Black food spaces seed sovereignty

The neighborhood of Cherry Hill on the south side of Baltimore has always been Black. 

Built in 1944 to house African American war workers migrating from the South, the Cherry Hill projects were deemed a “model negro village” by the Baltimore Sun. The isolated location made Cherry Hills the choice location of white communities that wanted to keep the Black population at a distance. The Federal Race Relations Office called the projects “Negro clearance” and warned that pushing the Black population to the outskirts of Baltimore would exacerbate racial exclusion. 

More than 75 years later, more than 90 percent of the Cherry Hill population is Black. And while the origins of the neighborhood have given the community a strong sense of place, belonging and strength, the hardship faced by residents is tangible. 

According to the Baltimore Health Department, in 2017 some 57 percent of Cherry Hill households were living in poverty and nearly 45 percent of the neighborhood – compared to 12.5 in greater Baltimore – was considered a ‘food desert’.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Cherry Hill and residents are expected to live an average of 69.5 years, nine fewer than the average American. 

These numbers speak to conditions of poverty that stem from a complex series of inequalities prevalent in Cherry Hill and in other predominantly Black communities across the United States.

For Eric Jackson, a lifelong resident of Cherry Hill, the numbers tell a story of food apartheid. It is a term that has come to represent not only the lack of access to nutritious foods in Black communities but disinvestment in these neighborhoods, corporate control of the food system and the systematic exclusion of Black people from these spaces. In Cherry Hill, food apartheid has meant the premature loss of important community leaders. 

Walking produce to the car of community member and patron of Black Yield Institute’s Pop Market in Cherry Hill, which sells their produce and that of other Black farmers in the region. Photo: Black Yield Institute.

Jackson lost his grandmother when she was 69; his father died at the age of 47. In college, he said, he began to put the pieces together. 

Her death was related to diabetes, and diabetes was related to food and food was related to the social environment and our social environment was a Black one, was a poor one,” Jackson said. “We talk about food, food access and grocery stores, but we don’t think about the premature deaths, the mortality and the people that we leave.”

In 2015, Jackson founded the Black Yield Institute (BYI) with the goal of transforming the food system of Baltimore. With other community organizations, he wanted to put land, food and nutrition back into the Black community that represents 63 percent of the city’s population. Over the last six years, the organization has pursued local land grants, built training programs to teach youth how to garden, farm and translate those skills into capacity to call for political change.  

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, community organizations across Cherry Hill and Baltimore banded together to deliver produce and essentials to families in need. But as the lockdown was extended and more businesses closed their doors, the calls for help became increasingly dire. In a neighborhood that hasn’t had a fully serviceable grocery store for more than 15 years, the coronavirus crisis prompted calls for emergency food aid, as residents were unable to secure basic staples.

At Black Yield Institute, this meant a high load of calls and emails from Baltimore and particularly Cherry Hill residents asking what, if anything, the organization could do to help. The moment has served as a reminder of how fragile the food system that serves the community is and the importance of the work being done by Black Yield Institute and others to reduce dependence on others to provide their food and build a home-grown response founded on principles of self-determination and food sovereignty. 

 “We cannot depend on food aid, the charity of the philanthropic community, government agencies and non-profit organizations to feed poor people,” said Jackson. “We need to not only demand but also create the engines and processes of control.” 

The pandemic has highlighted the need for resilient and adaptable food systems, the security provided by short supply chains and the fragility of a globalized food economy. When the United States went into lockdown in April, supermarkets scrambled to stock their shelves while many farmers, trapped by contracts and lengthy supply chains, plowed under their crops and dumped fresh milk. As vulnerable communities saw food insecurity rise, large-scale producers were unable to reach them. 

“This has presented an opportunity for us to scream a little louder and be heard by people who before this moment may not have listened or seen it from this perspective,” said Jackson. “It ends up being a bit prophetic.”

