Food Justice in the City: Report on the Black Farmers and Urban Growers Conference

Devon Peña | 12.01.2014

Moderator’s Note: It is our privilege to present a guest blog prepared by Jacqueline A. Smith, a Chicago-based urban farmer and food justice activist with roots in the African American sharecropper community. Ms. Smith recently attended the Black Farmers and Urban Growers (BUGs) conference in Detroit and offers an insightful report on the proceedings. She emphasizes two themes that defined this important gathering: The resurgence of Africanness and Indigeneity as expressed through food justice activism in the urban agriculture movement. This resurgence involves making connections to our past, including our heritage cuisines, in order to strengthen our community autonomy and health. Smith observes how the conference participants explored and shared strategies of community sustainability and homage to ancestors who grew food before them. This revolutionary idea empowers the struggle for food justice by recognizing the wisdom of our elders and valuing their deep ancestral knowledge of how to eat rightly and justly.

Another message Smith offers is something the anti-GMO movement needs to hear and think about: Discussion at the conference acknowledged that “the food system has been broken before the start of giant ag companies like Monsanto and ConAgra.” Indeed, the history of white settler colonialism and slavery included the widespread suppression and destruction of indigenous foods and foodways in an assault every bit as violent and displacing as the threats posed by GMO crops controlled by a handful of transnational corporations. For indigenous and people of color communities, the food system was broken some 500 years ago. The resurgence of organizations like BUGs is our collective action response to that assault and represents our ability to decolonize our food system by knowing the past, our food heritage, as future tense.

We are very pleased to add a new voice to our Environmental and Food Justice blog. Please look for future contributions from Ms. Smith to the Food Justice in the City series. We agree with her vision that dialogue and joint action on the part of all indigenous and people of color communities strengthens the environmental and food justice movement.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 2.17.18 PMAfricanness and Indigeneity: The Black Farmers and Urban Growers Conference

by Jacqueline A. Smith | Detroit, MI | December 1, 2014

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An elder at the 2014 Black Farmers and Urban Growers (BUGs) conference in Detroit summed up the significance of the event saying, “There is no culture without agriculture.” BUGs is an organization composed of individuals devoting their energies to building networks and support for urban and rural growers. The organization utilizes education and advocacy centered on food and farm issues. The conferences are gatherings created to magnify the connection between food and the Black community by empowering growers, activists, and those involved in food. The conference website provides the event’s theme: “Sankofa: Green in Black, Honoring Our Past as We Move Towards the Future”. The essence of those words go beyond the culture of agriculture to express what the past is bringing for the future in the black farming community.

As an urban farmer in Chicago and the descendant of a rural grower, my experience at the BUGs conference was unlike any other I have attended. I found parts of my triumphs and challenges are similar to other growers. The atmosphere was filled with farmers of African descent engaged in fellowship as well as dialogue concerning food justice, land stewardship, strategies of community sustainability and homage to ancestors who grew food before them.

As the descendant of a sharecropper, I am creating vegetable oases in the Chicago food mirage I live in to nurture my community which is negatively impacted by the capitalist food system. I also relate through my Africanness and my indigeneity as I experience the dynamics of the food justice frame.

The dialogue came from seasoned, inexperienced, women, men, national and international farmers sharing their victories as cultivators growing vegetable and fruit crops as well as their challenges of land ownership, battles against industrial agricultural companies, and the injustices they face in the broken food system. The keynote speakers are not individuals with agendas of scholarly pursuit. They possess indigenous knowledge and have a sense of familiarity with conference attendees because the speakers also grow, prepare and secure food for their communities.

As the descendant of a sharecropper, I am creating vegetable oases in the Chicago food mirage I live in to nurture my community which is negatively impacted by the capitalist food system. I also relate through my Africanness and my indigeneity as I experience the dynamics of the food justice frame and watch politics affect those uneducated about food they consume.

