America’s sustainable food movement has been steadily growing, challenging consumers to truly consider where our food comes from, and inspiring people to farm, eat local, and rethink our approaches to food policy. But at the same time, the movement is predominantly white, and often neglects the needs and root problems of diverse communities.
Issues of economic inequality and systemic racism permeate our national food system. The movement’s primary focus has been on finding solutions to “food deserts”—defined as areas empty of good-quality, affordable fresh food—by working to ensure that affected neighborhoods have better access. But some advocates, and studies, have argued that the proximity of a well-stocked grocery store is not enough of a solution given this country’s elaborate food problems. Farm subsidies in the United States go predominantly to white farmers, which has led a group of black farmers to sue the US government for discrimination. Food pantries, which distribute food directly to those in need, are stigmatized. Our subsidized food system, as activist and community organizer Karen Washington points out in the interview that follows, “skews the cost and value of food.”
Washington has been battling for food justice for three decades. Before taking up the cause, she worked as a physical therapist, and saw many of her patients, predominantly people of color, suffering from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. (More than one-third of American adults, and 48 percent of African American adults, are obese.) Treatment always involved medication and surgery as opposed to prevention, and Washington knew there had to be a better way. She moved to the Bronx, in New York, in the mid-1980s and became a vocal community gardener.
Since that time, Washington has won a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, been invited to the Obama White House for her involvement with New York’s Botanical Garden, and been called “urban farming’s de facto godmother.” She’s also worked to transform the Bronx’s empty lots into spaces where food can grow, helped launch a farmers’ market, and, in relentlessly engaging her community, has remained focused on the intersections of food and issues like poverty, racism, a lack of healthcare, and joblessness.
In other words, Washington has been around the block. What she found is that there weren’t very many people who looked like her with active roles in the food system. To bring additional voices to the table, she cofounded Black Urban Growers, an organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for black farmers and black leadership in the food movement, in 2009. And as she creates a more inclusive food community, she is working to redefine the challenges that the food system faces, too. Washington is opposed to using the expression “food desert,” which she calls “an outsider term” that calls desolate places, rather than places with enormous potential, to mind. She prefers “food apartheid,” which “brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?”
I connected with Washington over a long phone call to ask her about these distinctions, among other things. Throughout our conversation, she pointed to the extent to which food is connected to most everything—health, education, class, the environment—and that, if we’re to be good advocates for a better food system, we need to take an intersectional approach. “‘Food apartheid’ looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics,” she says. “When we say ‘food apartheid,’ the real conversation can begin.”
—Anna Brones for Guernica
Guernica: When did you begin growing food?
Karen Washington: Well, it all started with a tomato. I never liked it. It wasn’t red, it was pale pink, it had no taste. Until I started growing it myself, I didn’t even know it grew on a vine, let alone that it was red and brown and juicy. When I finally bit into someone’s fresh, garden-grown tomato, it just changed my world. It really gave me the ambition to want to grow food myself. Then, in 1988, I looked out my kitchen window to the empty lot across the way and saw a man with a pick and a shovel. I went out and I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m thinking about starting a community garden.” I asked if I could help. We’re about to celebrate our thirtieth year [of working together ].
Guernica: That’s amazing!
Karen Washington: It is amazing. My gardening got me into community organizing and activism. I noticed that when I went to visit friends who were white, their neighborhoods, their food system, their supermarkets were totally different compared to what I was seeing in my backyard. At my local supermarkets, things that should have been composted were wrapped up in cellophane and sold at a reduced price. We had a variety of food, but I wouldn’t call it fresh. It looked like it was secondhand, and people had no other options.
I eventually realized that I couldn’t concentrate on food alone because there were so many things that were intersecting. I saw that the people who were in [that first community ] garden were mostly low-income and had no health insurance. The garden wasn’t just being used for food, but also for wellbeing and medicine. The healthcare industry is part of this conversation. As a physical therapist, I used to see billions more spent on treatment than prevention. Look at the pharmaceutical companies. In my neighborhood, there is a fast-food restaurant on every block, from Wendy’s to Kentucky Fried Chicken to Popeye’s to Little Caesar’s Pizza. Now drugstores are popping up on every corner, too. So you have the fast-food restaurants that of course cause the diet-related diseases, and you have the pharmaceutical companies there to fix it. They go hand in hand. The fact is, if you do prevention, someone is going to lose money. If you give people access to really good food and a living-wage job, someone is going to lose money. As long as people are poor and as long as people are sick, there are jobs to be made. Follow the money.
I set out on this journey to explain the conditions of impoverishment. A lot of these communities need an influx of resources and monetary help, along with more local ownership of land and capital, in order to change things around. I go around the country to challenge people to see beyond the “raised beds” and to recognize that we live in one of the greatest nations and countries of all time and yet we still suffer from hunger and poverty. How have we allowed that to happen and what are we going to do to change that?
