Remarks on The Face of Hunger : Our Neighbor in Need

I was invited to speak at Emmanuel Episocal Church on hunger in the city of Richmond as a part of their Sunday Forum in Lent in March of 2013: Serving our Neighbor in Need series; the following are the remarks from that talk”

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food.” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (U.N. 1948), Article 25

The human body relies on a around 2000 calories a day to function. Without that the body and mind start to slow down to compensate for the lack of fuel. If it were that simple, all we would have to do is make sure we got the right amount of calories and go. But the body is much more complicated and requires more than just calories in order to sustain life. We need nutrients. Nutrients are classified by carbohydrates, fats, minerals, protein, vitamins, and water. Poor health and even death can result from the lack of required nutrients to the body. We get our nutrition from our diet or the food that we eat.

The first places we tend to think of when we think hunger are of people starving in developing countries. First images that pop up are usually exemplified by areas hit by drought or famine, natural disaster such as earthquake, hurricane or tsunami – where food won’t grow due to barren soils or lack or sufficient rainfall or the infrastructure of the city or country has been so damaged that food resources have run out or are drastically low. In either case the lack of food is the common denominator. The results from these types of incidents are tragic; more often than not resulting in starvation and malnutrition.

Globally the cause of hunger is poverty. One thing that differentiates American poverty from poverty in developing countries is that our country has very robust entitlement programs. The reality is that life for many Americans would be very similar to the realities faced by developing countries starving if it were not for SNAP, WIC and the Free Lunch Program. The accessibility of these entitlement programs do not preclude individuals from undernourishment and diet related illness though. Food insecurity or the lack of access to healthy foods is a issue that affects families in Jackson Ward Richmond Virginia and in Bangladesh, India. One may live in a city without any grocery stores and only convenience stores that sell processed foods or fast food restaurants while the other lives in a rural area that is plagued by drought or famine. The end result is the same; poor nutrition, malnutrition and lack of real food. The only difference is the proportions of the population having difficulty finding fresh and affordable health food.

What are the side effects of lack of healthy affordable food? The Virginia Dept of Health identified Richmond VA as having one of the highest diabetes mortality rates in the state and was highlighted as 2nd highest obesity rate in 2012. Poor nutrition leads to diet related illnesses such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease but as stated earlier not only does poor nutrition affect the body – it also affects the mind. Poor nutrition can also result in depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and OCD. Poor nutrition also affects ones ability to think – slowing down the cognition and mental agility and ability to learn. The combination of diet related physical illness and mental disorders are a powerful combination when considering who is hungry in Richmond Virginia and where they live at in our city,

Studies show that eating more fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of chronic lifestyle diseases. The Center for disease control advocates the support and promotion of community gardens as a strategy to increase fruit and vegetable production. Evaluations of gardening programs show that participants report higher consumption of vegetables than non-gardeners.

Who is Hungry in Richmond Virginia

The City of Richmond currently has an official poverty rate of 25.3% that is nearly twice the national average and nearly two-and-a-half times the statewide poverty rate. 60% of Richmond’s poor is African American, 8% is Latino, 23% is white. 30% are children, 58% are female and 7% are senior citizens.

The great majority of Richmond’s poor live in the East End or Southside. Richmond has the largest concentration of public housing south of NYC. Half of the cities population lives in US Census tracts with poverty rates that exceed 35%. North of the James River, all census tracts with a poverty population of at least 35% are located east of the Boulevard; south of the James, all such tracts are located south and east of the Midlothian Turnpike. The Council districts with the most poor residents living in highly concentrated poverty areas are the 6th (Gateway; roughly 10,000 persons), the 8th (Southside; about 4,000 persons) and the 7 (East End/Church Hill: roughly 4,000 persons)

16,000 students received free or reduced lunch in RVA in 2010. Richmond currently does not have a mandate for whole foods in public schools, and school kitchens do not cook food they reheat it. As a result the quality is not optimal.

The USDA designated 12 food deserts in the city of Richmond majority of which are located in Southside and the East End. Neighborhoods that are considered (or parts of which are considered) food deserts in Richmond VA:

East End: Highland Park, Gilpin, Whitcomb, Eastview, Fairfield, Upper Shockoe Valley, Mosby, Brauers, Creighton, Woodville and Fulton.