The Black Farmer and Urban Growers conference is a significant event that needs to be shared with others. There are many lenses that I observed the conference through but the ones I choose for this blog post are Africanness, indigeneity and politics of the food justice frame. These lenses I speak to are from the words and the actions of the conference participants who shared their thoughts and experiences. Keynote speakers Ladonna Sanders Redmond (urban gardener/activist) Barbara Norman (blueberry farmer) and Chef Bryant Terry (food advocate) provided insight on these topics during their dynamic presentations.

Africanness and the Food Justice Frame

The cultures of Africa were emphasized at the conference. The agricultural practices of the Black farmers at the BUGs conference represent ties to Africa by sharing their non-industrial agricultural methods of food production and holistic means of sustainability Farmers from South Africa and Kenya shared their strategies of sustainable efforts at land stewardship for food cultivation which sparked fellowship and encouraged conversations of personal stories of feeding families and communities.

There were talks concerning how Black farming communities have been sustained for generations using seed saving and permaculture designs specific to their needs. Attendees engaged in African traditions such as libations, African drumming and dance during the conference These traditions celebrate life and victories in the community. These practices involve the beginning of life in Africa, the youth, giving homage to the ancestors and acknowledging those that paved the way for all people of indigenous descent.

Detroit farmer_Photo by Michigan Municipal LeagueBarbara Norman and Africanness

Barbara Norman, a sixth generation blueberry farmer from Covert, Michigan, made two important statements: “we remember whom we came from” and “plant with love and power”. These statements give insight to many African cultures. Her statements spoke to her emphasis on how garden teachings to youth are crucial to remember who we are as people of the land and the blessing we receive helping people by growing food. Ms. Norman explained the importance of knowing the soil and preparing the land for future generations.

As she spoke, I observed how the audience agreed with her words because Black growers are standing on their Africanness in order to progress in the food justice movement. Ms. Norman’s statements are the essence of Sankofa which in the Akan language of Ghana translates to ‘reach back and get it’ and it shows how people of African and other descents look at their past to learn for the future.

Indigeneity and the Food Justice Frame

According to the group Cultural Survival, an organization advocating for Indigenous People’s rights, “Indigenous peoples are often thought of as the primary stewards of the planets biological resources. Their ways of life and cosmovisions have contributed to the protection of the natural environment on which they depend on. Indigenous communities and the environments they maintain are increasingly under assault from mining, oil, dam building, logging and agro-industrial projects.”

The Black farmers at the BUGs conference epitomize this situation since they currently practice the ways of African native people to promote food justice and are under attack by the capitalist system.

Attendees at the conference shared the importance of preserving heirloom seeds from their crops as their African ancestors did in order to continue the original genetic characteristics of vegetable plants. This practice also shows resistance to the dominance of genetically modified food.

Attendees at the conference shared the importance of preserving heirloom seeds from their crops as their African ancestors did in order to continue the original genetic characteristics of vegetable plants. This practice also shows resistance to the dominance of genetically modified food. Seed preservation was a survival skill of the native people that sustained the African indigenous communities. Their descendants are redeveloping this skill after the negative impact of industrial agriculture. Almost all the attendees spoke about the variety of vegetables they grow in the land such as kale, collards, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, corn, berries, and medicinal herbs.

These practices mirror what indigenous people have done for centuries. Our ancestors preserved the land’s natural ecosystem by enhancing biodiversity in the soil by growing a diversification of crops. Black farmers are keeping these native traditions alive as a strategy in the food justice movement.

Chef Bryant Terry and Indigeneity

Food justice activist and grower Ladonna Sanders Redmond stated that “We have to return to the kitchen of our ancestors”. Keynote speaker and author of several books including Afro-Vegan Chef Bryant Terry emphasized this perspective in his food demonstration at the BUGs conference. As he prepared an African vegan dish he spoke about how his culinary career began assisting his grandmother with home-cooked meals of fresh foods from the garden.

