‘Faces of Change’ — This crusader for ‘food justice’ paved the way for urban farming before it was cool

Urban farmer Karen Washington says the COVID-19 pandemic has made eating healthier a bigger priority for many.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made eating healthier foods and starting local gardens a bigger priority for many Americans, and that’s cause for celebration for veteran New York City urban farmer Karen Washington.

“People all of a sudden got an interest in growing food and eating fresh vegetables, and so my phone has been off the hook,” the 67-year-old Rise & Root Farm co-owner told The Weather Channel earlier this year for one of its Faces of Change news segments.

Urban farmer Karen Washington speaks with The Weather Channel for one of its latest “Faces of Change” news segments. (Credit: The Weather Channel)

Diet-related conditions and illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension have been more prevalent in Black communities for decades. Those conditions also make all people more susceptible to hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

Many Americans across the country have been changing the way they eat since pandemic lockdowns temporarily closed restaurants and offices, forcing millions to spend more time at home. Some have even begun growing and raising their own food.

It’s still unclear how long these behavior changes will last and how they break down along racial lines, but they are habits Washington has been promoting for decades in New York City.

“You can look at the grays in my hair,” she said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, I would say over 35 years.”

In November, the 2014 James Beard Leadership Award winner told The Story Exchange that she sold her rowhouse and plans to spend more time visiting her daughter in Georgia and working at the Rise & Root Farm in Orange County, New York, which she co-founded in 2013.

“It’s bittersweet, yes,” Washington said while noting, “I feel the time is right to move on.”

Washington said she’s also proud to see more Black and brown Americans embracing gardening and farming.

“They’re challenging the food system,” she told The Story Exchange. “They want to have access to land. They want to make up for the wrongs and ills and sins of our parents. … That’s what I focus on.”

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