5 Urban Black Women Farmers Sowing Food Security and Justice

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At the helm of many city farms, you'll find Black women and other women of color who feed, educate, and connect their neighbors. These urban agricultural efforts address the ongoing lack of grocery stores, fresh food, and green outdoor spaces in Black and/or poorer communities; the persistent race-based gap in land and farm ownership; and the related health and economic disparities, many of which are exacerbated by the pandemic. These problems have historic origins in slavery, redlining, and other injustices. But Black women farmers’ plant- and community-based solutions have deep and strong roots, and yield powerful harvests of healing and hope.

1Karen Washington, Black Urban Growers

“For so long, our relationship to farming was defined by slavery when, in fact, it is part of our history but does not define us as agrarian people,” Karen Washington, known as the Queen of Urban Farming, tells CircleAround as she reflects on the importance of urban farming for Black communities. “Understanding the fact we were brought here because of our knowledge of agriculture gives more meaning to power. So any chance of growing food is a political act of resistance aimed at controlling what you grow and what you eat.”

Washington, a Girl Scout alum, spent much of her life in the Bronx, working for years as a community gardener and activist, and helping to turn empty city lots into gardens. She’s worked for and with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, New York Botanical Gardens, NYC Community Garden Coalition, La Familia Verde Garden Coalition, Farm School NYC, and other groups. She coined the term “food apartheid" to describe U.S. dietary inequity.

Washington helped to establish Black Urban Growers in 2010, and, in 2014, she co-founded Rise & Root Farm in Orange County, New York, which continues to center social justice and partner with city gardens. She says the most rewarding thing about urban farming is “the reconnection to land and how growing your own food is so powerful.”

Photo Credit: Karen Washington

2Safia Rashid, Your Bountiful Harvest Family Farm

Safia Rashid farms and teaches at her farm, Your Bountiful Harvest Family Farm, in Chicago. It produces food, wellness products, jams, and sauces, and sells its produce through a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. According to its site, this urban farm focuses on “culturally relevant crops from the African American Southern tradition,” such as purple top turnips and blue-green collards, as well as foods of the greater African diaspora, like callaloo and garden eggs.

“These cultural heritage crops aid us in restoring our cultural memory,” the farm states online. Rashid told WBEZ, “It’s important for me to share that with people in our community, to really get them reconnected to their history and to feel a sense of pride [in] where we come from.”

Your Bountiful Harvest provides a number of free CSA shares to people with economic barriers, with a goal to combat the food insecurity that disproportionately affects Black families, especially during the pandemic. The farm also provides volunteer and educational activities: Rashid has taught hands-on farming to permaculture students from the Black Oaks Center, youth who attend Chicago Public School or are home-schooled, and other community members in farm internships and classes.

3Kanchan Dawn Hunter, Spiral Gardens

In the ’90s, Kanchan Dawn Hunter helped to establish Spiral Gardens, now known as the Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project, a nonprofit based in two community plots in southwest Berkeley, California.

Spiral Gardens provides diverse agricultural programs, including a nursery specializing in native plants, a produce stand, and an organic farm. Food grown on the farm is free for volunteers and people in need. This nonprofit offers workshops, field trips, and other educational experiences, and engages in food policy advocacy to promote healthy food access.

Hunter spends a lot of her time teaching youth and adults skills like identifying, growing, harvesting, and preparing plants. Her special interest in herbs led her to co-create the California Women of Color Herbal Symposium. And, she co-founded Soil Sistahs, a gathering of Black and brown women who meet at Spiral Gardens monthly to garden, meditate, and study plants, among other activities.

“I think anytime you grow and eat your own food, it’s political, it’s revolutionary. I believe that especially for Black and brown folks, food sovereignty means growing your own food and having access to your own soil,” Hunter told the East Bay Express.

4Jamila Norman, Patchwork City Farms

In Atlanta, Jamila Norman heads up Patchwork City Farms, an organic urban farm. In 2010, Norman founded the farm, which grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers. Veggies are sold at a seasonal farm shop and local farmers markets. The farm has also offered volunteer and educational activities relating to sustainable cultivation and healthy living, including after-school programs, and hosted community events like picnics and jam sessions.

“It’s important for people to see that farming is a viable career. Women can start farms. Black people can do it, too,” Norman told Modern Farmer. She also co-founded EAT MOVE BeWELL, a health and wellness initiative focused on communities of color, and she is a founding member and current manager of the South West Atlanta Growers Cooperative, which centers Black urban farmers. She’s a prolific food activist and author who has joined and contributed to Georgia Organics, the Atlanta Farmers Coalition, and the anthology OASIS (Oldways Africana Soup in Stories), among other undertakings.

5Shanelle Donaldson, Percussion Farms

Percussion Farms in Seattle states that its mission is to “undo racism and other oppressions that prevent access to nutrition and healthy spaces for people of color.” Farmer and food justice advocate Shanelle Donaldson co-founded the farm in 2017. It grows in multiple spaces, including in the yard of Donaldson’s grandfather’s old house. Percussion Farms connects community members to fresh food with sliding-scale produce deliveries and other programs, and offers volunteer and employment opportunities for people leaving the prison system. Donaldson teaches classes in farming, nutrition, and food preservation processes, including canning, dehydrating, and freezing.

Donaldson has been growing food for over a decade. The murder of Philando Castile by police in 2016 strengthened her commitment to racial and food justice, and professional farming. “If no one else is going to care about our bodies, we can at least take care of our bodies. We don’t have to believe that we aren’t worth it and that we aren’t worth living,” she told The Oklahoma Eagle.

By running farms and educating their neighbors, Black women urban farmers nourish their communities and address multiple injustices that affect people of color in the U.S. Washington tells CircleAround she hopes, in the future, to see “more of our folks returning back to the land, growing their own food, and collectively sharing power and resources. We must do this to survive.”

Tags: Black History Month, farming, urban farming

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Written By

Julia Travers

Julia Travers is a writer who often covers social and cultural topics. Find her at NPR, Art News, YES! Magazine and other outlets. See Full Bio

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