Black Folks, Green Thumbs
How the urban farming movement is repairing the relationship between blacks and the earth.
At first glance, recent scenes of Michelle Obama planting a White House garden were captivating because of the backdrop. The thought of berries, herbs, spinach, okra, cucumbers, radishes and sweet potatoes sprouting from the South Lawn of the “People’s House” is enough, on its own, to capture the public imagination. But there was something even more striking about the White House garden—the fact that it was planted by and for a black family and that among those helping to till it were young children of color from a nearby D.C. school.
“I used to plant,” Mrs. Obama told a fifth-grader from Bancroft Elementary School. “One of my aunts used to have a garden, but we haven’t done it in awhile.”
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a positive, empowered image of a black farmer? What black faces come to mind when you think of the fast-growing and suddenly influential green movement?
Certainly industrialization has caused all Americans to become more divorced from their food sources. But that separation has often been far more drastic and detrimental for black Americans. The 1999 case of Pickford v. USDA found that black farmers had been subject to decades of governmental loan discrimination. In 1910, black farmers owned 15 million acres of American land. In 2002, according to a report from the “Why Hunger” campaign, the figure had dropped to just a tenth of that. As these connections have disappeared, suppliers of fresh food have all but abandoned many black neighborhoods. A recent study in New York City found that in underserved black and Latino areas, shoppers had to travel 20 blocks before finding produce for sale. Washington, D.C.’s heavily black Ward 8 got its first major grocery chain in late 2007. The story is similar in Oakland, Detroit and Tampa. And even in small towns, black residents often have to go to the “white side of town” to find decent fresh food.
Blacks have historically maintained deep ties to the earth, living for centuries—as with most of the world—as subsistence farmers. And so there is something ironic about the fact that black Americans whose ancestors were brought here to work the soil—first as slaves and then as sharecroppers—are now largely clustered in neighborhoods where it is harder to find fresh oranges than “orange drink.”
“When you can’t go grocery shopping without a car, and you’ve got to take your neighbors with you; or you go to three or four stores just to be able to get the things that you need—[the problem] is obvious,” says LaDonna Redmond, a longtime activist for sustainable farming in Chicago.
Other emerging black foodies are doing their part, planting urban gardens, educating communities on sustainable living, helping workers retrain for green jobs and even taking cues from celebrity food activists Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. But a larger marketing campaign is needed to realign black with green. Historically, environmentalism has been packaged as the province of upper-middle-class white hipsters and socially conscious professionals with money to burn. The new image of the Obamas as the first family of the green movement may be shifting the earth beneath our feet. “The emphasis is not on the most expensive foods,” says Jocelyn Frye, director of policy and projects for Michelle Obama. “It’s really about saying that everyone deserves to eat healthy food, regardless of race.”
Despite today’s reduced access, ecological living is nothing new to the black community. Soul food, after all, is the original form of recycling. Kimberly Morland, an environmental epidemiologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who deals with the relationship between the built environment and health outcomes, has performed studies from Minnesota to Mississippi suggesting that when African Americans have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables, consumption of these fresh foods goes up by 32 percent. “These people are already making modifications in their daily living to get access to that food,” she adds.