North of the River: Randolph, Maymont

South of the River: Swansboro, Blackwell, Oak Grove, Reedy Creek, Swansboro West, Belt Center, Broad Rock, McGuire, Cofer, Midlothian, Broad Rock Sports Complex, South Garden, Woodhaven, Southwood, McGuire Manor, Windsor, Davee Gardens, Jeff Davis, Hickory Hill, Cherry Gardens, Cullenwood, Deerbourne, Walmsley, Brookhaven Farms, Fawnbrook, Belmont Woods, Brookbury, Piney Knolls

SNAP reports for Jan 2013 indicate 54,000 families on SNAP benefits alone. $7.6 million was spent in SNAP benefits within the city limits of Richmond Virginia by itself not including Chesterfield or Henrico. The amount monthly for a household of 1 maximum is 200 and a household of two is 367 maximum. The average that can be spent per day on SNAP is 6.70 per person per day in order to make it through the entire month. The program stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance program. However for many individuals it is the primary nutritional assistance program as it is the only means by which they eat everyday.

The combination of SNAP and living in a food desert is tremendous. In Carytown there are 4 major grocery stores within walking distance of each other, Martins, Elwood Thompsons, Fresh Market and Food Lion. However on Chamberlayne Avenue the closest is over a mile away and in Henrico County. Stores in food deserts are not known for the diversity of their meals, primarily featuring processed foods, high sugar, corn syrup and fructose content. processed foods tend to have an inferior nutritional profile compared to whole, fresh foods, regarding content of both sugar and high GI starches, potassium/sodium, vitamins, fiber, and of intact, unoxidized (essential) fatty acids. In addition, processed foods often contain potentially harmful substances such as oxidized fats and trans fatty acids. So as a result one may be able to purchase food that is edible and may feel full but you have not met the nutritional requirements to maintain optimal health. If you aren’t meeting your needs nutritionally you are malnourished or undernourished and if this reality is maintained longitudinally you fall victim to diet related illness both physically and mentally.

What is Being Done to Address Hunger in the City

There are a number of agencies that operate under the VA FOOD BANK – they have a hotline to connect individuals to food. However even the food bank deals with shortages of fresh healthy unprocessed foods. They link with local farmers to get fresh veggies from them as well.

Local farmers markets such as the Richmond Noir Market accept SNAP benefits. The SOJ Farmers Market is currently developing SNAP acceptance capability and you can use SNAP benefits at 17th Street Farmers Market. The Noir Market is located in the East End, SOJ on Southside and 17th Street is in Shockoe Bottom. The Farm to Family Bus also accepts SNAP benefits.

Urban and Peri Urban agriculture efforts are currently being developed to address lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts. Community groups such as NRC and Tricycle Gardens are working to institute fresh veggies at corner stores in food deserts to address food insecurity. Shalom Farms brings veggies boxes to communities such as hillside court. McDonough Community Garden, Swansboro Community Gardens and Tricycle Gardens offer garden plots and donate produce to food banks and shelters.

The VA cooperative Extension is working on implementing garden boxes in Mosby Court. They are also offering nutrition education classes in the East End.

RPS just received a USDA grant to plan for fresh local foods to be included in school lunches. The grant was a planning grant.

There are proposals to have DSS develop an urban farm to re-introduce clients to veggies and fruits that will also include culinary arts classes.

City of Richmond allowed for vacant lots to be converted to community gardens to increase food security. There are 5 gardens up and running as of today.

As said earlier the conversation of who is hungry is really on of who is poor. You have to address both issues but the latter being the most important. You can’t get rid of hunger without getting rid of poverty – less one is more concerned with simply making poverty comfortable. Charity is unsustainable. Low income communities have to be cultivated into resilient self sufficient communities and there must be re-education around nutrition and healthy eating practices because communities have gone so long without access and have been reliant on processed foods that many of the culinary art skills have been loss or have regressed. Urban and peri- agriculture is a solution; increased access to farmers markets is another, Entrepreneurial urban agriculture has the capacity to empower thousands within the city by addressing food insecurity and providing economic empowerment opportunity through cultivation of a sustainable local food system.

What More Can Be Done?

A sustainable local food system exists when the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption and disposal of food and food-related items takes place within a relatively short distance (within the city, county, region or state) and the practices that are involved produce food that is healthy for consumption, avoids negative environmental impact, provides living wage to workers and most of all enhances the community as a whole. Our solution to the problem of food insecurity for low income communities is to create employee owned urban farms and farmers markets in areas designated as food deserts, partner these new entities with institutions that traditionally support communities that suffer from chronic economic distress and offer employment opportunities and educational assistance to cultivate self sufficiency and community empowerment. The city of Richmond Food Policy Task Force reports that there are thousands of derelict buildings and empty lots throughout the city and has made many of them accessible via the Richmond Grows Gardens program that allows for a nominal fee the usage of vacant lots for urban agriculture purposes. Veritably; a great deal of these properties are found within the 12 census tracts designated by the USDA as food deserts. Developing urban gardens and farmers markets will not only have economic benefits, they will also add beauty to the urban landscape and create safer & healthier communities for the city.

THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC ASSAULT AGAINST JACKSON WARD

Some of my fondest memories are of working for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia as a tour guide. From elementary school aged children to senior citizens, it was my responsibility to interpret the history of African American’s in Richmond Virginia to diverse audiences – literally every day. The permanent installation on the history of Jackson Ward served as, perhaps, the most inspirational tours I ever gave though it wouldn’t be until almost 10 years later that I would find out the more intimate reasons for the demise of the, “Harlem of the South.”

Jackson Ward was created around 1870 and was originally home to free Africans, German, Irish and Italian immigrants. During Reconstruction free African Americans overwhelmingly moved into the area and by 1920 Jackson Ward was the center of black business for the city of Richmond. Due to American apartheid, in the form of segregation laws and exclusionary local attitudes by people of European descent, Jackson Ward developed independently both politically and economically from the rest of Richmond. In 1940, an estimated 5,000 African Americans lived in Jackson Ward. From retail businesses, insurance companies, lawyers, doctors, churches, newspapers, banks, fraternal orders, beauty shops and entertainment facilities Jackson Ward existed as a city within a city. The success of Jackson Ward was built on the principle of interdependence which is essential for strong resilient communities and the backbone for success for any group in our society.

Renown nationwide for its social scene, Jackson Ward was a famous stopping point for musical greats such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Artists would stay at the Hotel Eggleston or the Harris Hotel on 2nd Street and later perform at the Hippodrome Theatre. At least 5 black banks would find home in Jackson Ward, including the St. Luke Penny’s Saving bank founded by Maggie Lena Walker the first black woman to start a bank. The culmination of the five would take shape in the form of Consolidated Bank and trust as a result of the economic turmoil resultant from the Great Depression. Black owned insurance company Southern Aide Life Insurance would find it’s home at 3rd and Clay street. Waller’s Jewelry, the Richmond Planet, Chalmer’s Beauty School, fraternal orders such as the Knights of Pythagoras, churches like Sixth Mount Zion and Ebenezer Baptist Church all would find their roots deeply planted in Jackson Ward and this was before 1950 less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War.

Imagine the economic power of having dollars turn over so many times in your community. Say for instance, you were a promoter of shows that featured Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Chances are you had a bank account with a black owned bank, life insurance with a black owned insurance company; you booked your acts at a black owned theatre and had them stay in a black owned hotel. They would then eat at a black owned restaurant, you would have gotten your clothes tailor made from a black tailor, your watch fixed by a black jeweler all the while holding membership in a black fraternal order and on Sunday you gave tithe and offering at a black church afterwards you could stop and pick up a copy of a black owned newspaper in the form of the Richmond Planet. Talk about black power! With 25% of the city’s population being overwhelmingly black, a resurgence of this type of economic self-sufficiency is certainly a way to re-emerge the city of Richmond from it’s current state.

Makes you wonder what happened right? Well a common misnomer is that the collapse of historically black neighborhoods and Black Wall Streets was a byproduct of integration with the inference that it was African American’s overwhelming desire to support businesses other than their own. The truth is that the opportunity to participate freely in mainstream America without concern of a white’s only sign may have had an effect on the Harlem of the South but the demise of Jackson Ward was a much more complicated, uncomfortably more insidious and unfortunately deliberate act.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s statue in Jackson Ward

In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in the 1930’s which instituted a myriad of economic programs with intentions of boosting the American economy. Sounds good right? Well it was if your ethnic persuasion was fit for the salvation. As it related to housing, the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was designed to refinance homes to prevent foreclosure. Field workers for the HOLC went through communities rating neighborhoods to determine if eligibility for refinancing. African American neighborhoods were given the lowest rating regardless of how much the median income for their respective communities with white communities even if on the decline receiving higher grades. This affected how much, if any, assistance was given to communities like Jackson Ward during one of the most economically trying times this country has yet to face.

Similar to the HOLC, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that was charged with guaranteeing low interest loans with small down payments and long-term payback periods. This program discriminated as well and refused to give loans to African Americans even if they had good credit. The FHA used the racist ratings determined by the HOLC to deny African Americans neighborhoods both loans and mortgages. If property ownership especially homeownership is the foundation of wealth, then African American neighborhoods had successfully been locked out of the giving circle while others got assistance without any semblance of similar obstacle.

To add insult to injury, the development of public housing targeted African American neighborhoods despite the original purpose of them being for people of all ethnicities. The suburbs didn’t get any public housing developments at all in Richmond. Centralizing public housing in and around traditionally African American neighborhoods in the city of Richmond, in the case of Jackson Ward – Gilpin Court, which meant the centralization of poverty close to and inside of black neighborhoods. That wouldn’t have been so bad had there not been the final deathblow administered by way of the initiation of the Interstate Highway program that would be built directly through the middle of Jackson Ward – despite the community being against the idea. State and city legislators created the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and built the highway anyway despite multiple public community vote downs. Seven thousand African Americans or 10% of Jackson Wards population would be displaced by this act of economic violence.

