food insecure, and nearly half of black children younger than six live in poverty. The median income for African Americans in 2014 was $35,398—$20,000 less than the median income for other households.

Poverty and poor health go hand in hand: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African Americans, who are 60 percent more likely to be diabetic and 40 percent more like to have diabetes than whites. While the connection between poverty, poor health, and mortality rates is well documented, research from the University of California, Berkeley, last year explicitly connected that data with race, showing that living in poverty leads to higher death rates for African Americans than for whites.

“A people that is sick and sad and hungry are people who are less likely to resist. There are political consequences as well,” Penniman said. “Bad food doesn’t just impact the individual. It impacts the community’s ability to make change.”

By training a new generation of activist farmers, Soul Fire creates a solid foundation for those movements of change, replicating the role the black farming community played in the success of the civil rights movement—providing food, shelter, and a place to gather when hotels, restaurants, and businesses were closed to African Americans, Penniman explained.

“We look at Black Lives Matter and movements that we’ve not yet envisioned. If our community does not have resources to fuel those movements, those movements are then dependent on people who have no vested interest in their success,” she said.

The most powerful outcomes from Soul Fire’s African American and Latino farmer immersions have less to do with crop output than with the outlook of future farmers like Asan.

“They were done with settling for less than they deserved,” Penniman said. “The real capacity that the land, and the people who are on this land, have to transform trauma into hope and belief in a future where we can be agents—that is what makes me feel fully alive and in my purpose. It’s hard to capture in any particular metric, but fundamental if we want a racially just and equitable food system is that awakening of agency and hope.”