Radical Farmers Use Fresh Food to Fight Racial Injustice and the New Jim Crow

If we are to create a society that values black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land.
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Two participants in Project Growth and Soul Fire Farm's manager, Jonah Vitale-Wolff, admire vegetables they harvested and prepared for lunch. Photo by Leah Penniman.

In August, five young men showed up at Soul Fire Farm, a sustainable farm near Albany, New York, where I work as educator and food justice coordinator. It was the first day of a new restorative justice program, in partnership with the county’s Department of Law. The teens had been convicted of theft, and, as an alternative to incarceration, chose this opportunity to earn money to pay back their victims while gaining farm skills. They looked wary and unprepared, with gleaming sneakers and averted eyes.

“Without black farmers, there would have been no Freedom Summer.”

“I basically expected it to be like slavery, but it would be better than jail,” said a young man named Asan. “It was different though. We got paid and we got to bring food home. The farmers there are black like us, which I did not expect.

“I could see myself having my own farm one day,” he added.

As staff at Soul Fire, we were attempting to meet a challenge presented to us by Curtis Hayes Muhammad, the veteran civil rights activist: “Recognize that land and food have been used as a weapon to keep black people oppressed,” he said, while sitting at our dinner table months earlier. “Recognize also that land and food are essential to liberation for black people.”

Muhammad explained the central role that black farmers had played during the civil rights movement, coordinating campaigns for desegregation and voting rights as well as providing food, housing, and safe haven for other organizers. With his resolute and care-worn eyes, immense white Afro, and hands creased with the wisdom of years, this was a man who inspired us to listen attentively so that we might stand on the shoulders of activists who had gone before.

“Without black farmers, there would have been no Freedom Summer—in fact, no civil rights movement,” he said.

Arguably, the seminal civil rights issue of our time is the systemic racism permeating the criminal “justice” system. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to national attention the fact that people of color are disproportionately targeted by police stops, arrests, and police violence. And once they’re in the system, they tend to receive subpar legal representation and longer sentences, and are less likely to receive parole. The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown were not isolated incidents, but part of a larger story of state violence toward people of color.

And yet, that state violence is only one among many dangers. The biggest killers of black Americans today are not guns or violence, but diet-related diseases, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. These illnesses affect minorities at greater rates than white people, in part because of a broken food system that allows only certain populations to access healthy food while subsidizing low-quality food for the rest.

Black youth are well aware that the system does not value their lives.

“Look, you’re going to die from the gun or you are going to die from bad food,” one young man said while visiting Soul Fire Farm. “So there is really no point.”

This fatalism, a form of internalized racism, is common among black youth. It’s a clear sign that this country needs a united social movement to rip out racism at its roots and dismantle the caste system that makes these young people unable to see that their beautiful black lives do matter.

Because society’s racism is glaringly apparent in the criminal justice system, many activists are building the foundation of the movement we need by starting there.

Combining prison visits with farm-fresh food

Jalal Sabur with the Victory Bus. Photo by Crystal Clarity.

Jalal Sabur stands in front of the cooperatively owned, vegetable oil-powered bus he uses to drive families and food to prisons in upstate New York. Photo by Crystal Clarity.

In 2009, black farmer and prison abolitionist Jalal Sabur helped to start the Freedom Food Alliance, a collective of farmers, political prisoners, and organizers in upstate New York who are committed to incorporating food justice to address racism in the criminal justice system.

Sabur says he was inspired by conversations with the political prisoner Herman Bell, who has been incarcerated 40 years for his role in the Black Liberation Army. He was convicted of killing two police officers, although he continues to maintain his innocence. While incarcerated, Bell collaborated with others to start the Victory Gardens project, which brought urban and rural folks together to plant, grow, tend, and harvest organic fruits and vegetables in Maine.

Between 1995 and 2005, they distributed food for free to political prisoners and community residents around Maine and New Jersey, as well as in Boston, Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. Bell has said that the Victory Gardens Project is based on the idea that only through collective self-help can people improve their conditions.

“I wanted to find a way to recreate that transformative work,” Sabur says.

One of the Freedom Food Alliance’s central efforts is Victory Bus Project, a program that reunites incarcerated people with their loved ones while increasing access to farm-fresh food. The New York State Department of Corrections once operated free buses for visitors to all 54 facilities across the state, but shut the program down in 2011 for budgetary reasons, leaving many of its 2,120 monthly passengers with no way to see their family members.

Jalal Sabur with Rita and Lincoln Dozier. Photo by Maura Ewing.

Jalal Sabur drops off Victory Bus Project participants Rita and Lincoln Dozier at their residence after a prison visit. Photo by Maura Ewing.

Sabur purchases produce and eggs from local farmers and puts together large food packages, which families of prisoners can purchase for $50 using SNAP/EBT (formerly known as food stamps). Once they purchase the food, families get a free round trip to visit their loved ones at correctional facilities in upstate New York. Families may choose to give the food to prisoners as a care package, take it home, or both. While on the bus, Jalal facilitates conversations about the prison-industrial complex and food justice, using texts such as Michelle Alexanders’s The New Jim Crow.

For Sabur, one of the most powerful moments in the history of Victory Bus Project was the reunion between political prisoner Robert Seth Hayes and his granddaughter, Myaisha Hayes.

“It was the first time she had seen her granddad in years,” Sabur says. “It was really powerful to witness this, not only the connection between them but also knowing he was getting the fresh food that he needed to manage his diabetes.” 

Teaching convicted black teenagers how to grow food

Youth plant at Soul Fire Farm by Vitale-Wolff

Participants in Project Growth help plant turnip seed. Photo by Jonah Vitale-Wolff.

Soul Fire Farm joined the Freedom Food Alliance in 2014, supporting the Victory Bus Project with produce and providing a place to work and learn for young people enrolled in Project Growth, Albany County’s new restorative justice program. Advocates of restorative justice argue that incarceration and other forms of punishment brought by the state against an assumed or convicted offender escalate a cycle of violence, and that it makes more sense for a person who has harmed another to restore the relationship. The only problem is that it often means paying out. A teenager who’s damaged a vehicle, for example, would need to pay the owner for the cost of repairs. These payments are known as restitution.

A longtime friend of mine and customer of Soul Fire Farm, Jillian Faison works as an attorney for Albany County. She says that restitution was the main sticking point when she advised the county’s Department of Law to try out restorative justice. The courts hesitated to require teenagers to pay restitution because they had no means to acquire the funds. It was simpler to mandate more punitive measures.

“There needs to be a way for the youth to earn money to compensate their victims and have a meaningful work experience in the process,” Faison explained.

After researching the strongest restorative justice programs in the United States, Jillian helped to create Project Growth in 2013 and brought Soul Fire Farm on as the pilot partner.

The truth is that without good land and good food we cannot be truly free.

The following year, Project Growth brought small groups of convicted teenagers to nonprofit organizations such as Albany City Rescue Mission, Senior Services of Albany, and Soul Fire Farm for internships where they learned job skills and earned money to pay their restitution. Most of them owed their victims less than $500 and kept their wages once those obligations were met. Project Growth’s pilot year was funded by the Albany County Legislature and designed by Mission Accomplished Transition Services and Soul Fire Farm.

For the staff at Soul Fire Farm, Project Growth was about more than just restitution. We agreed with the position of Malcolm X in his “Message to Grass Roots,” a speech he delivered in 1963. “Revolution is based on land,” he said. “Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” We saw Project Growth as an opportunity for these young men to heal relationships with their communities, the land, and themselves, as well as to recognize their potential to be agents of change in society. We wanted to make sure the participants knew we saw them as valuable human beings right from the start. So, on the first day, we began by asking for their stories.

“My original charge was loitering, and then once I was in the system, everything got harder and started getting out of control,” said a young man named Ben. As others spoke, we learned that his story was not unique—in fact, most of the young men’s first arrests had been for loitering. I shared with the group that loitering laws were part of the vagrancy statutes included in the Black Codes. These were laws written to control the black population after Reconstruction, a set of policies that followed the Civil War. The teens started to make eye contact.

Feet at Soul Fire Farm by Penniman

"Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality." —Malcolm X. Photo by Leah Penniman.

I asked the participants to tell me what they thought was broken about the criminal justice system and then co-create a list of suggested policy changes with the New York State Prisoner Justice Coalition, a group that holds its strategic planning meetings here at Soul Fire Farm. Among many suggestions, the participants identified the need for access to good lawyers who actually defend the accused rather than “making them cop a plea” (slang for a plea bargain, an arrangement where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a more lenient sentence). The young men also explained that discrimination against people with a criminal record makes it harder to get into college, get a job, or find housing.

Staff members at the farm also did what they could to make sure that the young men in Project Growth gained tangible, land-based skills in addition to the wages they earned. Together we transplanted kale, hand seeded turnips, packed vegetables into boxes for distribution, cooked meals for the farm crew and our guests, and studied the business of running a farm.

We made time for personal reflection and introspection as well. One afternoon, we challenged the participants to sit alone in the farm’s forest for 15 minutes making observations and noticing their experience. At first, the young men got up from their spots to seek out the company of others or initiated loud call-and-response games to break the isolation. It took several tries to actualize this activity, so foreign from their daily experience.

“I know we were supposed to be looking at nature or something, but I was just thinking about how I want to be an engineer,” Ben said during the conversation afterwards. So we had an impromptu career counseling session for the whole group, which was perfect.

“The most amazing moment for me was when they all took their shoes off and stepped into the mud,” says Carmen Duncan, Project Growth’s facilitator. “They went from being highly ambivalent at the beginning of the day, then seeing how they weren’t being judged and could just be themselves at the end of the day—barefoot. If there was a word for this it would be … fantabulous!”

We plan to bring Project Growth alumni back to the farm this summer as mentors for the newer participants.

Land and food essential to Black Lives Matter

Victory Bus Organizer Tarin Gonzalez. Photo by Sky Scholfield.

Tarin Gonzalez, an organizer with the Victory Bus Project, helps transplant young onion plants. Photo by Sky Scholfield.

For generations, black activists have made sure that farms and food played a role in the struggle for civil rights and dignity. Today, we stand on the shoulders of Fannie Lou Hamer, who created the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi in 1969 to provide food, housing, and education to families targeted by racism in the Delta. We stand on the shoulders of the Black Panthers, who created free breakfast programs for children and other essential community survival initiatives across the United States in the 1960s. We stand on the shoulders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who both inspired and supported the 1965–1970 Delano Grape Boycott, a campaign to create just working conditions for Latino farmworkers.

But land and food have also been used as a weapon to keep people of color in second-class citizenship. The U.S. government sanctioned the slaughter of buffalo to drive Native Americans off of their land. And the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Housing Administration denied access to farm credit and other resources to any black person who joined the NAACP, registered to vote, or signed any petition pertaining to civil rights.

According to the think tank Race Forward, even today, blacks, Latinos, and indigenous people are more likely than whites to earn lower wages, receive fewer benefits, and are more likely to live without access to healthy food. Black people also own less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmland, just a fraction of the 14 percent they owned in 1920.

“Police shootings are modern day lynching, and lynching was the tool used by white supremacists to drive black folks off of their valuable land and out of Mississippi,” says Dr. Monica White, president of the board at the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. “We still see a systemic failure to value black lives, in terms of policing, access to food, education transportation, etc. The issue is privilege and oppression. It’s the same communities dealing with policing issues and bad food.”

White’s comments point to an essential truth: If we are to create a society that values black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land. I believe that black people’s collective experience with slavery and sharecropping has created an aversion to the land and a sense that the land itself is an oppressor. The truth is that without good land and good food we cannot be truly free. The Freedom Food Alliance represents one important voice among many insisting that the senseless deaths of our black brothers and sisters by all forms of violence—police shooting, diet-related illness, economic marginalization—must end.

Owning our own land, growing our own food, educating our own youth, participating in our own healthcare and justice systems—this is the source of real power and dignity.