Black Women and Food Sovereignty: Resistance, Resilience and the Building of a new Food System
Here is a paper I wrote on Black Food Sovereignty for CFNY409 - Gender and Food Security for Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson). I later, with a team of 3 other subject matter experts, rewrote that class to incorporate more of an intersectional lens.
Photo retrieved from: https://www.foodandwine.com/news/leah-penniman-interview-soul-fire-farm-black-agriculture Photo of Leah, Co-Director and Farm Manager at Soul Fire Farm (https://www.soulfirefarm.org/ ) and one of my personal food sovereignty hero's. Leah has a book Farming While Black: A Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land which I highly recommend reading
“Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy, culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the
ir right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Food Secure Canada, n.d.). The capitalist food system has a long, racialized history of the mistreatment of people of color (Holt-Gimenez & Harper 2016). Racism, is deeply-rooted in the foundation of our institutions, and underlies the unequal access to food as it exists within our food system (New York Law School Racial Justice Project, 2012) (White, 2011). Black Canadians are “3.5 times more likely to experience food insecurity when compared to White Canadians” (Roberts, 2020). In the United States nearly half of all Black adults suffer from obesity and 13.2% suffer from diabetes (Holt-Gimenez & Harper 2016).
As a form of resistance against a food system that was created and has flourished on the foundations of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, a number of Black women have turned to agriculture as a way of providing food security to their communities through food sovereignty initiatives. Through these projects, led by and for Black community members, Black women are providing more than just food security, they are revolutionizing the food system, creating places for healing, allowing for the redistribution of land and wealth and empowering community members to become active food citizens.
Enslavement and Resistance
Farming in North America takes place on land which was stolen from Indigenous peoples and is built on the enslavement and exploitation of the labour and knowledge of Black people and other communities of colour (Hunter, 2020). Although there has been a considerable “white-washing” of Canadian history, Black and Indigenous peoples were forced into bondage across colonial Canada (Brown, 2019). Slavery in Canada began in the 1600s in New France and lasted for 200 years until Britain abolished slavery in 1834 (Henry, 2020). The colonies were deeply dependent on forced Black labour for economic growth, and slavery had a tremendous influence on the development of the food and labor systems around the world (Holt-Gimenez & Harper, 2016).
As their first form of resistance and resilience, African women braided seeds into their hair as they were being kidnapped from their land and forced onto Trans-Atlantic slave-ships (Ganaway, 2020) (Philpott, 2020). They believed in the seeds promise of survival for future generations (Ganaway, 2020) (Philpott, 2020). Seeds they brought to the American South and the Caribbean, such as okra, millet, sorghum, black rice, watermelon and peanuts, have become important parts of the continental cuisine today (Philpott, 2020).
There is trauma connected to the history and memory of slavery and indentured servitude therefore, just the act of farming has become a form of resistances. Black women are healing historical and present traumas by forging spaces of divergence and making radical change to the food system (Food Share Toronto, 2020). They are connecting to their ancestors and to the earth through the use of ancestral farming practices such as “Afro-Indigenous and spiritual farming practices, agroforestry, silvopasture, wildcrafting and polyculture” which are healing to people and the planet (Soul Fire Farm, 2020). The growing and sharing of healthy plants, livestock and plant medicines is in and of itself an act of resistance (Soul Fire Farm, 2020). “Whoever controls the food, controls the people, controls everything. Farming and sharing food with one another, potlucks and building community dinners slaps in the face of the systemic ways we’ve come to think about food. In so many ways farming is active self-determination, self-reliance and empowerment” (White, 2011)
Redistribution of Land and Wealth
“In North America generational wealth has been accumulated largely by the ownership of land and property” (McKinley, 2020). After slavery was abolished Black people were denied that right to own land both systemically and through force (McKinley, 2020).
After the fighting for the British during the American Revolution, Black Loyalist were offered the promise of “freedom and a farm”, in what is now Nova Scotia, (McKinley, 2020). These Black settlers often received the poorest plots of land, “some unable to yield any food in the rocky province, leaving them to starve” (McKinley, 2020). Those who received land they could farm, were given no title or deed. Lack of a land title can prevent people from using property as collateral for bank loans, complicates inheritance claims, makes it impossible to sell, and their land can be taken away at any time – which it was (McKinley, 2020) (Arsenault, 2017). The denial of access to legal land ownership led to the intentional impoverishment of Black people over generations in Nova Scotia, as well as across the rest of North America (McKinley, 2020).
Many Black Americans made their way to Canada first through the Underground Railroad (to Ontario) and then when the Canadian government began advertising for US farmers to farm the land in Alberta and Saskatchewan, forming settlements across the western provinces (Story Hive, 2017). As Black farmers purchased small plots of land across both Canada and the US they were often met with violence and intimidation, as well as the denial of loans and access to capital support programs (Myers, 2015) (Philpott, 2020). When then Canadian government asked for farmers to come and live in the western province’s, they never expected them to be Black (Story Hive, 2017). There was public outcry and the Provincial government went so far as sending a Black preacher to the American South to tell Black farmers and their families nothing would grow if they came north leaving them to starve and die (Story Hive, 2017). Of course, this was untrue and was a deterrent to stop more Black people from coming to Canada (Story Hive, 2017).