The interesting thing about the highway, the new deal programs, and the development of public housing in and or around traditionally African American neighborhood was that Jackson Ward in Richmond was not the exception to the rule. This was no anomaly. In fact when one does the research you find that every major metropolitan city across America followed the same blueprint that would crush the economic fortitude of major black epicenters that had been forced to develop out of necessity due to segregation. It was as if a memo was passed down from some secret meeting that read “this is how you stop black people from gaining political and economic power in your city.”

During this time of urban renewal; of course the civil rights movement was in swing working to provide access for African American’s into mainstream America. Inherently this is the way that it should be. Irrespective of such overwhelming economic terrorism, lawyers and activists in Jackson Ward would go on to spearhead numerous landmark efforts during the civil rights movement – with notables such as Oliver Hill locating their offices in Jackson Ward. Hill served on the legal defense team for the NAACP and championed cases such as the Brown vs. Board of Education. He would later become the first black person to serve on city council since Reconstruction in 1948. Henry Marsh III had offices in Jackson Ward, and his work on Bradley vs. Richmond School Board instituted school bussing programs to racially integrate the school system. He would later become the city’s first black mayor in 1966. The Richmond Crusade for Voters had its offices in Jackson Ward and fought for voting rights for people of African descent to be able to participate fully in the political system. The Richmond NAACP offices were in Jackson Ward and their work organizing sit-ins broke led to the first sit in at Woolworths. Efforts from leaders from right here in Richmond VA by way of Jackson Ward helped shape the civil rights movement immeasurably. Funding for these efforts came by way of businesses like Virginia Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company and citizens living right in Jackson Ward.

Oliver Hill and (a daper) Henry Marsh III. Civil Rights legends made power moves in Jackson Ward.

It is a hard argument to hypothesize what Jackson Ward would have been had its neighborhood been given high ratings and its residents had access to the same loans, refinancing options and mortgages that their white counterparts had been given, had a highway not been built through the middle of the neighborhood and public housing not been placed there virtually at the same time. Of course the convergence of so many economic wrecking balls aimed directly at a specific demographic would leave any community reeling. Once one takes into account the cumulative impacts of these events taking place simultaneously over two decades and the subsequent divestment from Richmond, Virginia in mass in the forms of massive resistance and white flight in response to integration, and later the influx of crack cocaine into public housing developments in the late seventies and eighties – one starts getting a full scope of what communities like Jackson Ward were up against  to survive.

The economic violence done unto Jackson Ward was like a poisonous dart. it didn’t kill instantly – and great works were done in spite of; however it was an orchestrated attempt none the less. One thing is for certain, you can kill the messenger but you can’t kill the message. The lessons of interdependence learned from Jackson Ward are timeless and even more relevant today than ever before.

Current revitalization efforts of Jackson Ward are under way, however due to influences from the market and stifling poverty, intensive gentrification has inspired a major influx from the individuals with much higher financial means that the neighborhood’s historical inhabitants. What used to be for blacks only is slowly becoming too expensive a place for the city’ black residents to live. The black owned businesses that were once a mainstay of Jackson Ward are being replaced by white owned businesses or businesses that cater to “mixed audiences”. Croaker Spot – one of the oldest black owned restaurants in the city, owned by descendants of Neverett Eggleston – founder of The Eggleston Hotel – moved to newly developed areas of the city in Manchester. Consolidated Bank and Trust – once the oldest black owned bank in the country was sold to a white company in recent years. The Hippodrome theatre once feature legendary black acts who wouldn’t have been able to get major headlines in white venues. Ironically now, often feature non-black acts and are done by non-black promoters. Funny story, the venue had a show by a local band, from Richmond, called, “Black Girls,” which was paradoxically an all white male college-rock band. No one seemed to notice the irony tho…

Friendship in the Age of Social Media

5,000 friends. 100 thousand followers. Shares. Likes. Comments. DMs. We live in an age of posts and status updates where many of us share our lives, our intimate moments with people we know, people we admire, people we are acquainted with and may have never even met and it is evolving the definition of friendship.

The quality of our community is determined by the quality of our interpersonal interactions. Indigenous people hold bonds deep as a result of our common heritage and history. Now more than ever though, in the wake of so much turmoil and simultaneous opportunity; we are in need of deeper bonds and stronger relationships to weather the stresses that demonic assaults our collective consciousness and to take advantage of the abundance that exists for us to actualize a new world.

