Chasing the Dream: Equitable Food Systems
A look into equitable food systems with the work of Soul Fire Farm and a conversation with Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming.
- [Host] Coming up tonight on Chasing the Dream
- [Leah] One of the great tragedies
in the story of black farming,
is because of so much land based oppression.
All of that has really jaded our relationship
with soil and with growing.
- Relationship building is actually, I feel,
at the crux of a lot of the programming around food justice.
- I sat with this property, kind of wondering,
"What am I going to do with it?"
Then, I was like, "Oh my gosh, yes!
"It should be a garden. Yes, let's turn it into a garden."
- [Announcer] WSKG thanks the following
for their support of this project:
The Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation,
The Corning Incorporated Foundation,
The Tioga Downs Regional Community Foundation,
and viewers like you.
- One hundred years ago,
14% of farms in the United States were owned
or operated by African American farmers.
Today, that number has dropped to under 2%.
Black communities and neighborhoods are also
far more likely to struggle with illnesses related
to the lack of availability of fresh produce.
The generational experience and wisdom that is crucial
to help sustain healthy food systems has, for decades,
largely been lost in the African American community.
But, as you will see in our next piece,
a reawakening is taking place,
and much of the energy and excitement rising
within the black farming community can be credited
to a movement right here in New York state.
- My name is Leah Penniman, I am the founding Co-Director
at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York,
and we are a people of color led community farm
that's dedicated to ending racism
and injustice in the food system.
I started farming by accident when I was 16 years old.
Like all teens, I needed a summer job so I could get
a bicycle and pay for college,
and I was lucky enough to be hired by
The Food Project in Boston,
and completely fell in love with growing food from
that very first day when the scent
of freshly harvested cilantro clung to my fingers
and I looked with satisfaction over a row
that was well hoed and well weeded, I said,
"This is really for me.
"This is this intersection of getting to take care
"of the land and the earth, who I love,
"as well as taking care of community."
- 'Cause we're actually gonna take these bags
and we're gonna lay 'em out,
evenly and then each person will take one
and spread it out in their section because we--
- I've been a school teacher for about 17 years
working in high schools, mostly public schools
in New York and Massachusetts
and back in 2005 when we moved to Albany, New York
it was very, very challenging for us
to get fresh vegetables or any type of whole food
for our children, despite our Master's degrees
and ability to farm and high level of motivation
to get the food there just were no supermarkets,
no farmer's markets, no available community garden plots.
So the only way we could get fresh food was
to join a CSA, community supported agriculture.
The cost was as much as our rent
and we had to walk over two miles in order to pick up
those vegetables and then pile them on top of our children
who were asleep in the stroller
and then go back down the hill.
So when our neighbors learned that we knew how to farm
they started encouraging us to start a farm for the people,
a farm that would really make sure that fresh produce
was available on the block at affordable prices
and we took that challenge really seriously
and that became the immediate catalyst
for starting Soul Fire Farm.
One of the great tragedies in the story of black farming
is because of so much land based oppression.
Enslavement and sharecropping
and the lynching that drove farmers off their land,
the government discrimination
all of that has really jaded our relationship
with soil and with growing.
I can't tell you how many young folks
who are African American come to the farm
and their first association is
"Oh are we gonna be slaves, right?
"Is that what we're doing today?".
But of course there's a much deeper and longer
and wider noble history of dignity
in relationship to farming
that goes back thousands of years.
The Ovambo people of Namibia
were doing these really elegant raised beds
that concentrated organic matter and channelized water.
People like Doctor George Washington Carver
who's arguably the founder of the modern organic movement.
The whole reason we have 'Pick your own'
and 'Farm to table' is because of another black farmer
named Booker T. Whatley who came up with the idea
for the CSA, or that sort of subscription program.
So there's a whole legacy of powerful black farmers
that we build upon here at Soul Fire.
- So we're gonna open up the bags
and if I was in that corner I would work this way
and try to spread out--
- So one of the main things that we do at Soul Fire Farm
is to train the next generation of black and brown farmers.
So we work with hundreds of farmers
who actually come live with us throughout the year,
take classes, experience hands on learning and-so-forth
and this year folks are coming from over 40 states.
So I feel like we get a really good survey
and lens into what's happening
in this returning generation of farmers.
What's so incredible is that many of us
aren't coming with generational knowledge.
