This article was prepared by Rebekah Williams for The Challenger News, April 2019.
Buffalo Public Schools spend $13.5 million dollars on food for students and the school community. Imagine if that money were spent on contracts with chefs, food processors, distributors, and farmers from East Buffalo. Imagine parents and family members of Buffalo Public School children leading a thriving community food system where food insecurity and food deserts are a thing of the past.
I’ve been involved in food systems work since 1998. I served on the membership committee at the North Buffalo Food Co-op. A few years later, I co-wrote a federal grant awarded to two community market garden projects at Community Action Organization and Massachusetts Avenue Project. And in 2003, I helped found a learning garden at my son’s school. Why do I keep returning to food systems work? There are several reasons: My family has a history of chronic disease stemming from poor nutrition, and I love nature and the environment. More recently, I’ve narrowed my focus to supporting farmers, specifically black farmers and farmers of color, because of the intersection of environment, economics, and race.
Enter Food for the Spirit, a new organization forming in Buffalo. Food for the Spirit uses the arts and creative facilitation to support racial healing, ecological justice, and equitable food systems. There are three main purposes for this mission: economic and ecological injustice, trauma experienced from systemic racism, and climate change. Food for the Spirit’s seven-person founding board believes this work needs to be led by the communities who are most impacted by these issues. As such, we are six black women and one woman of Korean ancestry. Four of us are mothers, two are in high school, one immigrated from Kenya, and one is a business owner. Five of us are community organizers and we are all artists.
In the last year, we’ve hosted an array of programming. In November, we hosted a workshop at the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture “It Takes A Region Conference” in Philadelphia to build the capacity of 30 participants to use the arts to engage community members in food justice efforts. This past winter, we hosted two PoC Eco-Retreats (aka “Black Girl Retreats”) in the Finger Lakes where we walked amongst nature and trees, cooked and ate together, and incorporated healthy activities and movement such as yoga and pottery classes. And in March, we partnered with Native American Community Services of Erie & Niagara Counties (NACS) to co-host a presentation by Pete Hill (Cayuga, Heron Clan), “All Our Relations” Project Director. Pete’s presentation brought together 20 community members to learn more about historical trauma in the Native American community. It wasn’t easy listening. Pete described generations of state-sanctioned violence and oppression, such as what took place in the residential boarding schools that operated under a focus to “kill the Indian, save the person.” In coming months, Food for the Spirit will offer trainings, retreats, and other opportunities to connect with land and nature, and we look forward to delving deeper into food systems work, specifically in partnership with black farmers in Buffalo and Western New York.
Around the country there is a movement of black farmers reclaiming the economic benefits of growing food by organizing and cooperating with each other, manifesting the principles of Ujima (collective work and responsibility) and Ujamaa (cooperative economics). Food for the Spirit also pursues these same principles. By building community awareness around the economic opportunities available in the food system and working together to create a networked food system that serves everyone, we can benefit from contracts with public institutions like the Buffalo Public Schools. Yet despite the economic opportunities in farming, it seems there are not as many black urban farmers in Buffalo as there are white urban farmers. Food for the Spirit envisions more black folks owning land and growing food; and we believe that in order to get there, racial healing is necessary.
In “Farming While Black”, Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm writes:
“I never imagined that I would become a farmer. In my teenage years, as my race consciousness evolved, I got the message loud and clear that Black activists were concerned with gun violence, housing discrimination, and education reform, while white folks were concerned with organic farming and environmental conservation. I felt that I had to choose between ‘my people’ and the Earth, that my dual loyalties were pulling me apart and negating my inherent right to belong. Fortunately, my ancestors had other plans.”
Leah Penniman is a leader in the national movement of organized black farmers. She is a Black Kreyol educator, farmer, and activist, and on April 10 she came to Buffalo to meet with local farmers and activists who identify as BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color). She asked us to ponder how can we support one another in our collective land and food sovereignty.
It was powerful to hear from fellow participants about all of the important initiatives going on in Buffalo, and to celebrate a common theme, throughout—black folks are forging healing relationships with land and renewing our collective and sacred relationships with the Earth by putting our hands and feet in the soil and ensuring our communities are fed.
“Almost without exception, when I ask Black visitors to Soul Fire Farm what they first associate with farming, they respond ‘slavery’ or ‘plantation’. As Chris Bolden-Newsome says, ‘The field was the scene of the crime.’ Hundreds of years of enslavement have devastated our sacred connection to land and overshadowed thousands of years of our noble, autonomous farming history.”
In over 20 years of organizing around community gardens and urban farming in Buffalo, I’ve come across the sentiment that for black folks farming, urban or otherwise, is resonant of slavery. Because of trauma in families and ancestral history, folks are disconnected from healthy food sources, as well as viable economic opportunities. In keeping a distance from the practices of growing food and spending time on land and in nature, we miss out on the incredible healing benefits of our local ecosystems, both for individuals and for the earth.
“Many of us have confused the terror our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running towards paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty, because we imagine that would revert us to bondage. And yet we are keenly aware that something is missing, that a gap exists where once there was connection.”
A key activity of Food for the Spirit is trainings and retreats to cultivate connections with natural places, to develop knowledge, love, and respect for local ecosystems. We believe that in order to love and respect ourselves, some part of us yearns to get outside, to develop relationships with the earth, land, soil, and seasons. How can we know and love the earth if we don’t put our hands in the soil; if we don’t spend time amongst trees, birds, and critters; if we do not have beautiful and natural places to enjoy? How can we follow the stars if we cannot see them at night?
Beyond the spiritual, aesthetic, and healing benefits of having a connection with nature, there is growing concern about climate change and an urgent need for humans to reduce our impact on the Earth. Sustainable, natural, small-family farming is one solution to mitigating or slowing the rate of global warming and addressing the climate crisis. A well-networked local community food system is another.
That’s what Food for the Spirit is about: promoting racial healing in service of ecological justice and equitable food systems. We are talking about our local economy; we are talking about healing – personally and communally; and we are talking about solutions to the climate crisis.
– Rebekah Williams blogs at foodforthespirit.org; find her on Facebook at @food4thespirit or email her at Rebekah (at) foodforthespirit.org.