Written by Corinne Hill-James, Response Corps Member
In October of 2021, all Common Threads staff, board members, and Americorps service members attended an online workshop titled, “Uprooting Racism in the Food System,” presented by Soul Fire Farm. Soul Fire Farm is a community farm in Grafton, New York, dedicated to ending racism and injustice in the food system. This workshop encouraged us to think about our own relationships with power and privilege as individuals and challenged us to look at where our organization stands on our journey towards anti-racism and equity. As a White-led, mostly White-run organization, the workshop provoked some difficult feelings and conversations, prompting us to think about what all of us, as an organization and individually, can do to combat the racist roots of the United States’ food system.
The purpose of this blog post is to share some of what we learned with the friends and supporters of Common Threads in order to inspire action.
The US food system was built on stolen land and labor. Chris Newman, owner of Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia outlines American agriculture in a keynote speech for the Young Farmers Leadership Convergence in 2020 as a cycle of exploitation. Since Europeans first arrived in the Americas, the main goal of agriculture has been to occupy land and extract wealth–so that European nations could pay off debts to fund wars. To do so, they exploited land, nature, and labor. Enslaved Indigenous people and African Americans formed the backbone of a White empire, their labor and knowledge powering agriculture and natural resource extraction in the newly occupied territories.
Today, not much has changed. Occupying land and extracting wealth is still the primary goal of US agriculture and the industry primarily serves wealthy White people. About 98% of agricultural land in the US is owned by White people. Labor laws still allow the exploitation of food and farm workers, many of whom are Black, Brown, and foreign-born. Food insecurity affects Black and Brown communities at starkly higher rates than White communities because of structural inequities and food apartheid. People of Color face discrimination that makes it harder for them to own land, get loans, and access federal aid–including COVID-19 financial relief for farmers.
The modern sustainability, farm-to-table, and regenerative agriculture movements–which arose in response to the flaws in the mainstream agriculture system–are mostly led by White people, and in many ways have neglected to end the cycle of exploitation inherent to US agriculture. Oftentimes, even these seemingly well-intended movements still rely on exploited labor, with un- or under-paid workers necessary to support farm owners trying to squeeze a living out of their farm. Newman cites the example of WWOOFing, a way for farmers to get “volunteer” labor in exchange for providing education and experience to aspiring farmers. You have to be able to afford to work for free, he explains, to be able to sign up to WWOOF, just as you would to take any underpaid “sustainable” agricultural job.
Another major flaw of these movements is that they fail to acknowledge the people and cultures from which many of their practices and philosophies come. Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, presented to a largely-White audience at the Northeast Organic Farming Association-Vermont conference in 2019 to share agricultural wisdom of the African Diaspora. The 5-sense soil testing method, vermicomposting, swidden agriculture, terracing, the hoe, soil mounding, the work party, credit unions as means of funding farms, extensions services, pick-your-own and CSA movements, community land trusts, and food hubs are all common practices within the modern sustainable farming movement that she attributes to Black and Brown tradition.
So what can we, as growers, educators, and members of the public, do to dislodge the racist underpinnings of our food system and restore justice and peace for Black and Brown farmers?
We can acknowledge and challenge our ignorance.
Many of us as White people have the privilege of not knowing what experiences are like for People of Color, be it in the agriculture industry, public schools, or day-to-day life. We can turn our heads and say that issues of racism, discrimination, and hate do not happen in our spheres of life, or that we are not prepatuating them. But we would be wrong.
This post aims to highlight that racism and inequity are inherent to every aspect of our society. In our position of privilege, White people have the responsibility to use our power to fight against racism. Educating ourselves and becoming aware of how we are benefitting from structural racism is a first step, and we hope the resources cited here offer a place to start.
We also need to acknowledge where our actions may be inadvertently perpetuating cycles of injustice and commit to making change. Jey Ehrenhalt in the Learning for Justice Magazine describes how school gardens can “unintentionally reinforce structural inequity and systemic racism” when they fail to recognize the dynamics of power and privilege at play within their gates. It is important to understand that the experiences held by White people are not those shared by everyone, so how a Black child relates to a school garden space might be entirely different form that of a White child. As educators, we have a responsibility to make these spaces welcoming and safe for all children. We have a responsibility to acknowledge and uplift the wealth of diverse food and agriculture traditions that we appropriate and ignore so that every child can feel proud and represented in their own identity.
Lastly, we need to use our political and economic power to resist the structural failures of our country that uphold injustice for People of Color. We need to advocate for large scale policy change to end racist and discriminatory practices that continue today and to promote equity and justice for People of Color. We need to give back wealth and land that has accumulated through the exploitation of land and labor. As much as 80% of wealth in the US is inherited, contributing to an ever-increasing wealth gap and the concentration of wealth into the hands of few. The history of slavery and discrimatory laws and lending policies has barred many People of Color from accumulating wealth.
Common Threads has a lot of work to do to turn what we learned in the Soul Fire Farm workshop and subsequent discussions into action. We recently formed an Equity Working Group consisting of staff, board members, and Americorps service members to push the organization away from complicity towards reformation. Our long journey ahead reflects the long, shared struggle that we all need to recognize for the broken structures of our society to heal.
Please see Soul Fire Farm’s Action Steps for Food Sovereignty to read about what you can do to fight racism in our food system. We encourage you to support organizations led by People of Color. Page 7 of these Action Steps lists some POC-led organizations that you can donate to, and Soul Fire Farm’s website hosts a reparations map to connect POC-led farms to resources. Please also visit the website of the National Black Food & Justice Alliance to learn more about how you can support Black food and farming communities.