Thoughts on Urban Ag: Inheriting Characteristics of Our Racist System

The problem with urban ag is that it has inherited the problems inherent in a racist system. Where nonprofit orgs could be advocates for black people to control the land in their own communities, where they grow their own food and export that food throughout the region as a form of economic development of ANY scale – the most popular urban ag organizations employ a model where the black & poor communities that are considered food deserts geographically are dependent upon them. The non profit acts as the producer, either of goods – produce – or services – nutrition education classes, double bucks at the farmers market & etc – and the community responds as the consumer of said goods or services.

Recently I was talking to a non profit leader in urban ag about whether their work intersected with racial equity in any way. They responded saying they sell produce in corner stores in black communities and that was racial equity to them. I explained that black people being able buy produce from white folks in stores they dont own wasnt racial equity. Black people being the owner of the store, the owner of the farm and the owner of the distribution company that got the produce to the store was racial equity. I dont think we were seeing equity through the same lens or the same way.

When the non profit fixes itself as a perpetual producer and service provider it is not entering a practice that is sustainable especially when it could create systems to make itself obsolete. In the case of urban ag by providing funding for communities to develop their own food production systems, by advocating for black and brown voices lifting them up and connecting them to their more resourced networks, by asking foundations if they fund black organizations as much as they fund white run ones, by being anti-racist instead of “non-racist” and providing accessible and culturally relevant training and hiring black people from the community in which they are found to do work, these are but a few ways to foster a more equitable food system. But the racist system we live in loves the narrative of helping the poor black people – whether they be in a third world country or in a housing project in the East End of Richmond. In both instances – there is no money for the non profit in empowering poor people to not need them anymore.

If the non profit solves the problem of food deserts how will their staff pay their mortgages? This is why we advance conversations about race into the dialogue. It isnt to bully folks or make folks feel ashamed. It is because at the root of this issue of black dependency – we have to examine why communities are dependent in the first place. How did the food desert become a thing? What racist policies were implemented that created the reality the community is facing today that your organization purports ro address? Then we have examine the presence of white organizations in black communities that arent working to create sustainable models for change. If we arent talking about black people being self determining and solving their own problems are we talking about them being perpetually dependent upon you? Is that not problematic?

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