This story is part of “Barren Mile: COVID-19 and the fight against food apartheid,” the result of a Report for America initiative that brought together four Black-owned newsrooms—New York Amsterdam News, the Atlanta Voice, St. Louis American and Black Voice News in California — to look at how COVID-19 impacted food insecurity in their communities.
Before coronavirus shutdowns gave Mike Daniels an unexpected furlough, he hadn’t thought much about urban gardening, though he’d heard as a youngster about his great grandmother tilling the soil. Yet weeks into the pandemic, the former bowling alley attendant turned his Lawton, Oklahoma, backyard into a “mini-food forest,” feeding family and friends with zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
More recently, he conscripted a vacant third-acre lot owned by a friend near an area defined by the US Agriculture Department as having low access to healthy food. Daniels, who is African American, said he plans to convert the plot into a community garden by next spring to fill what he sees as a “void.” “I feel like it’s necessary,” he added, excitement evident in his voice. “My plans are pretty much to feed the community.”
When the pandemic exposed gaping holes in the nation’s food safety net, community organizations, nonprofits, and the federal government scrambled to head off what loomed as a major food catastrophe. In 2020, one in four Black residents across the US experienced food insecurity—more than three times the rate for white households—according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest charitable hunger-relief organization. The USDA, which maintains a map of low-income census tracts in which there is low access to healthy food, pegged the rate of food insecurity for Black households in 2020 at 21.7 percent, more than double the national average rate of 10.5 percent.
Yet just as the coronavirus laid bare these inequities decades in the making, it invigorated Blacks already in urban agriculture to expand and drew in new recruits, all aiming to create home-grown solutions to the redlining-induced problem of limited access to healthy foods.
That keener 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 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,” Cooper added, “but my point is we want deeper solutions.”
On street corners and in vacant lots across the nation, self-help efforts were made visible as green shoots. More than 25 percent of consumers surveyed in Packaged Facts’ 2020 national online consumer survey said they were planting a food garden because of the pandemic.
Many groups looking specifically to help Black Americans get a shovel in the ground also say they have seen exponential growth during the pandemic. Bryan Ibrafall Wright, founder of the Black Urban Gardening Society based in Oklahoma City, said his group, which focuses on “sustainability in the Black community” has had “easily” over 30,000 membership inquiries since the beginning of the pandemic. The 4-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 the Albany and Troy areas in New York State, saw a more than five-fold increase in participation in that program since the pandemic’s onset. Initially, “we went from 10 families [per] year in the program to 50 families,” Penniman said, noting that the backyard urban gardening program provides participants with raised beds, soil, and supplies, and helps “teach folks to grow their own food.”
The number of families recently has grown to 70. All are people of color and have low incomes. About 85 percent are Black, including African Americans. “Since Black folks were and are disproportionately impacted by COVID, it makes sense to see an increase in urban gardening participation at this time,” she said.
Of course, Blacks have been linked to American soil since before a patch of disparate communities became states united. Even after the post-slavery US government went back on its promise of 40 acres and a mule, African Americans have tried to coax a livelihood from the dirt.
“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. In 2017, there were 35,470 farms in the US with Black or African American producers, less than 2 percent of all US 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 US farm operators, nearly a million were Black, compared with 5.5 million whites, according to the USDA. Since then, African American participation declined steadily, as Black farmers faced discrimination from the USDA.
Claims against the US government got a very public airing during a class-action lawsuit, known as Pigford, that alleged that the USDA discriminated against African Americans who applied for farm loans or other farm benefits between Jan. 1, 1981, and Dec. 31, 1996. In 1999, that case led to what was described as the largest civil rights class action settlement in US history. But many Black farmers still had trouble accessing their settlement benefits, according to media reports.
Meanwhile, 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, according to John Wesley Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmer’s Association. In a segment on Good Morning America, he argued that the backers of the lawsuits “should be ashamed of themselves…they don’t know what discrimination is.”
“Black people have been slaves,” he said. “We’ve been sharecroppers and survived through horrific laws of Jim Crow…And we’ve been discriminated against from a systematic standpoint, at the United States Department of Agriculture, and it’s time for those things to change.”
The sense that the harm done to people of color, both food producers and consumers, is systematic and not just happenstance or naturally occurring, is behind not only the ire of Black farmers but also of activists working to change the food access narrative, beginning with a change of names.
A review of “food deserts” on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website noted the earliest use of the term was said to be in Scotland in the early 1990s, where it was used to describe limited access to an affordable and healthy diet. The phrase caught on in the US and became shorthand for low-income urban areas with high concentrations of people of color and the distinct dearth of traditional grocers.
But in recent years, the USDA changed the name of its former “Food Desert Locator” map to the Food Access Research Atlas. It has not officially used the term “food desert” since 2013, pivoting to the more clinical “low-income and low-access” to designate areas with limited access to healthy food because it “more accurately reflects what is statistically measured in the Food Access Research Atlas,” a USDA spokeswoman said.
That verbiage, activists say, omits what they see as a crucial feature of the corporate and political policies that led to the current landscape: racism.
“The term ‘food deserts’ ended up erasing the particular anti-Blackness behind what was happening with the corporate control system,” noted Cooper of the Food and Justice Alliance. “And a lot of the solutions that followed were based on a flawed analysis.”
