Three years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold,Ronald Preston died at age 75 after suffering from “hypertension, high cholesterol, other dietary issues from residing in a food desert,” said Preston Rogers.
“I inherited this land, and I wanted to do something productive with it,” she said of the plot on North 11th Street, blocks from the Katherine Dunham Museum and steps from a wide swath determined by the USDA in 2019 to have low access to healthy foods.
“I was looking to do … something beneficial, productive with the land. And that’s how I came up with the community garden.”
Billions of dollars in debt forgiveness for farmers of color were included as part of pandemic relief. But a judge has put the money on hold following lawsuits filed by white farmers claiming that the program amounts to reverse discrimination.
Just as the coronavirus laid bare health care inequities decades in the making, it exposed gaping holes in society’s food safety net. Across Metropolitan St. Louis, in neighborhoods where livable wages and traditional grocers are in short supply, Blacks already in urban agriculture are expanding and new recruits have joined in.
Each aims to create home-grown solutions to the redline-induced problem of limited access to healthy foods.
That focus on access, along with the broader racial reckoning wrought by the videotaped murder of George Floyd, has given food justice activists more ammunition. They are targeting not just the absence of retailers but also, and more pointedly, what they see as the systemic racism vexing bereft neighborhoods colloquially known as “food deserts” but which they call sites of “food apartheid.”
After decades of seeing tax credits thrown at corporate-owned grocery stores, both planters and activists are pushing for a more sustainable solution to healthy food access, one that casts people of color in directorship roles and leads to what activists call “food sovereignty.”
“Black people in urban areas are currently and increasingly interested in controlling our food system and resisting against the violence that our people experience through the corporate-controlled food system,” said Dara Cooper, co-founder of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, a coalition focused on “creating a just food and land revolution.”
“I’m not saying we don’t want access to grocery stores, but my point is we want deeper solutions.”
Since the pandemic began, community organizations, nonprofits and the federal government have been scrambling to head off what loomed as a major food catastrophe.
The deadly virus shuttered businesses, slashing worker incomes. Schools across the nation, a source of food for millions of children, shut down.
In 2020, one in four Black residents across the U.S. experienced food insecurity — more than three times the rate for white households — according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest charitable hunger-relief organization.
Rise of the Black farmer
Against that backdrop, many groups looking specifically to help Black Americans get a shovel in the ground say they have seen exponential growth.
Bryan Ibrafall Wright, founder of the Black Urban Gardening Society based in Oklahoma City, said his group has had “easily” over 30,000 membership inquiries since the beginning of the pandemic. The four-year-old group has accepted about 5,000 new members.
“Many of our members are in low-income communities and they look to agriculture as a means to supplement their diets, their incomes as well,” he said.
Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire in the City, an urban ag program in New York State, has seen a dramatic increase in participation in that program since the pandemic’s onset — from 10 families to 50 to now 70.
“Since Black folks were and are disproportionately impacted by COVID, it makes sense to see an increase in urban gardening participation at this time,” Penniman said.
Blacks have been linked to American soil since before a patch of disparate communities became united states. Even after the post-slavery U.S. government went back on its promise of 40 acres and a mule, African Americans have tried to coax a livelihood from the dirt.
In 2017, there were 35,470 farms in the U.S. with Black or African American producers, less than 2% of all U.S. farms, according to the most recent census of agriculture.
It’s also a fraction of the historical census of Black farmers.
In 1920, of the 6.5 million U.S. farm operators, 925,708 were Black, compared with 5.5 million white farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. African American participation has declined steadily, as Black farmers faced not only the vagaries of weather but also, many say, discrimination from the USDA.
“Statistically, Black farmers are still underrepresented and under-supported in comparison to their white counterparts,” said LeeAnn C. Morrissette of the National Black Food & Justice Alliance.