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.”
The problem, says Seneca Price-Kern, an advocate for local farming who has started a branch of the WeFarm America collective in Chicago, is a combination of cost and culture. Going green is costly: Shopping at Whole Foods can eat up an entire paycheck. And despite black Americans’ agrarian roots, farming and naturalism has often seemed more a project for the barnyard-loving, hemp-wearing set. “The middle class buys organic; it’s the new hip thing,” says Price-Kern. But “within lower-income families, sustainability is not something that’s at the top of their list; sometimes just getting food on the table is their concern.”
The negative effects of poor environmental choices tend to hit communities of color hard—whether through disproportionately polluted neighborhoods, increased food prices, or through diet-related diseases that afflict blacks in high numbers. Here, access is also an issue: The same New York study that traced access to fresh produce found that just 18 percent of stores in East Harlem had foods recommended for people with diabetes, compared with nearly 60 percent of grocers on the Upper East Side.
The lack of good, local food isn’t just about equal access; it is about protecting the environment. To some “locavores” (people who strive to shop and eat locally), the familiar scene of shoppers grabbing packaged goods from their neighborhood grocery store shelves is an environmental disaster on par with an oil spill. Between truck traffic, roadway wear and tear, and fossil fuel use, industrial food sourcing is a significant and expensive contributor to global warming. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the food production system accounts for 17 percent of all fossil fuel use and 10.5 percent of total energy use. And, when avocados come from Mexico and asparagus from Argentina, food is vulnerable to price shocks—during last summer’s gas crunch, the price of food was up by about 40 percent.
So the path to health and food security, black environmentalists argue, lies in taking back the land. Beginning in 2002, Redmond’s Chicago-based Institute for Community Resource Development converted first her home and then several vacant lots to urban farm sites, and it opened farmers markets for the harvest. It is now developing a retail presence to try to meet growing demand for greener living. Shared gardens or city-farm cooperative partnerships are newly popular. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also noted that, in addition to a recent uptick in seed sales, attributed to the recession, “we’re beginning to see a significant interest in urban gardens and creative ways to produce fruits and vegetables.” Rooftop, hydroponic or community “victory gardens” boast a financial payoff, too: Grown foods are naturally cheaper, and, in Milwaukee, the one-acre urban farm Growing Power, which boasts “plastic greenhouses, compost piles, do-it-yourself contraptions, tilapia tanks and pens full of hens, ducks and goats,” according to the New York Times, made $220,000 in one year.
Several public policy initiatives are under consideration that could further promote nutrition and more energy-efficient lifestyle choices. One of them is adding USDA appropriations for fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches. Rethinking zoning and market incentives for big grocers is another. “We really need to look at developing an urban food systems agenda,” says Redmond. “We need to think abut how to redistribute food in a local way that supports urban communities or isolated communities”—whether rural, urban or Native American.
There are hopeful signs: The city of New York has decided to expand their “green cart” program to provide more permits for fresh food vendors, and focus those permits to underserved areas of the city. And the Food Trust, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia, recently created, with government sponsors, a $120 million initiative “to assist in financing supermarkets and healthy bodegas in underserved communities.”
Bridging the black and green gap will do much to heal the schism between liberal elites and working-class folks—of every ethnicity—who have felt excluded by the environmental movement’s historic focus on conservation, animal rights and acid rain. Such organizations as Green for All, the Apollo Alliance, the new Climate Equity Alliance, the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative and countless others are making the case for green by talking up justice, health and wealth. If images of Michelle Obama tilling the White House lawn can help reframe the green agenda, so be it. When it comes to restoring the connection between blacks and their food sources, and changing collective attitudes toward the planet as a whole, the first lady’s dirty knees are not a bad place to start.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
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Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.