Recently; I watched a documentary on Nina Simone and though there were many amazing reflections on her life, what struck the deepest chord was her experience as a social activist during the civil rights movement. Her infamous song Mississipi Goddamn, galvanized the movement. Deeper than her musical contribution, I marveled at the fact that she shared deep friendships and bonds with people like James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz. That beyond the icons we have learned to interpret these individuals as, that they were all friends. They shared time at each other’s homes. They watched one another children. They shared one another’s struggles. In our finest hour of black genius, these monuments of our legacy of resistance were more to one another than bookmarks to one another. They bore witness to tragedy, death, pain, love, joy, birth – the full gambit of human experience. Their community of artists, activists, musicians and the like built a movement that we today find inspiration from. I ponder what if any legacy would exist had they not formed these intimate bonds and relationships, where we would be in 2015 without them knowing one another?

In the age of social media, I think it is ever so apparent that we recognize that our very human existence is evolving and while our social lives may reside online, that we recognize that our intimacy unto one another requires more than an Instagram post together. It requires us to love. To hear each other’s cries of pain. To be listening ears. To learn to be there for one another. To call. To check each other on one another’s bullshit. To congratulate. To empathize. To send a text message. To visit. To recognize the value we have to others and to tell each other that we see each other and value our contributions, however small. To forgive.

How do we begin to cultivate these deeper bonds? For starters, realize that we are real people with real dreams and aspirations. That we are not brands and images solely focused on self-promotion. We are spiritual beings have human experiences. That beyond our profile breathes a human being with flesh blood, experience, and contemplation that by our very nature yearns to connect with others of like mind and purpose. That real friendship is work, not just confined to good times and joy but also sharing in spaces of consolation, compassion, and empathy. That just as much as we may find ourselves questing for success, we must take the time to be there for the ones we value and adore and that – is true success in the deepest essence of the word.

Today community and friendship is by choice. Friends are deeper than profile pics and tags of photos and status updates. We need one another more than ever.

The Socio-Economic Benefits of Urban Farming

The benefits of urban agriculture are often touted as solely related to the health benefits of locally grown food and the access provided to what is commonly touted as food deserts. There is a tendency to separate human activity into pods; while not recognizing the holistic nature of human existence. The popularity of urban agriculture has swiftly consumed many major metropolitan areas giving many a gentrified urban center the luxury of locally grown arugula or fresh specialty tomatoes. However, not enough attention is given to the ability of urban agriculture to benefit the distressed communities in our society socially and economically. Arguably the oldest of human professions, the act of growing food is not exclusive to the desires of middle-class America only. Globally, irrespective of class, race, religion, political ideology or gender – the great equalizer is food. Why? Simply put? Everyone has to eat. It is within this context that I would like to discuss several other socio-economic benefits that are often under-remarked upon in the public discourse.

Food security refers to the availability of food and one’s access to it. Major urban centers are by far reliant upon industrial agriculture for their population’s food supply. As a result, a great deal of food consumed by people in the city is shipped from far away, out of state and even out of the country for public consumption. The availability of food and one’s access to it are primarily determined by the market whereas if you are poor; the supermarkets are far away and if you are middle class they are easier to access. According to the USDA, a food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. (See slide 1 for a map of Richmond Virginia’s food deserts.) Despite an overwhelming high public discourse regarding food deserts resultant from Michelle Obama’s campaign against them; the question of what food (GMO vs. Organic) will be made available to low-income communities found in food deserts has not reached the same level of intensity. Participants in urban agriculture projects have the power to define what food is available to them by growing it themselves how they want to grow it.

The relative unavailability of fresh organic fruits and vegetables to large segments of any society poses significant threats to the overall wellness of any given society. Heavily relegated to conversations regarding obesity and overall health and wellness – the prevalence of food deserts aren’t often used to examine how within a problem; we can find the solution. The blight of food deserts presents a unique opportunity for communities to generate solutions for the most intrinsic of needs from within itself. Through the use of urban farming communities can not only grow their own food – they can also create opportunities to sell the food that they grow and products created from that which is grown on the land – to other community members, restaurants, and retailers. This concept is often termed an entrepreneurial garden, but call it what you want; the social ramifications of self-sufficient sustainable agriculture on community building are overwhelming.

Poverty in the City of Richmond is a serious issue. The percent of the population living in poverty in the city sat at 27% as of 2014. Close to half of the Richmond Metropolitan Region (Chesterfield, Henrico, Richmond, Hanover, Goochland, and Powhatan) live in Richmond. 19% of the households in the city of Richmond are without a car. These factors on begin to scratch the surface on what can only be described as systemic poverty. The subsequent social pathologies associated with poverty are innumerable; suffice it to say that poverty begets poverty. Through the usage of urban agriculture projects, the Richmond community can effectively hit numerous issues simultaneously. Poverty debilitates the culture of a society. As my elder puts it there is no culture without agriculture, and It is my argument that a pivotal axis around which urban revitalization must revolve in the future of the city is that of urban agriculture.