Guernica: We often use the expression “food desert” today. Does that term help us create infrastructure to ensure better access to food, or is it hindering our ability to do so?
Karen Washington: I was just in Pennsylvania and North Carolina talking about food deserts, and the topic of food justice and food sovereignty, and putting it out there that it means nothing to me. I asked people to define it, and, of course, they gave me their cookie-cutter definition: “Communities who have limited access to food.” That means nothing. Who in in my actual neighborhood has deemed that we live in a food desert? Number one, people will tell you that they do have food. Number two, people in the hood have never used that term. It’s an outsider term. “Desert” also makes us think of an empty, absolutely desolate place. But when we’re talking about these places, there is so much life and vibrancy and potential. Using that word runs the risk of preventing us from seeing all of those things.
What I would rather say instead of “food desert” is “food apartheid,” because “food apartheid” looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and economics. You say “food apartheid” and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important question: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?
So, now, let’s go a little further; let’s talk about food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is being coopted in the same way that food justice is, because “food sovereignty” was a term that was really founded by indigenous people in Central and South America when they were fighting for governance. The organization Via Campesina coined the term “food sovereignty.” They were fighting for land ownership and they were fighting for resiliency, so we should make sure that we pay respect to those indigenous people who have been fighting for so long. “Food sovereignty” is now being interchanged with “food justice,” and although they are coexisting conditions, they are two terms with substantial differences. Even those terms have been watered down, but “food desert” sugarcoats what the problem is. If you bring a supermarket in, it’s not going to change the problem. When we say “food apartheid,” the real conversation can begin.
Guernica: You mentioned wanting to challenge people to look beyond their raised beds. What is the best way to ensure that people have access to food? Is it by focusing on food production or focusing on systemic racism and economics?
Karen Washington: All of the above. This idea that just because you give people the ability to grow their own food, and give up soda for water, that all of sudden it’s going to make these people’s conditions better? No. We have to talk about race, we have to talk about economics, because those are the things holding people back.
I wake up dreaming that my neighborhood has been given capital, has been given opportunity, has been given finance, that we can own our stores and businesses. Why is it that outsiders always have to come into our neighborhood to open a business? Why don’t people with capital come into my neighborhood and think about investing in the people who already live here? Give them the capital, give them the means of financial literacy, teach them how to invest, teach them how to own homes, teach them how to own businesses. Give them that chance, instead of coming in and changing the dynamics and the complexion of our neighborhood.
People often interview me and they ask me questions like: What’s it like to live in a neighborhood with limited access to food? After a while, I shut it down. I say, “Why don’t you turn it around?” Because I want to hear what people in affluent neighborhoods are doing. What is their take on people who live in food deserts? What is the conversation that rich, white, privileged people have about poverty and hunger and what are they doing to make a change? Sit down at the table with a family member, a father, a mother, who owns a business, and ask them what they’re doing to ensure that their businesses are employing people who need jobs, or [ask if] they’re getting out of their comfort zone, not just writing a check, because it’s easy to write a check, but what are they doing to invest in neighborhoods that are less fortunate?
Guernica: I’ve moved back to my hometown, a rural community where we have high poverty rates and many kids receive free school lunches. We do have a food bank and other programs that provide access to fresh food, and it’s easy for people to write a check to a food bank or buy a couple cans of food to donate, but it feels like a Band-Aid on a larger problem.
Karen Washington: It is a Band-Aid. I recently asked [the students in my gardening] classes, “What is the purpose of food pantries and food kitchens?” And of course they say, “To feed the poor,” and “to have access to food,” and so on. But the main function of these two approaches is [supposed to be] that they’re reserved for emergencies only. Instead, they’ve become a way of life.
How do we sit with the fact that 40 million people are in poverty? The system of giving out free food is not going to fix that. Even as a farmer, I have to deal with the fact that when I come down to the farmers’ market and sell my produce I have to educate people about the value and cost of food, because I am surrounded by a food system—a subsidized food system—that skews the cost and value of food. My carrots are two dollars. They are two dollars because I am a for-profit farmer, and unlike the carrot for 99 cents that’s sold in cellophane at the supermarket down the street or the bunch of carrots that you got for free from the food pantry, this two-dollar carrot is feeding me, my family, and it means something.
The conversation around actual food value is a conversation that we don’t have in low-income neighborhoods, regardless if they’re black or white, rural or urban. But things are changing. People are talking more than ever about food. It’s such a major shift, so you’re seeing major corporations offering different options, like fast-food chains offering salads. The consumer is starting to understand the relationship between food and health. It’s also happening in low-income communities. The rise in school gardens impacts children and they shift their parents’ perspectives. In my neighborhood, every year, we have a block party and they don’t serve soda anymore. The kids are asking for water! Education is working.
Guernica: Would it be more advantageous for us to restructure the charity system?