Our Grandparents worked so hard to get us off
the land that they were not telling us
how to plant a cherry tree
or what to do for your covered crops
or how to rotate livestock
and so we're having to reclaim and find
that knowledge anew through courses
and books and supporting one another.
The exception to that though is in the South.
In the Southeast there are a good handful
of generational farmers who've actually been able
to sit at the feet of their elders
and learn the details of the timing
of the cotton harvest and-so-forth
and that's been really powerful
and we've tried to make as much space as possible
to listen to their stories and voices
so that knowledge isn't lost.
We have between 500 and 700 young people
who come to the farm each year.
Sometimes just for the day,
they'll do some hands on learning about farming,
they'll learn about the history of foods systems,
how to advocate for justice in their own communities.
We do offer week long carpentry training courses as well
but my favorite program is actually
a week long camp we have called LOL, Liberation on Land.
It's for black, latinex and indigenous young people
and the really cool thing about this,
we started it three years ago,
is that those young folks, we thought they would graduate
and be done and we'd move onto a new cohort
and they said "Oh no, we are all coming back,
"we wanna learn more".
So we're now in our third year with
the same group of 20 young people.
We call it our black future farmers of America
and we're gonna stay with them all the way
through high school and really support them
in implementing these skills once they reach adulthood.
I think something that we see time and again
when young people come to the farm,
it's not so much how much the like lettuce at the end
but it's the sense of opening to possibility,
remembering something deeper about who they are
and what might be possible for them in the future
and so they might not become farmers
but I think when they come here
and they see so many black and brown folks
making their dreams come true they really say
"well maybe it's possible for me
"to make my dreams come true as well".
(soft piano music)
- Here to talk more about
the importance of equitable food systems
is Elizabeth Gabriel and Alexas Esposito
from Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming.
Before coming to Tompkins County,
Elizabeth was involved with innovative work
in the Washington, D.C. urban agriculture movement
and literally transformed a baseball field
into a productive farm as the Founding Director
of Common Good City Farm.
Alexas moved to Ithaca to pursue
a degree in music composition.
After graduation she embarked on a path of exploration,
which cultivated a deeper relationship to land
and her indigenous culture.
Thank you both for being with us here tonight.
- Thanks for having us. - Yeah.
- So tell me a little bit about Groundswell
and what brought each of you to this work.
- Sure, so Groundswell Center was founded in 2009
by a group of farmers and food system advocates
and non-profit workers to address
the growing desire for young people to get into farming.
And so, we've really started
as a beginning farmer training organization
but the Founding Director, Joanna Green,
was also really committed to building
an equitable food system for the Finger Lakes.
So, what brought me to Groundswell,
after working on an urban farm in Washington, D.C.,
realizing I did less farming
and more relationship building
I was really excited to move to the Finger Lakes
and have a farm of my own and do more farming
and then I really missed working with people.
So once the director job opened at Groundswell
I was just really excited to merge my passion for
equitable food systems and farming
with a job that could allow me to do that on the ground
and put it all together.
- That's great. - Yeah.
- What about you Alexas?
- Well what brought me to Groundswell,
or at least into this work,
was just wanting to have a deeper relationship
within the community
and also putting forth my strong convictions
around food sovereignty and healthy food systems
and being able to work in the community
and feel like I'm being fulfilled (laughter)
and so Groundswell has been really doing the job.
- So you have an equity statement on your website
that says you are "committed to the creation
"of an equitable local food system,
"one that truly works for all of us".
Can you explain what an equitable food system looks like
and why it matters?
- So, what an equitable food system looks like
is everybody has equal access to good food.
Currently, this isn't really the state of our economy
and where we live in the Finger Lakes,
we're really fortunate because there's an abundance
of local, fresh, organic foods even if it's non-certified.
And so one of our goals as an organization
is to help connect people with what already exists
and help people who want to further their education,
further their involvement,
further their interest around farming
and regenerative agriculture.
Helping them in a way where they feel empowered
and able to do what they want to do for themselves
because I think at the basis of equity
is self-determination and that sense
where people feel empowered to do what they need to do
and provide what they need to provide for themselves
but also leverage resources where
Groundswell is still a prominently white lead organization,
so leveraging our resources as an organization
to provide better access for those
who wouldn't historically have good access.
- We also in 2017 formed our
Equity and Accountability Committee,
which is a committee that is only for people of color
and then there's some board members and staff
who sit on it as well
but it's specifically designed to hold ourselves,
as an organization, accountable internally
to the statements we lay out in our equity statement
and so it's been transforming for the organization
to have this statement and then to make sure
that we hold ourselves accountable to it.