The situation in Cherry Hill mirrors that of other communities of color across the United States that have been disproportionately affected by a pandemic whose worst impacts have largely fallen along racial lines. If we use the food system as a lens for analysis, this is also true: the overwhelming majority of frontline workers are people of color, from communities with the highest rates of food insecurity, most likely to suffer from diet-related illnesses that make them more likely to die from complications related to COVID-19. 

Any notion of coronavirus as any kind of equalizer has long been discarded and among experts of public health and inequality, it was never a question: the pandemic was always going to hit vulnerable, low-income communities the hardest. In the United States, that meant that both cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19 would be concentrated in communities of color, specifically in counties and states that were majority Black.

As of June 15, more than 24,000 Black lives had been lost to COVID-19. While race is not reported for all data, available data shows that Black people are contracting the virus at rates that range from double to triple their share of the population. The rate of death is higher yet: a recent study put out by the Yale School of Medicine found that Black populations ran a risk of death to COVID-19 that was 3.57 times higher than that of the white population. 

It is what Anthony Hatch, an Associate Professor of Science and Society at Wesleyan University, describes as a “targeted pandemic.”

As a researcher, a good amount of Hatch’s work goes to understanding Black food environments and how they relate to chronic, diet-related illness, health care and social justice. He also explores how race and racism in the scientific community is applied to concepts such as metabolic syndrome, a term used to describe a cluster of conditions that are major risk factors for heart disease, stroke and Type II diabetes. 

Hatch estimates that half of the American population has two of the five risk factors and roughly 40 percent has three: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. While these risk factors are present at a higher rate in the Black population, they are often accompanied by narratives of behavior and choice related to diet. The causes of metabolic syndrome are often framed by the scientific community in racial terms, excluding the important role that social and economic inequalities play in the health and wellbeing of Black communities. 

According to the American Heart Association, over 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure, which is among the highest rates in the world. Black people have higher rates of diabetes, are more likely to be exposed to air pollution that contributes to asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease. They are the same risk factors that increase the vulnerability of Black communities to complications from COVID-19. 

“When that slow moving endemic intersects with the pandemic, we have what you are seeing now,” said Hatch. And these risk factors, he added, stem in large part from harms done by the industrialized food system and the quality of calories most available to low-income communities. 

“Type II diabetes, for example, is an epidemic that has resulted from the flooding of sugar and wheat into Black bodies over the last 200 years,” said Hatch. “It is a remarkable biological shift.”

The risk factors that have put the Black population at greater risk to coronavirus are closely tied to inequalities in the food system that have made low-nutrient foods – high in refined sugar and saturated fat – the most affordable and available in areas with limited access to fresh food, often described in terms of food insecurity. 

The USDA defines food insecurity as an “economic or social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In a federal study carried out by the USDA over 20 years, research found that while levels of food security rose and fell, one trend was maintained: there was a persistent gap in the prevalence of food insecurity between people of color and the white population. Black (non-Hispanic) and Hispanic households in the United States experienced at least twice the rates of food insecurity reported by white (non-Hispanic) households during the same period.

As the prevalence of food insecurity in the United States is well documented, so too are its adverse effects, including –especially in households with children– poor academic achievement, developmental delays, behavior problems, hypertension and diabetes. 

But over time, terms such as food insecurity and food deserts have been problematized for being overly focused on questions of access with little consideration given to what extent the community is participating in and able to exert control over the food policies that affect them. By centering the problem on access to food or the presence of a grocery store, the solution is the same: a supermarket, often a large chain, placed inside a community of color. 

As Naya Jones, a geographer and healing arts practitioner based at the University of Santa Cruz, points out: “What are so often called food deserts represent systemic disinvestment where Black people and other people of color live.” 

This focus on the mere nutritional aspect of food ignores a complex set of factors that affect the way Black people navigate food geographies, including retail spaces. In her research, she has extended theories of racial surveillance to grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants where – as elsewhere in society – Black people commonly report being followed by security guards and watched by fellow shoppers, the assumption being that they are there to steal something. 

