Op-ed: 4 Solutions to Make Urban Ag Policies More Equitable | Civil Eats

Op-ed: 4 Solutions to Make Urban Ag Policies More Equitable

Black Americans lack access to food and land—and city leaders often actively disrupt efforts to build food sovereignty. These policies could address the systemic injustices behind food apartheid and help urban ag scale up nationwide.

Ronald White (left) and Willington Rolle work in the Roots in the City urban garden in Miami's Overtown neighborhood on October 21, 2009 in Miami, Florida. The 2-acre lot, which was once a blighted area, features collard greens, citrus trees, papayas, and an assortment of vegetables. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ronald White (left) and Willington Rolle work in the Roots in the City urban garden in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. The 2-acre lot, which was once a blighted area, features collard greens, citrus trees, papayas, and an assortment of vegetables. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Every morning, Janet McDurly, a 60-year-old resident in South Seattle, Washington, walks half a mile to catch her bus to work. On her way, she routinely passes Jimi Hendrix Park, a 2.3-acre community park located in Seattle’s Central District.

McDurly and other volunteers in this primarily African American community have spent many weekends planting seeds and tending crops in the park’s community garden, established in 2020 by Black Star Farmers, a local activist group fighting for land and food sovereignty.

But in July 2021, McDurly stumbled upon an unexpected scene during her routine walk: the garden had been bulldozed. Together with its police and parks departments, the City of Seattle had violently leveled the vibrant and inclusive garden that had nourished food- and nutrition-insecure residents.

A 2021 post from Black Star Farmers calling attention to the City of Seattle's efforts to shut down the group's farm in Jimi Hendrix Park. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Henderson, Black Star Farmers)

A 2021 post from Black Star Farmers calling attention to the City of Seattle’s efforts to shut down the group’s farm in Jimi Hendrix Park. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Henderson, Black Star Farmers)

For McDurly, the loss was part of the larger pattern of gentrification and displacement of Black residents she has witnessed in recent years. She also felt frustrated by the city’s sabotage of residents’ efforts at food sovereignty.

“Every time our community tries to foster opportunities to feed ourselves and communities like ours across the city, the city take [opportunities] away from us,” McDurly said.

Funded by a diverse range of city funds and donations from local organizations, Jimi Hendrix Park was built in December 2011 to be an inclusive green gathering place, as well as a “primary focal point for multicultural events, gatherings, and activities for the community.”

“Racist and inequitable systems have prevented African Americans from fair participation in our country’s economic system and from accessing healthy, affordable foods.”

Before the farm’s destruction, it was healthy and thriving, yielding lettuce, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, and other foods. Black Star founder Marcus Henderson noted that the purpose of the farm (like the other Black Star-run farms across Seattle) was to help create self-sufficient communities and address the food insecurity experienced by communities of color in the Seattle area.

Henderson had hoped that the farm would be able to provide consistent yields of food to donate to local organizations for further dissemination to members of the community. “We really need to create more opportunities for folks to be able to grow food on the land,” Henderson said in a July 2021 Seattle Emerald article.

As egregious and disheartening as the upending of Jimi Hendrix Park may seem, the removal and/or threatening of Black-run or owned community gardens by local city agencies is unfortunately not new.

Up until 2013, many Black residents in Detroit were not able to cultivate food for their communities due to urban agriculture ordinances and zoning laws that prevented residents from operating urban farms on public city-owned land.

In Baltimore, urban agriculture is permitted on city-leased land. But that land is also in demand. Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, a 1.5-acre urban farm managed by the Black Yield Institute (BYI) on city-leased land, received an eviction notice in spring 2021. Baltimore City, which had proposed building affordable housing units on the land that houses the community garden, notified BYI of its imminent removal by the end of 2021.

Many community members and researchers believe, however, that affordable housing units and community gardens can co-exist as they do in other sites throughout the U.S. They see the recent events as yet another example of African American communities bearing the burden of inequitable urban policy that has historically and disproportionately robbed Black people of opportunities to thrive.

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Indeed, incidences like those in Seattle, Detroit, and Baltimore are a part of a larger pattern, one that is rooted in racist and inequitable systems that have prevented African Americans from fair participation in our country’s economic system and from accessing healthy, affordable foods.

Since Union Army Major General Gordon Granger announced the freedom of enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, our country has not made enough progress on the disproportionate obstacles facing Black people related to food security, access, and sovereignty.