- That's very impressive.
I know Groundswell is also very focused on the idea
of food justice and I heard you both mention that earlier.
Can you talk about what that means
and how it's reflected in your work?
- So maintaining relationships and relationship building
is actually, I feel, at the crux of a lot of
the programming around food justice
and then also one of the ways that we really work
on bringing more awareness to food justice
is our Farming for Justice discussion group,
which happens monthly.
We have people come into the office
or tune in via Zune to talk about
what they think is important in regards to justice
and farming and food and it provides
a platform for people to talk about it,
to ask questions, to learn and to share
'cause also it's a really wonderful way to network.
It's always growing, I mean in my education
around food justice and what that actually means
is continually evolving as well because it's so nuanced
in the community.
- [Host] Right.
- We think about a pathway to get into farming
and food business and where are the steps in the pathway
to be successful in that that are hard and unobtainable?
They're all hard but what's even more unobtainable
for a person of color or somebody
who is experiencing some sort of racism or marginalization?
And so, we think about breaking down those barriers.
We started a matched savings program last year
so people of color who have a food or farm business
can save $1,000
and they have access to then financial planning
and business planning and support
and then we're matching that $1,000 with $3,000
that they can put towards their farm or food business.
- Right, I mean at its basic level access to land
and then access to capital are--
- [Host] Pretty big
- So I know Groundswell is celebrating
its tenth anniversary this year, which is exciting,
congratulations. - Thank you.
- How has your organization evolved since its inception
and what kind of exciting things are there on the horizon
that you might be able to share with us?
- Sure, it is really exciting.
I think for the tenth year we're trying to think bigger.
You know, we're looking at our incubator farm,
which is amazing and has been around since 2012
but we need it to grow and so we're transitioning
the incubator farm as is it was to support farm businesses
and transition the farmers there to leave.
We're transitioning that instead to a community farm
so that the farmers that are there can stay.
We're also looking to develop a new Practicum program
for farmers, which would specifically
be for people of color, under privileged people
or white people of course,
everything that we do is open to everybody
but prioritizes people of color
but the Practicum would be a place where people
with no farming experience, no previous experience,
can get compensated to gain that experience.
- So tonight's episode highlights the work of Leah Penniman
and Soul Fire Farm, who you both are familiar with.
Can you talk about how you've partnered with,
or been inspired by Soul Fire Farm?
- Alexas' first day was with Leah.
- I know. - Wow, okay!
- Yeah, I was really thrown into the fire.
- Into the Soul Fire.
- Into the Soul Fire. - Touched my Soul.
- No but my first day actually was so influential
in the way that I came into this work
because it was during a land access and reparations workshop
and it was part of her Farming While Black book tour
and it was just beautiful because for me
it really touches me as a woman of color
and also as an indigenous woman.
There's a lot of things and a lot of teachings
that she has that I identify with
as my ancestors are also from the Islands
and so having that connection and understanding that
that exists and there are people still doing that
and also trying to help people within their own communities
and bring this work to the larger community
is really influential for me.
Since that moment in March, we've also really carried on
a lot of the work around land access and reparations
and working to
deepen our relationships around land
and what that means to people of color
and indigenous people, refugees, immigrants
and having those conversations,
which have been really difficult actually
but it's been remarkable work.
We have a small working group that we're part of
with some other people in the community
from some other organizations that are really focusing
on the conversation around land access
and what that actually means and I know Groundswell
has had a really consistent relationship
in the years going back as well so it's beautiful.
- We love Soul Fire Farm, we've been there,
I've been there four times both to take trainings
and to participate in workdays
but also Groundswell, for the last three years,
has organized all of our staff and board
and committee and invited other community members
that we partner with a lot to take a field trip
up to Soul Fire for one of their workdays
so we've done that for the last three years.
So I would say we lean on them as mentors
and as inspiration a lot and also I hope as partners.
We just recently submitted a grant,
which they would be part of with a commitment
and letter of support
and so we wanna support the work they're doing as we can
and like I said before, leveraging our capacity
to bring in money and disseminate it for the work
that they're doing is something that we believe strongly in.
- Great, so how can people learn more
or get involved in the type of work
that Groundswell is doing?