Karen Washington: Yes! First of all, let’s think in terms of labeling and messaging. Food pantries are stigmatized. When you say “food pantries,” you’re talking about people who are poor, standing in line, getting their food as a handout. The organization West Side Campaign Against Hunger has a pantry that they have started to rebrand. They set up their organization like a supermarket, so customers are coming and they’re shopping like they would at a regular store. It’s not a food pantry where you’re giving out free plastic bags of food. They also offer job training, and a chef who teaches the clients if they want to learn how to prepare food.
I tell them to ask people, “Why are you here? What is causing you to be on this food line? Is it the fact that you don’t have a job? Are you ill? Are you homeless?” By knowing those answers, they can help a person. For a problem like, “Well, I was homeless, so I am in a food pantry,” they talk about what we offer in terms of social work and helping people get apartments. For, “Oh, I just got out of jail,” they talk about some of the entry programs out there that can help them. Or: “I lost a job… I’m looking for a job.” Let’s have job training on site for employment opportunities so people can seek jobs.
Guernica: You launched the Black Urban Growers organization because you had traveled around and hadn’t seen anyone else who looked like you in the food movement, which I can imagine felt like a desolate, lonely place.
Karen Washington: That’s accurate. I recently went to the Organic Grower’s Conference, which is in its twenty-fifth year, and someone told me that it was the second year that they had speakers of color. The second year! I don’t know how many attendees they had, but I can tell you offhand it was less than maybe seven people of color. And these are food conferences. I ask people about the work that they do, and a lot of them say, “Yeah, we work on a community farm,” “We work in a community garden,” “You know, it’s full of vegetables and flowers,” and I say, “You know what? Even within the work that you do with flowers and vegetables, you see diversity. But when it comes to the movement, it’s not diverse.” How can you see beauty and diversity in the food system, and yet these workshops and conferences are all homogenized? There is no diversity, there’s no inclusion.
That’s why we have the Black Urban Growers Conference. It’s because no one talks about our issues, and when they do talk about our issues it’s from a white voice. Why does the respected [one] always have to be a white voice?
People talk about food justice, but where are the farmers who look like me and who were brought here as slaves to do agriculture? When I asked that question, I was told, “Black people don’t want to farm, all they want to do is play basketball and play music.” When people tell me that, I know I am doing the right thing with this work.
For me and my friends, it has been inspirational. People come up to me at the end of the conference and say that they have never seen so many black farmers in a room. They have never had a conference that presented issues that pertained to the black experience.
Guernica: Why do you think food conferences don’t give people of color a platform?
Karen Washington: They’re not taking the time to go out of their comfort zones to reach people. That’s the bottom line. The reason I attend conferences is because people reach out and invite me. I’m going to write to Organic Growers and give them a list of people of color that they need to reach out to. Some of those people include: Leah Penniman, Malik Yakini, Lorrie Clevenger, Dr. Gale Myers, Kirtrina Baxter, Keisha Cameron, Kelly Carlisle, and Chris Newsome. I asked people in the African American community if they were going to that conference and they said they weren’t invited. That’s the problem. People live in their silos.
I also have a problem with organizations in urban areas and communities of color that are white-led. You started an organization and you have been there for ten or fifteen years and your mission statement says that one day the people within the community will have leadership. They should have your job right now; why are you still there? I talk about power, and how power is a drug and power over people is a drug and it’s hard to give up. But once you start taking a job in a community, and particularly a community of color, once you are there as the emergency department, you should be thinking about how you are going to transition out.
Guernica: In the sense that a desert is an “empty” place, do you feel that the food movement has become a “desert”?
Karen Washington: At the conference, it’s also powerful to hear young people talk about reparations and going back to the land. The younger black farming community is growing. Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm is doing excellent work. Young people are understanding the power that they have and they are not waiting for us to fix it. Look at Black Lives Matter; they are very outspoken. They are unapologetic. They know what’s right. They know the oppression and segregation and the racism that have happened and continue to happen. They’re not drinking the Kool-Aid.
Even still, the average age of a farmer is fifty-nine. The movement is going to be a desert if we don’t get more youth involved. Who is out there? How are we going to get the next wave of farmers? The price of land for new farmers is crazy. So how do we entice a new generation to become farmers if they don’t have access to land? They have credit-card and student-loan debt, and there’s no diversity to encourage the young blood of new farmers with different faces to come into the food system.
Guernica: The food movement has essentially become a monocrop.
Karen Washington: Exactly. As we know, you lose diversity and it will truly end up a desert because you’ve never taken the time to nourish that seed, diversify that seed, and you kept doing the same thing over and over again. And you know what happens when you continue to grow in the same soil? It gets depleted of nutrients and becomes barren. That’s what’s going to happen to the food movement if we don’t think about planting seeds of diversity, of new young blood, into the food system.