One of my major inspirations in pursuing a hands-on understanding of sustainability is Will Allen, MacArthur prize fellow and the CEO of Growing Power, a wildly successful urban farm in Milwaukee. Will Allen is a powerful torch-bearer for urban farmers throughout the US, and he is perhaps the most touted and renown of African American farmers today. He has said, “If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community. I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.” And I couldn’t agree more.
I am also moved by the role model Mr. Allen provides as a African American man, basketball pro turned urban farmer. His concern for achieving healthy communities is one that African Americans grapple with when faced with statistics about the sky-rocketing of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity among Black people and among poorer Americans in general. In places like Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn or parts of Oakland, it’s easy to see how the food environment in poor neighborhoods can be a detriment to people’s health. There’s plenty of fast food operators but few fresh grocers, and little to no organic products. This is one main reason I volunteer with a start-up coop initiative geared towards making organic and sustainable foods available in the urban “food deserts” of Brooklyn, NYC.
While I can help organize getting the food where it needs to be, I still am very far from knowing how to grow the food I eat. I find this to be true for many people in my generation X, or Y. And I find this lack of knowledge holds some irony for black Americans, who were for centuries the main agricultural labor force in the U.S.
There are plenty of reasons that African Americans have in some ways lost connection to land management. As the industrial revolution of the 20th century came into full swing, the Great Migration drew 1.7 million African Americans from our heritage and customs in the American South. The result was a new concentration of African Americans in northern cities, in industrialized labor communities where farm management skills may not have been widely retained.
The migration was also spurred on by concurrent tactics of racial terrorism by the KKK and others in the Jim Crow era south. Throughout the 20th century, African Americans lost land and farms due to racist practices and policies conducted by individuals, bankers, insurers, and the government.
“African-Americans as a group went from owning almost no land in the United States after the Civil War to peaking at 15 million acres by 1920. In that year, 14% of all US farmers were black. Of these 926,000 black farmers, all but 10,000 were in the South. By 1997, fewer than 20,000, or 1% of all farmers, were black, and they owned only about two million acres. The loss of landownership and farming operations has contributed to the poverty of many rural communities in the South.” (says a paper by Gilbert, Sharp, and Fellin for the University of Wisconsin.) To date, that tally of Black farmers has surely dwindled even more.
But we can add at least one to plus side of that tally of Black farmers. Will Allen gives us a prime example on how to renew the relevance of farming in the thick of the urban community. As the work of urban farmers become more visible, I expect that the knowledge and interest in sustaining our food systems will grow. And that will certainly lead us all back to healthier communities and people.