Land access and ownership is essential for agriculture, food sovereignty and the formation of wealth, and has been systemically denied to Black people. “The rate of Black land loss has been twice that of White land loss” and today less than 1 million acres in the United States are farmed by Black people (Holt-Gimenez & Harper, 2016). Land values have continued to rise, denying access to Black farmers, especially Black Women, and making it prohibitively expensive for new farmers to break into agriculture (Philpott, 2020). Cheyenne Sundance who runs Sundance Harvest has created a program called Liberating Lawns (Sundance Harvest, 2020). It matches BIPOC youth growers with landholders who have lawns that need to be “liberated” to grow food (Sundance Harvest, 2020). She states “Black and Indigenous people in Canada face the most food and land-based oppression, so it’s crucial to make and give space for these communities” (Sundance Harvest, 2020). She hopes providing access to lawns can be an entry point for many new BIPOC growers interested in agriculture (Sundance Harvest, 2020). In a panel interview with FoodShare Toronto, Sundance also stated that she recently purchased a plot of land and would like to create a farming collective and land trust in Ontario (Food Share Toronto, 2020). In the United States the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust was created by Leah Penniman and her team at Soul Fire Farm. “Members of the Northeast Farmers of Color Network are claiming their sovereignty and calling for reparations of land and resources so that they can grow nourishing food and distribute it in their communities” (Northeast Farmers of Color Network, 2020). They call on White land owners to donate their land, which will then be farmed by Black, Indigenous and Latinx people (Philpott, 2020). The trust has received donation of several hundred acres in the New York / New England area which has been set up for transfer over the next decade (Philpott, 2020)
Food Apartheid and Food Sovereignty
The health of a community’s food systems differs vastly along racial lines. “Racist housing policies, financial policies, and government regulations, have interacted over time to contribute to the disparity in healthy food access for communities of colour” (New York Law School Racial Justice Project, 2012). Low-income communities and communities of colour are disproportionately experiencing food apartheid (Atkinson, 2016) (White, 2011). They have limited access to good quality fresh food options from grocery stores, fruit markets and farmers market and easy access to highly processed, junk-food from convenience stores, fast food restaurants and liquor stores (White, 2011). Leticia Deawuo, community advocate and director of the Black Creek Community Farm stated that the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, which has one of the lowest median incomes and one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the city, “has higher prices for fresh produce and milk, than most other neighbourhoods in the city” (Food Share Toronto, 2020). This includes when it is compared to the Rosedale neighbourhood, which has one of the highest median income levels, lowest rates of food insecurity and contains a variety of convenient healthy food retailers (FoodShare Toronto, 2020). Government subsidies and federal policies have allowed large fast-food corporations to profit off the health of communities of colour (Freeman, 2007). Studies have found fast food restaurants selling highly-processed junk foods to be concentrated in communities of colour (Freeman, 2007). In a study of 165 census tracts in New Orleans, predominantly Black neighbourhoods were found to have 2.4 fast-fast food restaurants per square mile, while White neighbourhoods had only 1.5 per square mile (Hilmers, Hilmers & Dave, 2012). This is directly linked to the increased number of Black people with noncommunicable diseases which especially effects the health of Black women who in the United States experience a rate of obesity at 52.9% and are diagnosed with type II diabetes at twice the rate of White women and 1.4 times that of Black men (White, 2011)
“Food is a protest that has community care and radical self-preservation at its core” (Jackson, 2020). Black women have been at the forefront of resistance movements throughout history and are now leading the resistance movement of the food system through agriculture (Rifkin, 2017). They are opting out of the dominant capitalist food system which has been built on racist ideals and creating their own food systems built on principals of health and community (Myers, 2015).
Leah Penniman has become a leader of the food sovereignty movement in North America. She is the author of Farming While Black and cofounder, codirector and farm manager at Soul Fire Farm (Soul Fire Farm, 2020). She created the farm in 2010 with a mission to reclaim Black and Brown peoples inherent right to belong to the earth and have agency in the food system (Soul Fire Farm, 2020). “Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system” (Soul Fire Farm, 2020). “They grow and distribute life-giving food as a means to end food apartheid” (Soul Fire Farm, 2020). Through their food sovereignty programs they reach over 10,000 people each year; doing “farmer training for Black and Brown growers, reparations and land return initiatives for northeast farmers, food justice workshops for urban youth, home gardens for city-dwellers living under food apartheid, doorstep harvest delivery for food insecure households, and systems and policy education for public decision-makers” (Soul Fire Farm, 2020).
The Black Creek Community Farm (BCCF) in Toronto, is another farm lead by a Black woman leading the fight for food justice in Toronto and especially in her neighbourhood of Jane and Finch. Leticia Deawuo is the Director of the BCCF, a long-time community and food justice activist and a Jane and Finch resident (Black Creek Community Farm, 2020). Through her dedication, the BCCF increases food security for its community residents through its food distribution projects, offers sliding scale pricing to their CSA box ensuring affordability for community members, growing culturally appropriate foods that represent the people within the community and providing a space for education (Black Creek Community Farm, 2020). The BCCF is “inspiring the next generation by providing leadership in food justice, and supporting diverse natural and social ecosystems” (Black Creek Community Farm, 2020). Through their initiatives the BCCF is “improving food security, reducing social isolation, and improving employment and education outcomes” for the Jane and Finch community (Black Creek Community Farm, 2020).
When we recognize racism as foundational in our food system, we understand why Black women have been at the forefront of the food sovereignty movement in North America. Black women have been most affected by the capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy which are deep-rooted within the food system. Their involvement in agriculture is one of resistance and resilience in the face of inequity and scarcity. Community gardens and farms provide a place to grow and distribute culturally appropriate fresh foods on which a community can thrive and a place to share and redistribute land among the people that have the least access to it. They are a place to heal from the trauma of enslavement and oppression and a place to teach and learn, sharing knowledge of not only the land, but stories of survival. Through agriculture, Black women are empowering their communities and are taking the power that has been refused to them for so long. They are creating their own food system, their own way, for their own people built on the foundations of equity, sharing, community and sustainability.
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