An Earth Day Fix for Urban Food Deserts

Rewind: Black organic farmers took Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" and turned it green.

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Jay Foster, 37, is the chef and his wife, Deanna, is the administrator of the neo-soul food Farmer Brown's restaurant and Farmer Brown's Little Skillet in San Francisco. The four-year-old restaurant, says Foster, makes a deliberate political statement by using African-American farmers to supply the kitchen, and a diverse staff to cook and serve the food. ''I wanted to do it in such a way that incorporates the meat and vegetables that you can get here with the recipes of southern chefs like Edna Lewis. But I couldn't find the black farmers,'' Foster says

It took a Morehouse College grad in Oakland, and the owner of restaurant to help make the connection. David Roach, 45, is the organizer of Mo' Better Food, a nonprofit group that supports urban gardens, aquaculture farming. and a founder of an April through November farmers' market in Oakland. He is also a friend of Keba Konte, a co-founder of Guerilla Café, an organic and natural food restaurant in Berkeley.

Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, the 40-acre Black Oak Center for Sustainable Renewable Living has connected a historic farming community and a prominent Chicago church in Pembroke, Ill., an overwhelmingly black town 60 miles south of Chicago. In 2009, Fred Carter and his wife, Dr. Jafunza Wright, set up a farmers' market at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (Yes. President Obama's former church.) Now between 10 and 14 farmers provide seasonable vegetables, corn, all types of greens, peas, cucumbers and lettuce. Carter's group has also been recognized recently for teaching more than 1,000 students at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School about sustainable agriculture.

Black Vermonters are no strangers to farming; they've lived in the state since Revolutionary times. Ras Oba Jacobs, a native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, arrived a couple of hundred years later. Initially, he picked apples and did other farm work. Then he and his wife, Dafina, founded the Afikan Zion Organic Roots Farm in West Wardsboro, Vt. In the mid-1980s, they began bringing produce down to New York City, first to Bushwick, Brooklyn, then Harlem and the Bronx, and finally settling in with the Hattie Carthan Community Garden farmer's market in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Jacobs says he sells a full range of vegetables grown naturally without additives or pesticides, at the market every Saturday from June through November. ''We are just guerilla farmers trying to do what we can,'' he says.

These innovative farmers, and particularly those who live in or near cities, may be perfectly situated to benefit from the small-scale, communal future of farming. Will Allen demonstrates that with the small footprint of aquaponics--cultivating plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment--careful recycling and the use of renewable energy, people can be fed more responsibly--and money can be made. ''It doesn't make sense to continually have to ship produce 1,500 miles to a city, when it can be grown nearby,'' he says.

Frank McCoy is a regular contributor to The Root. He covers business and technology.

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