- They can check us out on Facebook
and like I said the Farming for Justice discussion group
is a really good way to network because in that sense
we're not just promoting our organization
but we're also promoting other people
who are doing similar work,
there's always volunteer opportunities
from, I think,
April to October of every year
on the first Thursday of the month there's two hours
in the evening where our incubator farm manager, Liz,
leads a tour and a volunteer night at our incubator farm.
- And we are developing a database of people
who are seeking land or people who have land,
either that they wanna sell, donate or lease
to support farmers getting started
and so, also if there's things like that
that people are interested in getting involved in
they can be in touch with us and we can keep
them posted as we develop that system
and that land linking program.
- You've got a lot going on for sure.
So thank you Alexas and Elizabeth for joining us
and sharing some of you knowledge with us here tonight,
it was a pleasure to have you both here.
- Thanks for having us. - Thank you.
- [Host] To find help, or to become involved
with issues discussed during tonight's episode
please consider reaching out to the following organizations.
For a more complete list of resources,
(emotive piano music)
- My family was a real community
organizing type of family.
We're of Puerto Rican descent and my grandparents came
from Puerto Rico, my grandmother would tell me stories
about how she would be able to drop a mango seed outside
of her window and a tree would grow
and it's just magical to me.
I had lost my parents,
it was less than 10 years that I had lost my mother
and then my father, both my grandmothers and my uncle.
So very close together, my foundation of elders
in my life passed away.
I was at a painful point in my life.
On December 5th of 2013, I experienced a house fire.
My son and I were sleeping.
The smoke detector went off, woke me up
about five in the morning.
I immediately saw smoke, grabbed my son
who was one year old at the time,
we just got right out of the house,
I had no shoes, no coat, nothing.
Got out and realized that the other side of my home,
as it was a two family home, was filled with smoke
and I could hear my tenant
screaming for help.
It was probably the scariest moment of my life.
Fire department was able to get there in time
to rescue my tenant.
You know, from there I just watched the home burn.
You're just watching yourself lose it all.
I was really praising God from
the minute we got out of that house.
Feeling gratitude for safety.
It wasn't long after that they determined
the house a total loss.
I was required to demolish what was left, by the city.
I considered rebuilding but it wasn't very realistic.
I sat with this property kinda wondering
"what am I gonna do with it?"
and I got to talking to one of my good friends
and said "you know, what about the,
"isn't there that VINES organization?
"you know they're building gardens and stuff like that"
and I was like, "Oh my gosh, yes!
"It should be a garden.
"Yes, let's turn it into a garden".
My family really taught and demonstrated to my sister and I
how to bring people together around food.
So this concept of putting a garden
in this particular neighborhood,
on the west side of Binghamton,
was exciting for so many reasons.
When I drive by now, I still see my son's swing hanging
in my mind from the tree that's in the backyard.
As I turn around and look at the rest of my yard
and where my home was, I see this flourishing garden
and there's so much love and care in that garden,
there's incredible carpentry,
there's a beautiful brick circle that was made
and there's a swing, a love swing.
I look at that garden and I see love just blossoming
and spreading out into the community.
I have learned that community is necessary,
to have relationships with people in your community.
I went through such a series of loses,
of losing my family members and then my home
and I never went one day without.
I was so supported by this community
and the outpouring was unreal, it's just so beautiful
and I wanted so much to give something back
and I knew I wasn't going to be able to replace
all the blankets and all of the items that have been given
to us and financially as I was still
getting back on my feet.
I wanted to pay it forward and when this came up
it was just a blessing to me as it would be a blessing
to the neighborhood.
My dream for the West Side Garden
is for people to continue to come out,
to expand in their experience
with one another and with the land
and I have a vision for this land
that music and art,
performance would come into play as well.
I know that where there's a vision, there's a way.
WSKG thanks the following for their support of this project:
The Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation,
The Corning Incorporated Foundation,
The Tioga Downs Regional Community Foundation,
and viewers like you.
More Episodes (16)
Chasing the Dream: Equitable Food SystemsNovember 01, 2019
Chasing the Dream: Incarceration & ReentryOctober 25, 2019
Chasing the Dream: Food Bank Southern Tier Speakers BureauOctober 18, 2019
Chasing the Dream: Addiction & RecoveryOctober 11, 2019
Chasing the Dream: Grocery Store for Binghamton's North SideOctober 04, 2019
Chasing the Dream: Community Collaboration & WellnessSeptember 27, 2019