“Apartheid conjures a more accurate picture of the disparities that we’re addressing and it also points to the intentionality behind the conditions that Black communities are experiencing within the food systems, the mainstream corporate-controlled food system,” Cooper added. She said she hopes using terms like food apartheid and food redlining “draws our attention to the root causes, and [gets] us to think deeper about the violent separation of Black people from the means to feed our community.”
Brian Lang, director of healthy food access programs at The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, sees the terminology used to describe unequal access as “incredibly important.” He prefers the term “food redlining,” a nod to the decades-long denial of loans in areas with high concentrations of low-income people of color.
“Deserts are naturally occurring phenomenon, right, that just kind of happen in the world because of a set of environmental conditions,” he said. “And so in that sense, using the analogy of a desert to talk about communities, in cities and in rural areas that didn’t have grocery stores didn’t feel right to me, because what we saw in those places was the result of market forces, as well as public policy choices which are not the same thing as weather patterns.”
When accused of abandoning low-income areas, grocers, who operate on notoriously thin margins, routinely point to profit and loss statements that guide them to open in areas with higher incomes and steady foot traffic. One of the largest food trade groups is FMI, the Food Industry Association, which describes itself as the “champion for feeding families and enriching lives with nutritious, safe, and affordable food at retail.”
Spokeswoman Heather Garlich said in a statement that “grocers are open to feedback and conversations to better meet the needs of the neighborhoods in which they serve,” adding, “our industry embraces community in every way possible.” She did not answer questions about the neighborhoods grocers abandon.
That corporate abnegation has led community members to cultivate their own solutions, with varying degrees of government assistance and varying degrees of success.
In urban areas, where backyards may be small and vacant lots plentiful, a fresh crop of gardeners and farmers has taken root. Before the pandemic hit, Jamie Edwards took a $2,000 bonus she earned while working at Amazon and plowed it into a small garden on land leased from St. Louis on the city’s north side, just up the road from a pawn shop, an auto parts store, and an area deemed “low access” by the USDA. The money went to pay for eight cubic yards worth of compost, woven fabric for weed control, and other supplies.
“The area is not the safest area…you have all kinds of things going on around you,” she said of the neighborhood marked by boarded-up homes and some residents whose incomes dip below the poverty threshold. “But this is where the need for food justice is going on.”
Following a series of mishaps—from lost paperwork in the St. Louis office tasked with administering the lease to having the young garden accidentally demolished twice—Edwards opted to move her efforts to another city-owned lot about five miles away. Her nonprofit, City Blossoms, offered to buy the new lot but was rebuffed because Edwards is not a city of St. Louis resident.
Edwards, who lives just outside the city limits but has family in the neighborhood, said she remains committed to the gardening project but has found the process of getting up and running more hurdle-filled than she’d hoped.
“Due to the pandemic, wood prices are astronomical,” she said, doing mental calculations on her costs thus far. “Again, another expense. The everyday person that’s living in the city can’t afford…if they can’t afford the food, how do you think they’re going to afford the stuff to put the garden together?”
About 10 miles north of Jamie Edwards’ produce plot, in St. Louis’ Spanish Lake neighborhood, Janett Lewis recently was celebrating a win for her Rustic Roots, a community garden Lewis said sprouted in place of a former “nuisance” property. Lewis had been turned down earlier this year for a zoning change that would allow farming in the urban neighborhood. Now, with backing from her local councilwoman, Lewis is hopeful the logjam will be busted.
That assistance aside, she too expressed concern about the number of stumbling blocks placed between hope and harvest. “Do I feel things could be improved in the government in general? Yes. I think legislation can be introduced that lessens restrictions on urban farmers and community gardens in [low-income areas]. If food access is an issue we should be doing everything we can to support growers.”
Kimberly Calvin, a city council member in San Bernardino, California, recognized the growing role of community gardens both as an elected official and as a practitioner. She founded a nonprofit called Akoma Unity Center and with volunteers and youth from the center, operates the Shirrell’s Community Garden in San Bernardino.
“All over the city you see community gardens that are growing in vacant spaces, and the interest and the concern for folks who were already doing this type of work, now have a larger platform in order to get the rest of the community to understand–look, we have to be sustainable, we have to be resilient in our own resources,” Calvin said.
Tosha Phonix of St. Louis-based EVOLVE, a food justice advocacy group, would like to see more retailers purchase produce from Black urban farmers to support those businesses and foster more of a connection between residents and growers. It’s an effort that’s yet to bear fruit.
Penniman of Soul Fire Farm sees community plantings as a way to “fill gaps in food access while bolstering longer-term food sovereignty.”
“Before, during, and after the pandemic, food apartheid continues and will continue to disproportionately impact BIPOC communities, who now also face higher vulnerability to COVID-19 due to such factors as shared housing, lack of access to health care, environmental racism, job layoffs, immigration status, employment in the wage economy without worker protections, and more,” Penniman said. “We acknowledge that provision gardens are one strategy to strengthen community food sovereignty and they must be accompanied by systems and policy change.”
Karen Robinson-Jacobs is the St. Louis American/Type Investigations business reporter and a Report for America corps member. Breanna Reeves, a California-based reporter for Black Voice News and an RFA corps member, contributed to this story.