Many major cities and developing nation have successfully utilized urban agriculture to sustain and/or enhance their food security.

  • In Haiti, SIFEUSA indicates helping the village of LaGonave with the development of urban faming enterprise of more than 200 gardens not only increasing the availability of food but also enhancing economic development via sell of surplus food at local markets to the tune of over $14,000 in produce sales and consumption of over 4000 pounds of produce grown locally.
  • In Havana, Cuba due food shortages resultant from US trade embargos and the fall of the Soviet Union – the bulk of food production takes place inland with a heavy emphasis on urban agriculture. Endorsed heavily by the state, currently 30% of Havana’s available land cultivates food with over 30,000 farmers growing food on over 8000 farms and gardens. In 1997, urban farms and gardens in Havana provided 30,000 tons of vegetables, tubers and fruit, 3,650 tons of meat, 7.5 million eggs, and 3.6 tons of medicinal plant materials
  • In Harare, Zimbabwe – primarily women spearheaded urban agriculture (60%) over 25% of Harare’s available land. Households with agricultural practice have healthier children and are economically better off than their counterparts.
  • On the island of Negros, Phillipines malnutrition among urban and rural children was reduced from 40 % to 25% in two years with the implementation of biointensive gardens.
  • Kona Kai Farms in Berkeley, California generated $238,000 from one-half acre in 1988 through sale of organic specialty greens.
  • Tanzania’s 1988 census found that urban agriculture was the second largest employer in the district of Dar es Salaam, population about 2 million (the first was petty trading and labor). One in five adults of working age in Dar es Salaam is a farmer.

Urban agriculture projects can culminate in a wide variety of entrepreneurial ventures from farmers markets for the sale of produce grown in the market by growers and other products, job training for development of services (I.e. landscaping, agricultural services, business management and administration) produce for sale to local retailers, the community or local restaurants, to development of non-profit and social entrepreneurship ventures targeted to addressing the needs of widespread urban agriculture to address issues of food security throughout the metropolitan region, state and country. Locally grown produce also reduces overhead for transportation to local retailers and restaurants not to mention carbon emissions for consumers traveling back and forth to supermarkets to access fresh fruits and vegetables for their families. Special emphasis can be placed on workforce development for ex-felons to prevent recidivism.

Urban Agriculture has the capacity to increase property values of surrounding building and homes. Communities grow closer via working in the gardens and associated farmers markets that may accompany them. Green spaces increase feelings of safety and build ties within the community. Urban farms provide excellent learning environments for children and young adults allowing for intergenerational and cross-cultural dialogue.

Urban farms provide a focal locus for community activity be it festivals or informal meetings, fostering greater social interaction from communities where neighbors may have limited interaction otherwise. The development and maintenance of the site when underdone with input and collaboration from the community it is located can build long-lasting nurturing relationships for all parties involved.

In closing, it is essential to note that urban agriculture is not the cure-all for social ills related to poverty however it can play a major role in addressing the effects holistically. By addressing the health ramifications of food insecurity and food deserts while employing an empowerment model revolving around entrepreneurship and sustainable food systems – urban farming can catapult the city of Richmond onto the fast track for being a tier 1 city.

Why Urban Agriculture Should Be Important to Black People

“Black people growing food on a farm is too much like slavery.” – anonymous

Unfortunately some African Americans have said this or perhaps they thought it and didn’t say it; either way the results are the same. Why do black people need urban agriculture yo? Is it relevant? Is it practical? Why should black people be immensely involved in the currently explosion of urban agriculture going on throughout the country? I want to take a couple minutes to give my brief opinionated but informed take on why I think urban agriculture should be important to people of African descent in American cities.

Many black and Latino people live in food deserts. A food desert is an area that has limited access to healthy fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables. Basically this is a place where there aren’t any major grocery stores within a mile or more with a vibrant affordable produce section. There may be a plethora of bodegas and convenience stores with candy, chips, soda and Ramen noodles for sale though. The issues of food security has even been brought to the national stage by Michelle Obama citing the inaccessibility of fresh fresh fruit and veggies as one of the reasons for many diet related illnesses that plague the African American community. She even started a “People’s Garden” on the White House lawn; taking special time to note that it was organic.

Didn’t mama teach you to eat your veggies? According to Policylink; nationwide study findings show low-income zip codes have 25 percent fewer chain supermarkets and 1.3 times as many convenience stores compared to middle-income zip codes. Predominantly black zip codes have about half the number of chain supermarkets compared to predominantly white zip codes, and predominantly Latino areas have only a third as many. Well what if there aren’t any vegetables at your local bodega to buy? If your are eligible for the SNAP program you can purchase seeds to start your own veggie plants but what if the SNAP program ended tomorrow and next months EBT card update didn’t happen? What do you do? Maybe join a community garden to grow your own food? Grow veggies on your balcony? Windowsill? In your backyard? . All it takes is water, soil, sunlight and love! I know it sounds cliche, but taking care of a plant requires time, attention and care much like any loving relationship. I mean its either that or you wait for some savvy investor to convince a grocery store to move into your community.

