An Earth Day Fix for Urban Food Deserts

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

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

SAAFON certified organic members Mary and Nelson James, know what benefits organic farming can reap. They own the 20-acre Dogwood Nursery Farm, in Maple Hill, N.C., and raise free-range chickens and pigs, as well as turkey, rabbits and pesticide-free herbs and vegetables. Their customers include a local four-star restaurant and Whole Foods. In an interview with North Carolina A&T’s School of Agriculture’s 2008 small farmer of the year, Nelson James, says, ”That’s what small farming is going to come to: a pick-a-pack here and a pick-a-pack there. You just cannot have one thing and survive.”

In northern California, the communal nature of modern black farming meshes with the vertical integration model of business: Get the food from the ground, to the food stand, to the restaurant, to the customer.

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.