By David Kene
Last weekend, November 19-21, the first annual conference to forge food, farming and policy solutions for the Black Community convened at Brooklyn College in New York City, convening farmers, gardeners, activists, students and community leaders from across the nation and around the world.
The 3-day conference, attended by more than 500 people, was hosted by Karen Washington of La Familia Verde and sponsored by Black Urban Growers (BUGS), an alliance of predominately Black urban farmers and food activists. Farmer Devanie Jackson, who founded with her husband Rev. Robert Jackson the 5,000-square-foot Bed-Stuy Farm facility on Decatur Street in 2004, proudly represented the community in workshops and as a keynote leader.
Participants spent the first day mingling and the last day on a tri-borough tour of community gardens in the City, including the globally known Hattie Carthan Community Garden on Lafayette Avenue. Other Brooklyn organizations represented at the conference included Weeksville Heritage Center and East New York Farms, among many others.
Participants and presenters came from far and wide to hear Will Allen, an urban farmer, founder and CEO of Growing Power, Inc in Milwaukee, WI, and a MacArthur genius grant awardee, who opened the conference. They also gathered to learn from the distinguished Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives of East Point, Ga., whose keynote closed the conference.
According to Ms. Washington, The conference, aimed to strengthen networks and inspire new ideas among people working across disciplines to address food-related issues that contribute to inequities in health, wealth and justice in black communities. So why are we compelled to focus on food, farming and justice now, in these embattled times? Allen and Paige both said in so many words, “we can not afford not to be concerned “about the inequities in a food system that is increasingly alienated from the needs of African Americans and dismissive of their demands.”
NBFC’s shared statistics that also answer the question:
· Our farmers are in peril: ninety years ago, over 14% of U.S. farmers were African American. It’s now dwindled to about 2%. In New York State alone, there are only 110 African-American farmers in 56,000.
· Our communities are malnourished and our collective health is suffering. Nationally, the typical low-income neighborhood has 30 percent fewer supermarkets than higher-income neighborhoods. Nearly 50% of African American children will develop diabetes at some point in their lives. About four out of five African American women are overweight or obese.
· Our communities are dying: Deaths from heart disease and stroke are almost twice the rate for African Americans as compared to Whites.
But the beauty of the 3-day conference is that it offered proactive solutions, the kind that get your hands dirty. Some examples follow:
· Paula Thompson and Trineka Freeman from 42nd and Steele St Parking Lot Farm in Denver shared the story of how they took a parking lot back and made it their paradise.
· In ‘By Any Greens Necessary: Food as a Tool of Colonization and Joining the Resistance’, Jade Walker from the Mill Creek Farm and Chris Borden-Newsome led a discussion on the interconnectedness of oppressions. They also taught participants how to challenge these negative systems.
· Youth from Brooklyn’s East New York Farms! Joined the conversation on ‘The Next Generation’ along with folks from Real Food Challenge.
·Tanikka Cunningham from Healthy Solutions led the discussion on increasing access to affordable food in communities of color.
· Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min (Muhammad), Minister of Agriculture and Farm Manager, Muhammad Farms of Albany, Ga., talked about the effect of USDA and other goverment policies on Farming and Urban Gardening. He was joined by Gary Grant, President, Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association of Tillery, N.C.; Spencer D. Wood, PhD, Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS; and Barry Crumbley of the Intact Community Development Corporation in Mt. Vernon, NY.
· Michelle Hughs, Director, GrowNYC: New Farmers Development Program, presented some resources and support services available for all farmers on the local level.
Urban gardeners from Upstate New York and New Jersey, Black farmers from across the country representing the states Wisconsin, Michigan, Mississippi, California and and the nation of Canada learned how a $5 per foot investment could convert an abandoned parking lot into rich farm land.
To a captive audience, Allen broke his success down to one phrase, “If you’ve got good soil, you can do anything.” Allen then detailed how soil was derived from composting dirt and garbage. “The key to good soil is garbage and access. I was walking yesterday and saw you all have a lot of garbage. For composting, it’s like a smorgasbord.”
The conference – which featured over 20 breakout sessions on other topics like ending racism in the food industry and the resurgence of the urban black farmer in Denver and Detroit – came on the heels of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act which passed in the U.S. Senate a day before. Among other changes of note, the bill would make public a National Agriculture and Food Defense Strategy that may give opportunities for black farmers.
“This is just the beginning,” said Paige of the need to continue the talk around black and urban farmers.
At the conference, the 2010 Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners George Washington Carver Awards were announced. Workshop subjects were compelling. They included: Scaling Up! Creating 100,000 New Farmers: Local and National Resources for Rural and Urban Farmers, Designing Linkages between Upstate Farmers and Downstate Food Desert communities, Undoing Racism in the Food System: Lessons from the Detroit Struggle, Urban Farming as a Framework for Wholistic Community Development, Young, Black and Gifted: Creating Niche Food Communities, The Next Generation: Youth Creating Food Change, By Any Greens Necessary: Food as a Tool of Colonization and Joining the Resistance and a Place for Us: Black Farmers in the Organic Movement.
For more information, visit: www.blackfarmersconf.org
(Publishers note: Bernice Elizabeth Green contributed to Mr. Kene’s article.)