NEW YORK—A school of thought among urban gardeners holds that African-Americans do not get involved in growing crops partly due to a lingering awareness of their enslaved ancestors cotton-picking days.
“I was born in South America, so the slavery understanding doesn’t affect me the same way,” said Yonnette Fleming, farmer and educator at Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Fleming was among those who discussed their experiences on a panel as part of Just Food’s annual conference on Saturday at the Food & Finance High School on West 50th Street in Manhattan.
Fleming said she looks at urban farming as “food liberation” and is opposed to “food colonization.” She references the frequent occurrence of diabetes among Native Americans whose diet radically changed after colonization. Diabetes is also widespread among African-American populations who often don’t have good access to fresh produce, or the money to buy it.
Farmers markets are increasingly accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) food stamps, noted Ana Rodriguez Angel, who began farming in Orange County when she moved to New York from Mexico. This is the biggest change she has seen in the industry in the last five years, and it relates to another notable change: “More communities, regardless of race, are eating many more vegetables,” said Angel.
She also praised Just Food, a nonprofit that supports local, sustainable food production and dissemination, for its role in bringing produce to minority communities.
Fleming said education will help New York City’s “food deserts” flourish with new life.
John Schmid, an Orange County farmer who sells at greenmarkets in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, said education has greatly improved over the last five years. People are more willing to try new, healthier foods.
For example, the Jerusalem artichoke—which, despite its name, is not from Jerusalem and is not an artichoke—is a potato alternative that is very good for diabetics, as it helps regulate sugar levels. He sees people in communities that need it most willing to try this foreign vegetable and swap recipes for other unfamiliar foods.
Schmid remembers driving with his wife and a truck full of vegetables into the Bronx to set up a stand near Yankee Stadium in 1994. The homeless in the area and the news reports of shootings and crime scared his wife, who wanted to turn back, but they stuck it out and found good customers in the Bronx.
Fleming said that revitalizing abandoned lots in Bedford-Stuyvesant has involved an educational process.
“It takes a few years for the community to catch on that the same space where they used to buy their drugs is now a space that is about health,” said Fleming.
Education is not just a matter of introducing people to new foods. The hardest hurdle to clear in farming, agreed the panelists, is learning the dense bureaucratic language of permitting and grant applications. Fleming said this can be a particularly difficult obstacle for communities of color.
“It feels to me some days, like I need to be 100 times better than someone else to get a little bit of resources,” said Fleming. “And then [with] the little bit of resources, I must spend hours and hours reporting on how I spent every single penny.”