“Anti-blackness is pervasive in US institutions, retailers, and practices, and so is its impact on Black wellbeing,” said Jones, adding that simply changing the build environment or providing access to food is not enough. “Too often, a focus on nutrition doesn’t consider how structural racism and other factors impact Black wellbeing everyday.”

What’s more, according to Jackson, Black people don’t see themselves as part of food spaces beyond the jobs given as cashiers or baggers in grocery stores. In the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census, an estimated 95 percent of the farmers in the United States are white, with Black farmers accounting for a mere 1.4 percent of the total. Black farmers also earn considerably less. That racial disparity in land ownership translates to most food coming from white farms, a trend that extends to control over local grocery stores: the owners are most often not part of the community and most of the profits made by a supermarket will not stay within the community. 

It is an extractive model that organizations like Black Yield Institute are looking to dismantle, bring a community owned co-op into south Baltimore that would cycle resources back into the community. 

 In 2015, a study issued by the City of Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health Center for a Liveable Future estimated that 34 percent of Black people in Baltimore live in so-called Healthy Food Priority Areas (HFPA), meaning they lack access to fresh, nutritious food. Cherry Hill is a “level 4” HFPA, meaning that all four factors are met: low supply of healthy food, low household income, low rates of vehicle access and long distances to a supermarket.

“The data and the experience is Black – the solution has to be,” said Jackson. “Black land and food sovereignty is part of a larger trajectory of Black liberation, Black power and racial justice.”

In the U.S. food system, however, discussions of food sovereignty can feel like distant shouting over loud machinery. 

The U.S. has fully subscribed to a neoliberal trade system that has bound farmers, consumers and food workers in a complex, global supply chain that has become increasingly concentrated and integrated over the past three decades. 

In 1996, the first director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – the global trade block that monitors the reduction of trade barriers, often via free trade agreements – announced that they were “writing the constitution of a single global economy,” promising a framework that would even the playing field and empower developing countries. 

In the 26 years since the United States signed its first free trade agreement (FTA) with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA) in 1994, the country has signed 14 FTAs with 20 countries, deregulating the flow of goods. 

The WTO and resulting FTAs are drawn to reinforce economies of scale that have perpetuated inequalities in the food system, making it difficult for small- and medium-size producers to compete. 

The shortcomings of the free market and its impacts on farmers and food systems in the U.S. and abroad have been well documented: food workers struggle to earn a living wage in an internationally competitive market, land tenure disputes erupt alongside large-scale land acquisitions, excess goods are dumped below the cost of production while traditional communities and ways of life are increasingly compromised.  

These shortcomings are exacerbated in moments of crisis. In 2007-8, for example, an elevated demand for ethanol paired with crop failures in Australia and Russia led to a spike in commodity prices and riots in many developing countries. During this crisis period, as in others, farmers exited a vulnerable market, preferred to sell their operations to large enterprises and corporations that could weather the price swings. 

In times of a global crisis, food workers, farmers and consumers find themselves again in a difficult position, as pandemic-induced instability in the global market has had immediate ramifications at home. 

“This is the vulnerability of a corporate controlled system,” said Ben Lilliston, the interim co-executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “While we were seeing supply shortages in supermarkets at home, exports continued to rise to places like China.”

And despite clear evidence meat-processing plants were a source of virus transmission, putting workers at risk, the president took executive action to keep meatpacking plants running through the crisis. 

According to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), as of June 15 at least 321 meatpacking and food processing plants, in addition to 39 farms and production facilities, have confirmed cases of COVID-19. Currently, no meat or food processing plant is closed. Furthermore, data indicates that nearly 27,000 meatpacking workers, 2,000 food-processing workers and just over 2,300 farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19. 

To date, at least 107 of these workers have died.

In the meantime, Congress approved a $9.5 billion relief package targeting the agriculture sector, with broad authority given to the Department of Agriculture to distribute funds. As with previous farm aid packages, doubts remain as to how much of this money will reach small- and medium-sized farmers rather than the large, corporate lobbying forces with a notable presence in Washington.

