An installment of the “Food Voices” series focusing on urban farming with Karen Washington.
WhyHunger is pleased to be partnering with Andrianna Natsoulas, longtime food sovereignty activist and author of the forthcoming book Food Voices: Stories of the Food Sovereignty Movement. In 2010, Andrianna began a journey across the Americas to capture the stories of people working towards and living a just and sustainable food system. As she continues her journey, spanning from Nova Scotia to Ecuador to Brazil and beyond, we will feature highlights of the stories she gathers.
Karen Washington is an urban farmer from the Bronx in New York. She has been farming for more than 20 years and was one of the original members of La Familia Verde, which is a coalition of five community gardens in the Bronx that educates, empowers and provides food. Karen and others in her community started the coalition in 1998 when Mayor Giuliani was trying to auction off gardens. She hasn’t stopped since.
“I grow food. I feed people—body and mind. I have a community garden, the Garden of Happiness, which I helped create. It started back in 1988 and I’m also a member of La Finca del Sur, which was created three years ago in the Bronx. The area that I live in is one of the poorest districts in the Bronx. The median income of a family of four is less than $20,000. We’re surrounded by an epidemic of fast food and chain restaurants and there are no healthy food stores. Much of the produce in our supermarkets travels from far away, is moldy, and not fresh at all. My message is education to help people understand that the problems they’re having, especially health problems, are connected to food. Well, what are we doing to change things? Let’s start getting involved in farmers’ markets and community gardens, educate people to understand that there are resources we can use to help deal with the problems we have.
“Let’s face it; food is political. Where it’s distributed, who has zoning rights, who is able to have loans. Who gets the fresh best vegetables and who gets the leftovers. I’m pretty sure, in my neighborhood, by the time it comes to the South Bronx, we’re getting the leftovers. What’s so appalling is that we have this huge area called the Hunts Point Terminal where a lot of produce from all over the country and all over the world comes and right next to it is a community of people that are starving. You see the trucks, you see the food and you don’t have access to it and that’s a shame. Where else, what other neighborhood would that happen? Could that happen in an affluent neighborhood? Heck, no. But it’s happening to us. So, food is political. Those that have affluence and those that have money and connections do much better than those that don’t and food and housing and education are all tied into one. I ask questions and really make it uncomfortable for people when they’re dealing with food and social justice and playing the race card because, in essence, racism is alive and well.
“What we’re trying to get out and voice to the people is that political power is as strong as we, the people, allow it to be, because the people put those political people in office. To understand that dynamic, to shift that thinking, is to understand that the politicians are there because of us. The power that we have is the power of the vote and the power to hold political people accountable to their actions and to go door knocking and to do rallies and to do marches and to bring it out in the open what they are or are not doing. Right now, a group is trying to fight City Hall in a way that it’s never been challenged before. We’re fighting to get community gardens to have preservation land status. I don’t think in the previous administration people could sit down with the mayor’s group and figure out how to make community gardens permanent and come up with legislation, resolutions, changing zoning that will make community gardens permanent. That’s a social issue, but now we’re going to make it a political issue as well.
“I’m on a journey. I’m on a ride. I’m just going to go with it. Making waves. We’ll see what the future holds. As I continue to grow food and really give thanks to elders, the people that came before us, I will continue to work on connecting people to the land and really empowering people to have a say and take a stand for what they feel is right and just. End of story.”