And while African Americans in our country have in many instances been released from the physical shackles and bondage that our ancestors once endured (aside from mass incarceration), we still all to some extent endure the social, economic, and mental shackles that the Atlantic slave trade imprinted on generations of our families.

“Although what is required to right the wrongs of the past and prevent future inequities can feel daunting, there are some things we can do now to make strides in ensuring equitable food systems for all.”

Although what is required to right the wrongs of the past and prevent future inequities can feel daunting, there are some things we can do now to make strides in ensuring equitable food systems for all.

First, deviating from the recent Supreme Court case rejecting affirmative action in college admissions, we must make sure that we include race as an indicator in data tools that assist all levels of government in the allocation of money to communities. There has been a wealth of concern from the public and government advisory councils that current models will continue to perpetuate the inequities and injustices that have caused communities to live with food insecurity.

Secondly, we must revisit “40 acres and a mule”—the land promised to formerly enslaved African Americans, which many experts have evaluated at $6.4 trillion. Many scholars and members of the community agree that land is wealth, and the historical withholding and stealing of land from African Americans has contributed to the disproportionate lack of land we have today on which to grow food, both at local and industrial scales. It has also hindered Black people’s ability to fairly participate in the food supply chain, as well as real estate and trade.

Jubriel Holman, 15, Kujan Buggie, 14, and Emmanuella Jean-Pierre, 15 look over sprouts before they plant them at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn July 9, 2009 in New York City. A number of inner-city youths have been planting vegetables in the garden for an upcoming farmers market-style sale, for which community members will be able to buy the locally-produced food with cash or even with public assistance food cards. Community gardens are growing in number in urban areas around the country, as environmental concerns dovetail with inner-city rebirth to create new ways for underprivileged families to buy fresh food. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Jubriel Holman, Kujan Buggie, and Emmanuella Jean-Pierre look over sprouts before they plant them at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City. Inner-city youths planted vegetables in the garden for farmers market-style sales to community members with cash or even public assistance food cards. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

To help address these historical injustices, the federal government and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should develop a community and research task force to analyze and report on how much land was taken from African Americans due to unjust land ownership policies. The USDA should then call on Congress to pass legislation that will give the USDA, partner federal agencies, local governments, and communities the authority to develop programs that offer reparations to historically burdened communities in the form of land, to be used for agriculture and other wealth-generating activities like real estate.

Third, in many cases, community gardens that are operated by Black-led organizations, like BYI in Baltimore, should be allowed to purchase publicly owned land by way of local “lease-to-own” programs , which would increase the sustainability and fostering of long-term gardens. It would also improve communities’ ability to create food sources and hubs they can rely on to obtain fresh, nutritious, and affordable foods—foods that have become inaccessible because of inadequate public transit systems and rising supermarket prices.

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Lastly, the 2023 Farm Bill must be focused on advancing racial equity, especially for Black farmers, who have historically been excluded from participating in the industry via inequitable government policies. USDA must include provisions in the bill that ensure improved funding access for Black farmers, as well as increased opportunities for training and development programs to help develop the next generation.

In addition, the farm bill must require the reporting of data that sheds light on the demographics of funding recipients. This will allow for more transparency in the loan allocation process and help ensure that Black farmers are able to obtain a fair chance at federal funding opportunities. It will also highlight inequities in the lending process that need to be addressed.

“I believe we can work together to find new and innovative ways to ensure that everyone has a fair chance at life, and at eating well.”

We must ensure that communities—like those near Jimi Hendrix Park in Central Seattle—are driving programs aimed at increasing the accessibility and affordability of fresh and nutritious foods. We must create laws and policies that amplify community voices, that are responsive to community needs, that are transparent in their reporting of data, loan, and award allocation, and that ensure equitable access to training and development programs.

While our country has made great strides to ensure the “freedom” for all people, regardless of race and socioeconomic status, there is still a wealth of progress to be made. But I believe that land access and health disparities disproportionately experienced by those in Black communities can be addressed with deep and genuine systemic change.

I am convinced that we can work together, across the aisle, to find new and innovative ways to ensure that everyone—in every American city and town—has a fair chance at life, and at eating well. And I’m hopeful we can dream big and work together toward a future that is more equitable and inclusive, and that ensures food sovereignty for all.

Anthony Nicome is a student at Yale University and the Environmental Justice Fellow at the AAMC Center for Health Justice. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health & Engineering and previously served as a research assistant with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, U.B. Food Lab, and Baltimore Food Policy Initiative. Read more >

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