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 2.21.15 PMThe audience related to his story as if it were their own since many Black people began their cooking skills in the kitchen of our elders who passed on indigenous traditions of growing fresh foods and unique cooking methods. He explained how it is better to create spice mixes of fresh ingredients (that was done for generations) as opposed to buying them from commercial grocers. His demonstration of grinding spices using a mortar and pestle also takes us back to ancestral ways. That explanation is what I recognized as a way to take charge, a powerful means of liberation from the commercial, colonized diets that we have relied on for years.

Chef Terry also showed a video from his Youtube cooking show, Urban Organic that featured a community aquaponics garden in the middle of Oakland. The garden did not use electricity to operate and was completely sustainable. Self-sustaining gardens have been created and operated by our Black ancestors for years and are becoming a prominent way to decolonize our diets going forward in the food justice movement.

Politics and the Food Justice Movement

The broken food system and the challenges to acquire land were central topics brought up among urban and rural growers alike at the BUGs event. Power within the Black farming community has been recognized as something that does not solely belong to the community because of dominating capitalist agriculture forces and unfavorable government policy.

It was acknowledged at the conference that the food system has been broken before the start of giant ag companies like Monsanto and ConAgra. It broke with the start of colonialism in African countries and the mechanism of harsh slave labor to obtain profit from cash crops. During the large collaborative group discussion growers from Chicago and Detroit shared defeats from municipal entities.

Chicago growers talked about how the city bulldozed productive vegetable plots without any warning destroying crops and natural ecosystems. Detroit growers told how they were able to buy their own land and properties only to lose them due to extreme tax increase that forced them to foreclose on their properties and give up their land. These political forces were recognized as barriers that prevent people of African indigenous cultures from reaching a level of true freedom.

The conference was a vehicle to release frustrations as farmers of color seek wisdom from fellow cultivators and work to build for future generations despite a broken food system.

Ladonna Sanders Redmond and Politics in the Food Justice Frame

Ladonna Sanders Redmond spoke to the idea that “Politics is personal” on the opening night of the BUGs conference. I recognized her as a powerhouse of wisdom and information on how to overcome the political boundaries that limit people of color from having access to fresh food. She shared her story of starting out in the food justice movement as an urban grower on Chicago’s poverty-stricken, newly gentrified, west side growing fresh unprocessed foods for her son who suffered from severe food allergies.

The cost of organic food from mainstream grocers like Whole Foods was unreasonable for her and lack of organic food access in her community forced her to not take ‘no’ for an answer from government officials. She took matters in her hands by growing food on the city lots in her neighborhood; an act that was not only a benefit to her family but to the members of her community who were employed to cultivate the land in order to provide produce on a larger scale. Mrs. Redmond networked with individuals who were close to the food security issue like herself and shared the knowledge with those who were uninformed of the issues which created an entity that was not solely reliant on outside political power.

Sustainability cannot be bought, cheap food plus cheap land equals wealth for someone else, and cooperative economics is needed in the Black farm community.

She emphasized three things: sustainability cannot be bought, cheap food plus cheap land equals wealth for someone else, and cooperative economics is needed in the Black farm community. Mrs. Redmond’s story moved the audience of farmers and inspired a young, Black female urban farmer like myself to continue in the food justice movement with increased self-reliant power and unshakable faith to feed the community and carry on the native traditions of stewarding the land to grow food.

The BUGs conference reflected my role as an urban farmer and the descendant of a rural indigenous grower. The conference is a significant event that must be shared with individuals of all cultures struggling to own land and have food access. The Africanness, indigeneity and political topics of this blog post reflect the food justice movement from my perspective, morals and ethics as a Black farmer.

The conference provides a voice for the Black farmers and farmers of color to share their thoughts and experiences in the movement. It is my hope that they will encourage a stronger connection between indigenous cultures to cultivate food and heal the land the ancestors left for us to cherish as we move forward in the food justice movement.

This article was cross-posted from the blog Environmental and Food Justice, developed and moderated by Devon G. Peña, PhD