The morning’s rain is still close on the air when Karen Washington unlocks the gate to her Bronx community garden, the Garden of Happiness, with a bag of food scraps in hand. “I love when it rains,” she says, following a mulched path through 36 plots of produce, including tomatoes, collard greens and herbs like pipicha and papalo. “I don’t have to water.” She unlatches another gate, to a coop where a dozen chickens are waiting. “Hey girls, good morning!” she says, scattering the scraps and some feed before letting the chickens out for breakfast.
Just over a decade ago, Washington saw nearby gardens at risk: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani sought to auction plots throughout the city for development, leading Washington and like-minded neighbors to form a five-garden coalition called La Familia Verde. Today, its yields — grown by neighbors, both for themselves and for La Familia Verde’s farmers’ market — are something of an edible metaphor for urban agriculture’s growth, popularly and politically.
Nationally, organizations like Growing Power, founded by MacArthur fellow Will Allen, and Tanikka Cunningham’s Healthy Solutions, recognized by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, are working toward sustainable agriculture and food security in under-served communities both urban and rural.
As efforts in these demographics dovetail, a natural symmetry emerges between local, micro groups like La Familia Verde, who work to feed and educate their own communities, and macro ones like Healthy Solutions, which builds networks for increasing rural farmers’ distribution, in part by selling their produce in needy urban communities.
Like her counterparts in cities across the country, Washington works to bring fresh fruit and vegetables into a community where residents, many low-income, are often steps from a bodega but miles from a head of lettuce. The Garden of Happiness began as a beautification project in 1985, and since then, La Familia Verde has enticed passersby with sidewalk stands of produce, launched social initiatives like health fairs and voter-registration campaigns, and started a farmers’ market (which it runs with four rural New York farms, to supplement the coalition’s crops).
The market’s prices, comparable to local stores’, haven’t changed in eight years. They won’t turn away a hungry shopper who can’t pay, Washington says, or one who promises an IOU. Still, Washington occasionally has to defend the idea of $2 carrots when the nearest grocery store charges $1.
“I say, ‘Here’s a farmer, who’s traveling from upstate to bring you fresh vegetables—he has to pay gas and tolls, so the money you’re paying is supporting him.’ A lot of it is education,” she said, “so that the consumer feels empowered with the knowledge that they’re buying [what they’re buying] because it’s sustainable for the farmer, and because they understand the dynamics of food: Whose hands touched that food? How far did it travel? How was it handled?”
One organization La Familia Verde works with, Just Food, runs this type of model throughout New York: It started its City Farms program in 2005 — offering training and technical support to community growers, and pairing them with rural farmers to fortify their neighborhood markets — and now assists 18 such markets. (Washington is on the board.) “People have always been growing food in New York City,” said Just Food executive director Jacquie Berger.
“It’s been an important component of people’s lives, especially those moving from the South, anywhere with an agricultural background, to connect to their roots and stay connected to where food comes from.” That connection is part of the mission for Healthy Solutions, a Washington, D.C.-based organization active both in its urban base and in farm-heavy areas like Alabama and North Carolina. Co-founder Tanikka Cunningham, who ran a produce-distribution company with her sister before launching the organization, decided to forgo grassroots initiatives and play to her skill: “Our strength is not getting people from the ground up,” she said. “Our speciality is distribution.”
In contrast to what Cunningham called “direct doers” — local community members organizing gardens or planting seeds — Healthy Solutions uses its niche to help farmers navigate the framework of the growing and selling business, and to get their food into the hands of those who need it.
“There’s so much need on both ends,” Cunningham said. “Especially in communities of color.” On the rural side, she’s seen farmers whose modest sales require three or more jobs, and farmers forced to compost large, unsold harvests. On the urban end of the spectrum, she contrasts Healthy Solutions’ D.C. focus — the food-deserted areas east of the Anacostia River — with more affluent Virginia towns where she might count six grocery stores on one street.
Healthy Solutions attempts to balance the scale by helping urban communities establish entrepreneurial projects like farmers’ markets and co-ops, then stocking them with produce they’ve distributed from rural farmers. In D.C., that means bringing in at least 18,000 pounds of produce per month. Healthy Solutions tends to match relatively locally, relying on Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia farmers for the D.C. markets and co-ops, and Alabama, Georgia and Florida farmers for ones in Alabama.
Meanwhile, in those rural farming areas, the organization focuses on engaging people who either aren’t used to farming or don’t know what to do with their land. This works in tandem with another Healthy Solutions initiative: National Black Agriculture Awareness Week (July 10-16). For Cunningham, the issue goes back to her days as a produce distributor, which she said opened her eyes to black farmers’ difficulty finding distribution because of myriad sorting, grading and equipment requirements. The cause started to gel when Tennessee was hit by flooding in 2010: She realized there was no process for getting affected farmers back into production, and that need prompted the Save Black Farmers project — essentially a disaster relief plan until Cunningham realized that the issue was larger still.
“There are barely any farmers left — it’s not a black or white thing,” she said. “There’s a heritage behind this. My grandfather was a sharecropper; my grandmother had her 10-acre ‘garden.’ But that aspect of what I learned as a child shapes who I am today, and so many people have that background. Unless that conversation gets started, and people are willing to have adult conversations, we’re going to keep having the issues we have.”
It’s a problem that Karen Washington feels as well. Last year, she founded the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (at which Cunningham ran a session) after researching the racial breakdown of New York farmers: She remembers dropping the phone and crying when told that the state had just over 55,000 white farmers and slightly under 120 black ones. (The second conference will be held October 14-16, 2011.)
“How can we talk about sustainable agriculture — how can it be sustainable if a whole race of farmers is being lost?” Washington said.”If nothing is done about educating around this and getting people of color more interested in farming, then ten years from now there’ll be no black farmers. And I’ll have to take my grandchildren and point to them in a museum? Not happening.”