Its all about nutrition though. Access to healthy foods means I can get to the vegetables and I can prepare a healthy dinner for my family. But even with access many people in our community have lost the traditional recipes and culinary arts that our grandmothers and great grandmothers made famous. Many foods found in overabundance in American kitchens nowadays are fast food, high fat, fried in corn oil, quick pop it in the microwave, heat it up in the stove right quick but with black people leading the line in diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer and obesity; perhaps it is time to shift away from processed foods and soul food and get closer to whole food. Growing your own veggies makes you wanna prepare them, try out new recipes and learn new ways to diversify your palate. Plus it is important to know where your food comes from. The food that is best for you nutritionally is the food that took the shortest time to get off the vine to your plate. Also by growing it yourself you ensure there aren’t any harmful hormone imbalancing, cancer causing pesticides or herbicides in it. You also avoid the risk of eating more GMO foods that have not had any long term studies to prove they are safe for human consumption.

Another reason is for economic empowerment. For the more passionate community gardener who may have had an overabundance in cabbage; have no fear! You can make green by growing greens! There are farmers markets (or you can start a farm stand in your neighborhood) available to get rid of your fresh veggies and put some money in your pocket at the same time. There has been an explosion of the last ten years in the demand for local foods that are organic and produced sustainably. Get hip enough and start accepting SNAP benefits in your community to sell veggies. According to the USDA 48 million people in the USA use snap benefits to feed their families. If you live in a low income community or a food desert I am sure there are more than a couple people within a mile radius of you who face the same difficulty finding fresh veggies just like you who may not have time to grow their own food but will be willing to purchase from someone who does. Insert economic empowerment opportunity here:_____________. The Black Panther Party connected with the black community through its free breakfast programs and social change organizations would do well by connecting to the community using fresh veggies in similar ways.

Growing food together brings the community together in a very real way. Living in urban environments can be stifling and disconnecting especially in our fast paced highly technological world. We are so connected to the cell phone, tablet, laptop and iPod that we hardly smile and make eye contact with our neighbors anymore. Nothing quenches that communal thirst for convo than walking outside to the garden, especially if you have children. The sharing of seeds, trading produce, learning tips for how to grow and prepare veggies that were grown along with helping one another become successful in our growing efforts is great for cohesive bonding not to mention just plain ole getting to know one another. Gardens and urban farms create a meeting space for interactivity between old and young, which is something we need more of in the black community. Also community gardens are excellent areas for teen programs to give our youth something to do that actually serves a purpose for the empowerment of the community that can give them a sense of purpose, and we definitely need more of that too.

Its good for the planet to grow food locally. The industrial agriculture business has wreaked havoc on our planet introducing pesticides and herbicides to our air, water supply, soils and bodies. Our reliance on food imported from other countries puts a strain on fossil fuels through their use to ship food from thousands of miles away to grocery stores that may not even be close to our community. Meanwhile we have thousands of vacant lots and abandoned buildings in our neighborhoods and cities that go idle and unused. By growing food locally we cut back on the use of gas and oil needed to move trucks on the highway that constantly emit pollution in the air. We also cut back on our use of plastics and other waste that end up in our oceans and landfills due to the food not needed to be boxed up and sealed for freshness for weeks until it gets to our tables. With the rise of genetically modified food, a result of the mono-cultural methods we use, humans run the risk of upsetting the balance of life in the ecosystem at great harm to other living things, not to mention ourselves. We all have to live on the planet and we want it to be in better shape than what we found it. Also, we want our communities to look nice and beautiful and more green plants growing that are productive and bringing life to our urban centers; the more connected we become to our planet. And we definitely need more of that.

African and Indigenous people of the Americas have a historic affinity toward agriculture. The earliest civilizations found in Africa and the Americas are distinguished by their development of deliberate methods of organized crop cultivation. Indigenous ethnic groups in the Americas taught European colonizers how to cultivate crops. The European slave trade depended on enslaved Africans who knew how to grow and cultivate crops in tropical and semi-tropical climates. The combination of the success (read survival) of those early colonists in combination with the immense amount of profit grossed from unpaid African labor is the what made European countries the wealthiest on the planet. However the agricultural traditions that sustained African and Indigenous cultures over millennium have been loss, by and large a result of the rise western civilization, resultant cultural ambiguity and mass urbanization of what had once been rural societies. It is time we go back to the beginning and bring those traditions to the forefront so that we can build a brighter tomorrow for our children sake.

