This weekend leading up to MLK Day, we encourage you to reflect on and honor the legacy and work of Martin Luther King Jr. His dedication to equality, and justice inspire us to this day, and it is our responsibility to continue his pursuit of a more equitable world. We must remember that, although we have made great strides as a country towards racial justice, there is still much work to be done.
In regards to our modern food system, it is important to understand that the injustices and exploitative practices we see in our agriculture industry have direct ties to racism and colonialism.
We can trace the roots of our agriculture system all the way back to the stealing of indiginous land by colonizers in order to build the farms and towns that led to the establishment of modern day America. Not only did colonizers push out native people from their land, but they nearly eliminated the traditional, sustainable agricultural practices that native people had practiced for centuries, and moved towards a system of monocropping and industrialization.
This progressed into the enslavement of indiginous and African people to work on large scale farms and plantations. Our current agricultural system is based on this slave-dependant model for food production. Despite producing most of the crops early America relied on, Africans and Indiginous people rarely benefited from the fruits of their labor. Food insecurity was a part of life for these populations, and it continues to be a problem to this day.
After the Reconstruction period failed to provide a foundation for recently freed slaves to accumulate land and wealth, white land owners continued to steal most of the viable land via racist laws and outright force. Later on, the labor force for farm work and other harsh labor shifted to exploited immigrant labor from Asia and Latin America (Roots of Change).
Fast forward to the twentieth century, when neighborhoods across America were being redeveloped, people of color were intentionally pushed out of neighborhoods with the most amenities and resources through the practice of redlining: “the practice of denying fair access to credit, particularly mortgages, based on the race of the residents of a neighborhood. For much of the twentieth century, the federal government encouraged redlining. In the 1930s a federal agency, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), graded neighborhoods in nearly 250 American cities. Cities scale neighborhoods on a four-grade scale, A to D, “Best” to “Hazardous,” that were then visualized on a series of maps. Race was a key—arguably the key—variable in determining these grades. Neighborhoods of color received D or C grades with only white neighborhoods receiving A and B grades” (DSL Richmond).
Overtime, this created an inherent system of “food apartheid”, a term used to describe the systemic disenfranchisement of people of color from access to healthy fresh food. “This inequality in access to healthy food is a major contributor to the disproportionately high rates of diet related disease found in populations of Indigenous, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Poor diets impede learning, paths to empowerment and financial success” (Roots of Change).
Not only are people of color being denied access to affordable, healthy food, but black farmers across America are struggling to survive in a racially determined economy. Farm subsidies in the U.S. predominantly go to white farmers, while equally qualified black farms are left in the dust. “For many years, the USDA systematically favored white farmers by denying or delaying loans to Black farmers. As a result, the number of Black farmers fell from a peak of nearly 1 million in 1910 to about 36,000 today” (National Black Farmers Association).
The concept of food justice is directly tied to racial justice. It is the pursuit of equal access to healthy food no matter where you live or what color your skin is. It is the assurance that proper and equal public funds are allocated to farmers of all races. It is the development of urban agriculture programs and green spaces that are available to systematically disenfranchised populations who can benefit from them the most.
As we reflect on the work of Martin Luther King Jr., we must also reflect on the historical patterns that came before him that created a world of unequal opportunity. His efforts to expose an intentionally unjust America was just the beginning. It is now up to us and future generations to continue his legacy and fight for justice for all.
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” ~ MLK Jr.
To learn more and to help support racial equality in our food systems, please visit the following groups:
Black Organizing Project: reviving the spirit of Oakland’s Black community through relationship building, leadership development, political education and grassroots organizing.
Farms to Grow : mission is to assist African American farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers/gardeners in maintaining and creating sustainable farms and spaces to grow food and motivate the next generation of farmers to grow sustainably and with the community in mind.
Black Earth Farms : a Black and Indigenous led agroecology collective composed of skilled land stewards, spiritual leaders, healers, gardeners, farmers, builders, writers, educators, artists, musicians, and organizers.
40 Acres Project : provides funds to purchase the land and tools for Black organizations that concentrate on preserving Black foodways, and support Black farmers in purchasing their own land, buy the land they lease, and/or provide assistance to Black farmers for their mortgage payments.
Black Food Justice : The National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA) is a coalition of Black-led organizations aimed at developing Black leadership, supporting Black communities, organizing for Black self-determination, and building institutions for Black food sovereignty & liberation
Soul Fire Farms : an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system
National Black Farmers Association: a non-profit organization representing African American farmers and their families in the United States. NBFA’s education and advocacy efforts have been focused on civil rights, land retention, access to public and private loans, education and agricultural training, and rural economic development for black and other small farmers.