It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to be a part of America’s race story – it has a way of finding you. This came home to me recently during my morning practice of reading poetry, the purpose of which is to warm up gently to a wobbly world. Picking up from where I’d left the book marker the previous day, the first poem that gave itself to me was Audre Lorde’s 1978 “Power.”
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood….
At his trial this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color.”
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free….
(Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry)
Coincidentally and astonishingly, I read this poem two days after the NYC decision to not indict the policeman responsible for the choke hold death of Eric Garner. Whether it’s 1978 in Queens or 2014 in Staten Island, criminal acts by those we pay to protect us confound our sensibilities, make us feel powerless in the face of power, and in the all-too-human urge to retaliate, threaten to compromise our moral standards. The never-ending story of American racism screams at us to do something, anything, to relieve the anguish.
But what? Choosing to act non-violently will always be my modus operandi. Yes, I can march, I can shout, I can commit (and have committed) acts of civil disobedience, but as I started doing 44 years ago, changing the food system will always be my battleground in the war on injustice and racism. Near the end of my first book Closing the Food Gap I said that, “As a person of privilege and power whose professional agenda has been to reduce the ill effects of the food system on people who bear little resemblance to myself, I have become intensely aware of what I can and cannot do.”
In other words, my conclusion was that food justice will not be attained solely through the efforts of well-intentioned white guys, no matter how good their work. Achieving food security, access to healthy and affordable food, and social and economic equity for all will only be achieved when a significant share of the movement’s leadership is assumed by those with a greater personal stake in the outcome, i.e. people of color.
To that end let me share a few words about some inspiring African-American food system leaders with whom I’ve had the privilege to work. The list reflects a distinctly Georgia bias because I was recently in Atlanta attending a board meeting of the African-American organic farming organization SAAFON.
Rashid Nuri and Truly Living Well Farm
“I used to protest, but now I build the future.” That was how Rashid Nuri, CEO of the Atlanta-based Truly Living Well urban farm (www.trulylivingwell.com) sized up his role in response to the Ferguson and Staten Island verdicts. Gazing over several acres of highly productive December vegetable plots, it was obvious that Rashid was building a very viable future. As we have all been reminded time and again, the world’s population is becoming increasingly urbanized. The effective use of undeveloped urban and peri-urban land for food production will no longer be considered a nicety but a necessity.
The kale, collards, onions, and broccoli were vigorous and awaiting their turn for future harvests that will be sold at TLW’s farm stand, the CSA, and area restaurants. Located barely 100 yards from Interstate 85’s eight lanes of rip roaring traffic, and just a few blocks from the peaceful oasis of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site, the farm also serves as a highly visible demonstration site for numerous food, farm, and sustainability initiatives. An aquaponic greenhouse, a state of the art “rocket heated” greenhouse, a model, large-scale composting site, and too many varieties of fruit trees and berry bushes to keep track of sprout from what used to a public housing site. This alternative urban landscape is the fruition of Rashid’s vision and leadership, and just as importantly, a powerful model for a robust urban agriculture presence that embraces the diversity of its place and people.
Cynthia Hayes and the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON)
About ten years ago Cynthia Hayes decided that African-American farmers were not reaping the benefits of the nation’s turn to sustainable agriculture and organic food. Teaming up with Owusu Bandele, a member of the agriculture faculty at Southern University, Cynthia went about the task of forming SAAFON (www.SAAFON.org) to ensure that black farmers in the American South, who have endured centuries of discrimination, had access to the growing market for sustainable and organic produce. (I first encountered Cynthia a few years ago while writing an article about SAAFON for Yes! Magazine: https://www.markwinne.com/black-farmers-and-savannah-foodies-join-forces/).
To pick up the beat of agricultural progress for black farmers, Cynthia steered SAAFON in the direction of farmer education and organic certification. She saw this as the best way to promote economic viability for SAAFON’s 130 farmer members. It was also, in her opinion, the best way to retain black-owned farms (now only 2 percent of American farms, down from 14 percent). With 8000 supporters, SAAFON has become the “go to” place for people and groups interested in nurturing the connection between black farmers and sustainably produced food.
SAAFON now has a full complement of 13 board members, who, with the exception of this writer, are all people of color, including several farmers. It was evident from the energy flowing at the board meeting that the group was passionate about SAAFON’s mission, determined to raise a budget sufficient for the huge challenge ahead, and excited about taking a seat at a national table set for food system change. As one board member stated, “I have no intention of letting another black-owned farm be sold on the courthouse steps.”
Kwabena Nkromo and the Georgia Food Policy Council
Food and agriculture policy is a murky area often overwhelmed by special interests and more money than principles. As subject matter goes, it’s often so dense that a bucket of it can stop a bullet fired at close range. But neither of these factors has deterred Kwabena Nkromo from taking the reigns of the Georgia Food Policy Council, a statewide organization founded in 2012 that has set its sights on the numerous food and farm challenges facing Georgia’s citizens.
Both policy work and leadership are natural evolutions for Kwabena who has played a major role in the social enterprise organization Atlanta Food & Farm, LLC (www.atlfoodandfarm.net). Organized as a social benefit corporation, Atlanta Food and Farm serves a growing niche as a consulting group for community food systems planning and urban agriculture development.
Though still a “newbie” in the food policy world (GPFC’s website is currently under reconstruction), the Council is moving ahead with the formation of a Georgia Farmers Market Association, and sees itself working with such partners as Georgia Organics and the Georgia Food Oasis for better policies from farm to plate. According to Kwabena, “These efforts will not only be focused on the Georgia General Assembly and other legislative bodies, but also through the influence of actions and choices each of us make as food citizens.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Circling back to the racism-inspired carnage that exacts such a heavy toll on the American soul, it’s worth asking if this nation’s food movement can’t take more concrete steps to stem “the blood-dimmed tide.” In 2010, fifty-five percent of shooting homicide victims were black people even though they only make up thirteen percent of the U.S. population. While people of color are far and away the highest percentage of victims of food and farm injustices, it is reasonable to say, even without the benefit of accurate data, that they are inadequately represented in leadership roles with groups attempting to address those injustices.
Again, what I said in Closing the Food Gap makes more sense now than when I wrote it in 2007: “As I use the talents God gave me…to make the lives of others at least a little better, I will…make way for, and get out of the way of those whose voices more genuinely call out for change than mine ever can.” It feels as if that time has come; I can be an ally, a teacher, a trainer, a donor, and a comrade-in-arms. But if the body count is to stop growing, and if “food justice for all” will no longer be “a dream deferred,” then the leadership of the food movement must do more to show its colors.