The HEAL Food Alliance – a multi-sector, multi-racial coalition working to collectively transform the food and farm system – responded immediately to Congress’ $9.5 billion COVID-19 aid package, calling for investment in community food systems – not corporations – as a “necessary response to this pandemic and to ensure that our communities can survive crises.”  

Among their demands was a clear call for Congress to bolster local and regional food system that are best poised to feed communities. They demanded a range of modifications to existing policies that would allow local producers to continue to operate and thrive: categorize farmers’ markets as essential services, fund agricultural cooperative for the duration of the pandemic, ensure access to emergency grants and loans that would enable local producers to deliver and guarantee access to food, among others. 

Another request: undertake system reform that would lead to greater agricultural resilience, including the creation of community food supply systems.  

“This is a moment to talk about who controls the food system and who it is operating for,” said Lilliston. “There will be a national discussion and reckoning as we work our way through this process, leading to questions about whether the current system is beneficial to people.”

As global food prices continue to tumble, Hanifa Adjuman is happy to report that the weather in Detroit is “balancing out.”

 While much of Michigan remains on lockdown, the collards, rhubarb, watermelon and Kentucky wonder beans at the Food Warriors’ youth garden are growing at a steady pace. The pandemic has slowed operations and changed farm dynamics, but the demand for local, reliable food has never been higher.

 Normally, produce from D-Town Farm – another project of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBFSN), like the Food Warriors program – would be sold at a local farmer’s market. But when the pandemic hit and in-person sales were banned, they began quickly investigating the viability of an online system that would allow people to order food for pickup.

Produce growing at D-Town Farm in Rouge Park on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Hanifa Adjuman.

“We will certainly survive though this, and our purpose is always to thrive,” said Adjuman, who said that beyond wanting to buy food, people had reached out during the pandemic to ask how they could get started growing their own food. “Even though we cannot get together physically, we can take agency and responsibility to begin to learn and pass this information on to one another.”

 DBFSN is one of many Black-led organizations across the United States that are working to create spaces for Black people in farming and the food system. They are also working to rebuild a misrepresented relationship between Black people and the land.

 In the words of Leah Penniman, the founder of Soul Fire Farms: “Land was the scene of the crime, but never the criminal.”

Adjuman began to first explore that relationship when was teaching children about food security and food justice at the Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered school in Detroit that has since closed down. Food security was considered an integral part of the school curriculum, which meant that every teacher, no matter what their expertise, had to include food security in their weekly lesson plans. The pictures that these children were used to seeing – related to food and otherwise – were not of people that looked like them, she said.

A few years back, Adjuman designed an entrepreneurship program at the farm after DBFSN got a small grant to work with teenagers. Students learned how to grow food, but also how to create value added products in the process. The program also led to some important conversations. On a particularly hot afternoon, Adjuman remembers the group started complaining: “‘Mama Hanifa, it’s so hot out here – it’s like slavery,’ they said.” 

“That statement came up a lot, and I took it always as a teachable moment,” Adjuman said. “I told them, ‘if you don’t take anything else from this experience, know that our ancestors were enslaved, they were not slaves – slave is an identity; our ancestors were prisoners of war.”

 She would let comments like that linger and sink in, she said, as the teenagers went back to work. She would remind them that their ancestors were agricultural geniuses, that their ancestors were forced to do this for someone else and that they could take a water break whenever they wanted. This is what self-determination looks like, she reminded them. This is how we do things for ourselves.

Throughout the conversation, Adjuman referred to the D-Town farm as their “freedom space.”

It is a “place to develop strategy and develop safety zones,” she said. “We don’t have many of those.”

When asked about the role of this food space in the midst of a crisis, there is a pause. 

“For Black folks, there’s always a crisis,” she said. “But in that process, we have to be future focused.”

“We have to always be building, even as we are responding.”

Author Bio: 

Eva Hershaw is an independent journalist, land monitoring and data specialist currently living in Italy.