Duron Chavis is a community activist and founder of Richmond Noir Market, McDonough Community Garden and Happily Natural Day. He is the father of 3 sons and lives in Richmond Virginia.

Racial Equity is Integral to Our Social Eco-System

In the early 18th Century the formal system we currently use for identifying plant and fauna was developed by a Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Linnaeus. Known as the father of taxonomy, Linnaeus developed a system for the naming, ranking and classifying organisms that is still used to this day. The legacy of his work is seen in binomial nomenclature; the first part of the descriptor describing the genus of the species and the second part identifying the species within the genus. An example of this is found in Homo sapiens; Homo being the genus and sapiens being the species. Flower lovers may resonate with the Strelitzia reginae otherwise known as the bird of paradise.

Linnaeus is also known for his classification of human beings into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus and Europeaeus. Prior to Linnaeus; classification was hardly what one could describe as scientific as most scholars of that time leaned toward Biblical or philosophical explanations of race. The idea that the human race would be broken into a racial hierarchy in Linnaeus’s description was problematic; ascribing negative traits such as lazy, stubborn, careless to groups other than of European origin while attributing his own European ancestry with adjectives such as gentle and inventive. Linnaeus’s classification exists as one of the first examples of scientific racism we see in contemporary history and just like his work with taxonomy; we live with the repercussions of this myth to this day.

Scientific racism is the use of scientific or pseudoscientific hypotheses and techniques to justify the belief in one group being qualitatively better than another group on the basis of the amount of melanin in their epidermis and the subsequent myth of a racial hierarchy that people of European ancestry belonged at the top; with all other people groups being inferior. The pseudoscientific ideas racial inferiority of any groups non-white held by leading European scholars and academics would then evolve into individual behavior, institutional policy and global worldview. The myth of white racial superiority served as an incubator of institutionalized systems of oppression that would benefit people of European ancestry to the detriment of cultures of indigenous ancestry for generations to come.

There is no coincidence that the myth of racial superiority would rise to prominence during the time that people of European ancestry would first encounter people of color throughout the world. The myth would then be used to justify enslavement, discrimination, colonization and the theft of indigenous lands, genocide, and erasure of cultural norms and ways of life. Despite current science having disproven the myth of a racial hierarchy; as a society we have yet to fully come to terms with its effects and repercussions and how the disparities we experience in the form of racial inequity are a direct result of an institutionalized falsehood – that people of European ancestry are better than every other group of people on the planet.

Racism is a human phenomenon that permeates our social eco-system. We tend to consider pollutants to our physical ecosystem of high levels of concern particularly when they are in our immediate environment. The health of our eco-system is quantified by the health of the individuals found within it. Racism as a toxic pollutant to our ecosystem on an individual human to human level looks like violence, racial slurs and discriminatory practices that cause harm for no reason other than a person shows up with less or more melanin than another. Racism on a systemic level shows up in policies; laws, and allocation of resources to specific groups on the basis of how much melanin they are born with. The myth of racial superiority has created disparities in health between communities of color and people of European ancestry with the latter literally living longer lives at higher states of wellness than the former.

According to Dr. David Williams; “Racial groups with a long history characterized by economic exploitation, social stigmatization, and geographic marginalization have markedly elevated levels of poor health outcomes”. Dr. Williams is Professor of Public Health and African American Studies at Harvard University and an expert in the socio-economic determinants of health. In his presentation to Hope in the Cities’ Community Trustbuilding Fellowship Class of 2014; Dr. Williams explained that segregation; discrimination, institutional racism, internalized racism and the psychological effects of being exposed to racism all serve as mechanisms for the perpetuation of disparities along the lines of race. One study showed that across virtually every therapeutic intervention, ranging from high technology procedures to the most elementary forms of diagnostic and treatment interventions, minorities receive fewer procedures and poorer quality medical care than whites even differences in health insurance, SES, stage and severity of disease, co-morbidity, and the type of medical facility are taken into account

As we reel from the chaos and confusion of Donald Trump as president of the United States; we are forced to confront the endemic toxicity of racism in our social eco-system. The idea that people of European ancestry being better than any other community of lineages on the planet has created systems of oppression that manifest themselves in the health and well-being of people of color. Despite our public abhorrence towards racial slurs and violence; the systemic mechanisms that create racial disparities are often overlooked while they perpetuate the legacy of inequity that those before us fought against. In the looming shadow of xenophobia that heralds our current administration; it is our responsibility to identify how racism has permeated the fabric of our social reality and not only expose it for the myth that it is; but also develop a remedy for its lingering after-effect.

Duron Chavis is an urban farmer and activist from Richmond Virginia. He serves as Community Engagement Coordinator of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden