New Food Justice Voices issue out now! Our Food Justice Voices series is intended to amplify the voices and experiences of grassroots leaders that aren’t heard enough, while creating awareness and educating readers on various issues connected to hunger and poverty. In Pathology of Displacement: The Intersection of Food Justice and Culture, storyteller, healing practitioner and food justice organizer Shane Bernardo tells his story about how displacement has affected his ancestors and family within the Philippine diaspora, and how he is working to reclaim ancestral subsistence practices that connect him to land, food and his roots. In this piece Shane breaks down what was lost due to colonialism and how we can fight to get it back to truly achieve a real "food justice" movement.
"We grew food in our backyard before it was called 'urban gardening'. For us, retaining our relationship to these foods is a cultural expression and a way to cope with being in a place we are not familiar with, or welcome, for that matter." – Shane Bernardo
Amanda Staples and Matt McFarland seem to have a secret garden. Except that, unlike in the famous story, their garden has only three tall, vine-covered walls surrounding it. The fourth side opens to the street, and Amanda sells her produce there each Wednesday in addition to providing for a ten-family CSA.
The lot had been abandoned and overgrown for thirty years until Staples and McFarland, following a dream they’d had of owning and operating a small farm in the city, bought the lot and the house behind the lot’s back wall. For a year they cleared the land and prepared the soil for planting.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) has been seeking out and supporting city growers like Staples and McFarland since it launched the Philadelphia Green initiative in 1974 with a mission to support grassroots efforts at tree planting and gardening throughout the city. So it’s not surprising that PHS found Staples’ project, now called Germantown Kitchen Garden, just when Staples needed help most, in the form of seedlings, seed, tomato framing, row cover, pest controls, salt hay, and massive loads of compost. Staples hopes to make it a viable business, something she can do full-time while her husband continues work as a software designer. She’s weaning herself off PHS’ support, buying her own seedlings and other materials as the garden progresses.
This is not the first kinda-secret-garden to pop up in Philly. The city has a long history of community gardens and “guerrilla” gardens. The Vacant Lot Cultivation Association was founded in 1897, to help people access land and start market gardens. Food rationing during World War I and World War II spurred many Philadelphians, as it did with Americans throughout the country, to plant gardens for food. And the exodus of black farmers from the sharecropper south in the early to mid-nineteenth century brought a new agrarian population to the city.
In the 1970s, the community vacant-lot gardens took off, just as the industrial boom imploded, leaving over one-hundred thousand people jobless.
At the same time, another wave of southern blacks moved north. They were joined by Puerto Ricans, who had begun arriving in small numbers during and after World War II and were now coming by the thousands, pushed by the transition of their island’s economy from agriculture to export-oriented industry, and by Southeast Asians escaping the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Many of these newcomers came from rural environments where they grew food or worked on farms. They brought an agricultural knowledge and ethic with them, though largely in the hands of the older generations.
PHS’ Ernesta Ballard launched the Philadelphia Green initiative in 1974, and the Penn State Extension began its Urban Gardening Program in 1977, a success that was eventually folded into a long-running U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program. By the 1990s over two thousand projects covered the urban farm spectrum from gardens raising ornamental flowers to food-producing small farms similar to Germantown Kitchen Garden.
The success of PHS in creating a web of small growers throughout the city has necessitated gradual expansion of their services. In 2004, community growers began asking PHS if they could bump up the capacity to share their fresh produce beyond the reach of individual growers’ family and friends. PHS received a grant from the Albert Greenfield Foundation to begin a program that connects growers with food cupboards like SHARE. They also began a program at the city jail to teach basic gardening, nutrition, and job skills in a rehabilitated greenhouse on the prison grounds. The seedlings from the city jail program were used in educational garden programs and for fruit orchard plantings.
In 2009, PHS received the USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant to expand on these five-year-old efforts. The city jail program expanded to incorporate a work-release project to place released inmates into landscaping jobs. The grant allowed them to create greenhouses, more raised beds, and community workshops at the SHARE food pantry distribution site. They can now supply a network of over 100 growers with 200,000 vegetable seedlings.
SHARE and PHS were able hire a farm manager at SHARE to operate the produce garden and seed nursery at the distribution warehouse. Truck drivers, often volunteers from the various churches and food pantries, see the gardens while they wait for their trucks to be filled. Bill, the farm manager, tells them about growing healthy produce in the city. This year, ten of the churches connected to SHARE have asked Bill to help them establish a church garden on their site. Grassworks simplicity and patience at work.
In the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of North Philly, the East Park Revitalization Alliance Farm (EPRA) began in 2003 as a community-based non-profit. They’ve helped to establish over a dozen community gardens, thirteen acres of community green space with new tree plantings, and helped organize mural paintings to bring art into the neighborhood. At the EPRA Farm, a small table holds baskets of hot peppers, tomatoes, okra, greens, pears, squash. Two young employees work the farm stand on a humid October afternoon.
Ray Boston, aka Razor, walks over in gray dress slacks, white shirt and tie, and blue cardigan sweater. He smiles as he asks the young women working the stand if there are any insects in the $1 pint of okra.
He’s lived in this neighborhood since 1985. He remembers another garden two blocks over run by some older guys.
“Mr. Wilbur and Mr. Gray were old fellows,” he says. “That lot was an old church and had been vacant. So these guys were retired, sitting around not doing much. They were from down South. So they started growing on the lot. Had a rooster. They’d give you vegetables, kinda like this farm. Then one died and then the other died. New houses went up but they didn’t wipe out the garden like we thought they might. So God is good.”
This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Indian Health Care Resources: Food For Life; Tulsa, OK. Story and photos by David Hanson.
Ms Campbell’s Earth Science classroom in McClain Junior/Senior Magnet High School looks huge and spotless without the students in it. They’ve gone home for the day. The tools of the modern high school science lab are everywhere: gas outlets and computers on the wide, black desks, microscopes in back, the chemical shower for emergencies. Ms Campbell uses all this to teach her courses, but one of the best parts of her curriculum is in the garden and greenhouse just outside the school’s walls. That’s where the students can get their hands dirty, breathe fresh air while learning, even go find relief and escape from the realities of north Tulsa’s harsh neighborhoods.
Behind the McClain building, tucked into a nook of the school and the parking lot, an old greenhouse had sat dormant, overgrown, and near-collapse for years. By 2009, a community organizer named Steve Eberly had begun a sweeping healthy food initiative across Tulsa and especially north Tulsa. His program (recipient of the USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant), called Food for Life, had the goal of affecting positive change in what Eberly called a “three-prong approach.” The three prongs were the basic tenets of many food security initiatives: improve knowledge of healthy foods through cooking and nutrition education outreach for adults and children, establish and maintain community gardens, and encourage better food policy on a local and state-wide level.
So Eberly embarked on a fervent mission through north Tulsa, installing dozens of community gardens and raised beds, pushing, with other community members and organizations (including Demalda Newsome’s son Chris Newsome – see the Newsome Community Farms profile) for Representative Seneca Scott to sponsor a bill that would secure agricultural funds for a healthy corner store initiative. He led the charge to create the Tulsa Food Security Council. His group organized North Tulsa Eats, a community dinner open, free of charge, to all of North Tulsa. Owners and cooks from the soul food restaurants that dominate the neighborhood volunteered their time and worked with Eberly and others to make small, healthful changes to their dishes. Residents gathered in the McClain High School gymnasium for a shared meal and a chance to see healthy food, culturally appropriate food options.
Eberly’s ambitious, “shotgun” approach intended to spread as much seed for change as possible. Some of the gardens and raised beds failed, either due to poor training of the immediate residents, misguided placement within the community, or, it could be argued, a lack of cultural literacy. Going into a foreign community with an outside idea of what’s best for those people has its obvious pitfalls. And with Eberly’s broad-sweeping approach, some gardens weren’t completely seen through. But many of the gardens stuck and many children, as Eberly and Food for Life hoped, began to see for the first time where real food comes from.
North Tulsa has a life expectancy rate fourteen years younger than the rest of Tulsa. The city is as segregated racially and economically as any in the country. Bringing different groups together around food, from ground-level growing to legislative policy changes, is a monumental effort in uncharted waters. Eberly’s passion for change and for action generated a lot of momentum in a short time.
Unfortunately, Eberly passed away from brain disease in August of 2011. The grant had over a year left and things were just getting ramped up. The McClain greenhouse project had been completed with help from Ms. Campbell’s and other classes’ students. A Greenhouse Council was set up to maintain it. The Tulsa Food Security Council of over 30 community organizations had coalesced and found a pivotal awareness cause in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local marketing campaign to connect consumers to farmers and farmers markets. And North Tulsa Eats had become an annual event, attended by hundreds of residents. The three prongs were taking root.
So when Eberly passed away, he left a powerful wave of energy and conversation among organizations and individuals fighting for the same food security balance throughout Tulsa. Fortunately, Eberly’s passion was somewhat contagious and many Tulsans caught it. Katie Plohocky was in commercial real estate until she found herself becoming increasingly involved in the community grassroots efforts around healthy food. Her husband, Scott Smith, was a community organizer and entrepreneur. He’d opened the Blue Jackalope in downtown as an alternative grocery store with healthy, affordable options and local produce. But its small scale limited access to the large-scale distribution center, meaning the Blue Jackalope couldn’t get the products it needed at the price that made sense for the neighborhood. So Scott had to close it.
This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Food Bank of North Alabama, Huntsville, AL. Story and photos by David Hanson.
The Food Bank of North Alabama is also featured in the special report, America's Food Banks Say Charity Won't End Hunger, which can be found here.
The world’s first food bank is not that old. In 1967 retired businessman John van Hengel was volunteering for a soup kitchen in Phoenix, AZ. He would routinely accumulate more food than he could use for the needy.
Then a soup kitchen recipient told him that she often fed her family unopened food from a grocery store dumpster. The woman asked Hengel why there couldn’t be a place to store excess food so needy individuals like herself could pick it up. Why not replace the middle man: instead of a dumpster, why not use a facility, a sort of bank for food?
It made perfect sense, and Hengel tackled the opportunity. His parish, St Mary’s Basilica, gave Hengel $3,000 and an empty warehouse to start his operation. It would be simple. Individuals and companies could “deposit” money or food and needy community members could “withdraw” it.
Hengel got a national grant to launch food banks across the country. The idea took off nationally and abroad.
Almost fifty years later, the Feeding America organization oversees around 200 member food banks nationwide. The general food bank model is simple: Gather food from retail markets and via the USDA, which buys surplus farm yields and makes it available to food banks. The stored food is used for emergency relief after natural disasters and to provide for needy individuals, families, and school children (weekends) on an ongoing basis. The food banks are committed to purchasing food at the lowest cost available. At the Food Bank of North Alabama, as is the case at most food banks, quality is often overshadowed by quantity. Or, more accurately, the cost that matters is the immediate one, price of goods, not the long-term environmental and health costs of processed foods.
“One day we got a truckload of peas at the lowest cost,” says Kathryn Strickland, executive director of the Food Bank of North Alabama (FBNA). “We looked at a can. It was grown, processed, and shipped from China. 11,000 miles away. This was a wake-up call for us.”
Strickland and her staff dug in deeper to find that 2/3 of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the US came from outside the country.
“So why does a food bank care about that?” asked Strickland. “We used to get truckloads of produce from farmers in our region. They’d bring us excess potatoes, squash, tomatoes, apples. In the 1990s as the country promoted the Get Big or Get Out agriculture shift toward mono-crops, we watched farmers whom we’d had relationships with sell their land or quit veggie production all together. Some went into bankruptcy. So we have a keen understanding of the cost of imported foods on northern Alabama.”
FBNA went a step beyond their own anecdotal research. They hired a study to assess the state of their regional food-farm economy. The study found that 54% of farmers in the food bank’s eleven county region reported net losses. Of the ones reporting gains, all of them were earning less now (with inflation adjustment) than they did in 1969.
“So our strategy quickly shifted to focus on local food as a catalyst for economic development,” says Strickland.
This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative, Okmulgee, OK. Story and photos by David Hanson.
Since it’s below freezing, Rita and Barton Williams walk us into the greenhouse that sits to the side of their farmstead a dozen miles outside Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Which is to say, in the middle of the middle of America, what Oklahomans call Green Country. Long, straight roads and a rolling sea of yellow farmland and island hills of leafless deciduous trees extend under a mercury sky.
The 160 acres around Rita’s modest two-story, gray farmhouse was her great-great grandfather’s reparation allotment from the Dawes Enactment of 1887. It has stayed in Rita’s family ever since. Rita has an earthen complexion, like soil that has almost dried in the sun. Her white hair falls to her shoulders. Barton has a slightly darker tone and looks and sounds every bit the farmer – grubby jeans, a tough-skinned, worn-in coat, a baseball hat, a cheek full of chewing tobacco, and an Oklahoma drawl as slow and long as the roads leading out here.
Barton’s mom died of diabetes and Barton learned he had it around the year 2000. He and Rita had always grown much of their food but they cooked it the wrong way. So they started eating better – less oil, agave instead of sugar – and Barton lost 40 pounds. He still has diabetes but its symptoms are mild and manageable.
Until recently, the Williams and one other family were the only Wilson community members to grow food, despite this being “Green Country” and there being thousands of acres of land in and around the tiny postage-stamp town. Community members might only know about the Williams’ garden if they happened to drive by that old country road beside their house.
“When we got the CFP (USDA's Community Food Project) grant,” says Rita, “We started having the trainings in hoop house construction, seed saving, soil treatment, etc. Through word-of-mouth in the community, people heard about it and they’d come out to a training.”
“Now we have about eight to ten families with backyard gardens,” says Barton, who built the greenhouse as part of the CFP, as well, to experiment in season extension and growing starters. It was a learning process. “I ended up putting some of my money into this since the grant didn’t cover all the unexpected parts to the building. But now I know how to build one for much cheaper, using more affordable materials and still getting a good hoop house.”
“We can help people design this on a dime now,” says Rita. “And we’ve got the farmer’s market in Okmulgee on Tuesday and Saturdays so people are seeing fresh food from our farms. We want to bring the market out to the tribal property next.”
Lou Fixico joins us in the greenhouse. Lou is a member of the Mvskoke Creek Nation, as well and she’s serves on the Food and Fitness Policy Council. Lou smiles when she talks in her soft voice. She works with the eleven nutrition centers that serve tribal elders in eight different counties. They provide 20,000 meals per month to both homebound and congregate elderly people.
It’s an important service but Lou knows they can do better. She and the Williams have been working to utilize as much of the farm-fresh food as possible in the elderly care meals. Lou wants to look locally, traditionally at the opportunities for backyard protein, as well.
“We’re at the point where we have to start taking care of ourselves” she says. “It would be great if we could start eating off the trees and hunting deer, rabbit, squirrel, like we used to.”
“But we have federal grants and tribal grants and so we have to stay within the grant guidelines. The meat has to be regulated. The produce can’t just come from somebody’s farm down the road. It has to be certified to be sure it’s safe.”
What a dilemma. For now, the elderly meal program is wedged into using the cheap, “Certified” industrial food complex to feed its members. Programs like the Food Sovereignty Initiative, encourage the people to return to traditional diets, but with so many residents on WIC or subsidized food programs, they are reliant upon the rules and restrictions of US government’s food safety policies, which heavily favor large-scale agricultural production and consumption.
This spotlight is a feature on WhyHunger’s digital storytelling website, Community Voices, that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Sustainable Food Center, Austin, TX. Story by Andrianna Natsoulas.
While the students at Pecan Springs Elementary School in east Austin went through their mid-day class routines, eleven women graduated in a small portable classroom beside the playing field. Each woman was called up to the front of the room to receive her diploma. The rest of the class applauded between bites of food. For the final class, instructor Lorena Cruz taught them to make two dishes: whole wheat penne pasta with tuna, olives, lemon-olive oil dressing, parsley, onions. That meal, using ingredients from the local HEB grocery store, cost $1.48 per serving The other meal was a salmon salad with fresh radishes, celery, parsley, mustard and lemon juice served over corn tortilla or whole wheat pita. It costs $1.09 per serving.
Lorena, has been working for ten years with Sustainable Food Center (SFC) of Austin’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® (THK), a program of community-based healthy, affordable cooking courses. She’s seen hundreds of women graduate with the knowledge and confidence to use easily accessible ingredients to make healthy meals for well under $2 per serving. Lorena’s husband left Mexico for Texas before she did. He'd call her and say he missed her, of course, but that he really missed her when it was time to eat. She always cooked for the family in Monterey.
When she moved to Austin to be with her husband she didn't speak English. She got her GED with Buen Samaritano, an Episcopal service organization in town. They pointed her to the new cooking classes being offered by SFC. This was over ten years ago. Lorena attended one where she and the other Latina students learned to cook from instructors who only spoke English. They'd show photo cards of ingredients with the names written in Spanish. She said there were a lot of charades in those first classes. Regardless, Lorena learned to speak English and to read American food labels and to cook healthy on a budget.
SFC has been working for over two decades in Austin. The non-profit’s motto sums up their mission: Grow, Share, Prepare. SFC encourages residents to grow their own food by supporting community-entrenched gardening education courses. To share, they work with farmers to streamline connections with local schools, worksites and food service providers. SFC also manages four weekly farmers markets. Finally, THK uses six-week cooking courses, taught by trained community members and facilitators, to provide free instruction in healthy, affordable food preparation for low-income residents.
THK cooking classes comprise the “Prepare” part of SFC’s multi-pronged approach to improving food security. THK focuses on adults, the people buying and preparing the household’s meals, for the most part. Other programs have focused on integrating food and health education among kids and parents. SFC’s USDA Community Food Project grant from 2007 funded a pilot study for middle schoolers, hoping to figure out ways for the students and their parents to cross-pollinate among the numerous facets of SFC’s programming, from gardening to the farmers markets to cooking lessons.
Read the full profile at Community Voices, a WhyHunger digital storytelling site showcasing voices of leaders and communities across the country on the front lines of food justice.