Fight against food apartheid requires creating spaces for Black food & farming to thrive

This article is part of Dreaming Out Loud, a media series written as part of the Bioneers Young Leaders Fellowship Program. To learn more, visit

The sun sets over the raised garden beds and the arches of tunneled greenhouses that line the 80 acres of mountainside land. An array of fruits, vegetables, herbs and medicines stem from rich soils, their roots intermingling with wriggling earthworms that aerate the soil. Sheep roam freely in luscious, green pastures.    

Twenty-four miles northeast, on the outskirts of Albany, New York, Leah Penniman cultivates Soul Fire Farm with the intention of feeding her neighbors living under food apartheid – a system of segregation that intentionally divides folks with access to a nutritious food landscape and those who have been denied that access due to discriminatory policies and practices.

“There’s nothing that has the simple elegance and the enduring joy compared with tending the soil, planting the seed, pulling out food, feeding the community,” co-director and program manager of Soul Fire Farm Leah Penniman said. “Everyone needs to eat. Gotta get in that garden and grow that food. It feels good to be part of something so solid and clear and true for me.”

Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm that seeks to dismantle anti-Black racism – the dehumanization and systemic marginalization of Black people – bolster Black sovereignty and uplift Black wisdom in the food system. Penniman and her farming crew have leaned on ancestral land wisdom to reclaim Black agency in land ownership, provide fresh and free foods to the community and train the next generation of Black farmers.  

Through numerous food sovereignty programs, Soul Fire Farm brings over 50,000 folks from diverse communities together each year to share resources and ancestral traditions and practices on natural building, spiritual activism, health and environmental justice and sustainable agriculture.   

“We saw, time and again, this liberatory experience that folks had doing, in some ways, the most mundane things — mixing compost, harvesting kale, cooking, growing flowers — but there was something really profound and healing about that,” Penniman said. “I think that having that resource base then makes possible the psycho-spiritual liberation.”

Healing circles are hosted at Soul Fire Farm where Black, femme folks gather to indulge in collective healing practices.

Penniman hopes to not only heal the souls of Black folks, but also the land that has been ravaged by capitalistic exploitation and the resultant impacts of climate change. Soul Fire Farm employs Afro-Indigenous agroforestry practices that are rooted in the long-term vitality of the land and its people to regenerate the land. 

Mounding and mulching soils like the Ovambo people, churning dark earth compost like the peoples of Ghana and seeding the land with an intermingling of dozens of native crops like those found in Nigeria, Soul Fire Farm farms and raises livestock in a culturally indulgent way that nourishes people, their communities and the land that divinely supports and sustains them.

“We’ve done our best to catch up to our ancestors and implement and innovate on these practices of things like semi-permanent raised beds, perennial polycultures, heavy mulching systems, crop rotation, cover cropping and green manures, planting on terraces,” Penniman said. “So many of these practices — like composting — that our ancestors used are incredible at pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil where it belongs.”

Many of the sustainable farming practices employed in Black food spaces today are based on Black regenerative agricultural techniques that have allowed Black folks to amplify biodiversity, draw down carbon into rich soils, conserve water and replenish waterways, reduce synthetic inputs into the Earth, provide economic stability for people in their communities and shift power in the food system back to our communities.

“We didn’t take away. We didn’t destroy, but we actually contributed,” Penniman said. “There’s something so unbelievably profound about that because human beings, in many cases, are sort of a blight on the Earth, just taking and taking and taking and stripping and mining and washing away. To see evidence in the soil core, this whole layer of our contribution, of our community, [is] super poetic and beautiful.” 

Soul Fire Farm seeks to end racism in the food system and reclaim an ancestral connection to land through growing food and community.

Black farmers have always been innovators and pioneers of organic and sustainable farming and community-supported agriculture. Their methods and systems ask us to think holistically about food, beyond the fetishization of a food system as a linear supply chain. Black food spaces and Black ways of living in opulent harmony with the land expose food as a system connected through myriad intimate relationships between people and land who grow with, exchange with and nurture with one another.

According to Penniman, Black relationships with the land are crucial to our literacy in the languages of the Earth. The way in which we knew it was time to plant corn by the size of the leaves on an oak tree. The way we knew the age of a tree based on wrapping our arms around the trunk. The way we were alerted of danger by the song of birds. We knew that if we listened to the needs, wants and desires of the Earth, that mother nature would reveal to us how to nourish the land and our people.   

“We used to all know which way was north just by looking at the stars, and what the weather was going to be tomorrow based on the color of the sunset,” Penniman said. “That literacy has slipped through our fingers, and until we can relearn to read and understand the languages of the Earth, we’re missing very important instructions for which way to go. 

“The Earth is deity, the Earth is grandmother, the Earth is kin, the Earth is teacher.”

A legacy of Black food and farming

Farming and tending to land are often mistaken as slave work. And while the trauma of almost 500 years of racialized violence and being shackled on plantations is poignant and visceral, it has also severed a sacred bond between Black folks and the land that has sustained our communities for countless generations. It has pitted the land as the oppressor.

“The land was the scene of the crime. It’s been almost 500 years of attempted genocide, dispossession, child slavery, of sharecropping, forced migration, and heir property, a lot of stuff,” Penniman said. “It makes sense to have this association with land as criminal, but of course land is not criminal, if anything, land is the source of sustenance and foundation.”

Although the U.S. has an egregious history of Black labor exploitation and Black land theft, Black food spaces have a long legacy in the global and national food systems. Food production has not always been an almost exclusively white endeavor in the United States, starting from the very moment African folks were forced into the bowels of slave ships.

African women boarded the ships of the Transatlantic slave trade with nothing but prayers to the ancestors, fear of the unknown in their hearts and seeds, intricately woven into the tresses of their braids. Stolen from their ancestral lands, they found ways to maintain Black food spaces on the shores of different, foreign soils. They stashed seeds of rice, okra, cotton, black-eyed peas, herbal medicines and so much more, as a means of survival of their people and the culture of their homeland. 

“Our ancestral grandmothers had the audacious courage to take the seed that they had saved for generations and to braid it into their hair as insurance for an uncertain future,” Penniman said. “We use [this] as an inspiring story for all that we do, thinking of ourselves as carrying on the legacy of the seed, and trying to have even a fraction of the courage and foresight that they had in the face of just unimaginable terror.”

These African women weaved hopes that their grandchildren would experience the same intimate connection to the Earth that had guided them with a wisdom only obtained through a relationship with the soil and the plants it can produce.

And it was for this connection to Earth, this knowledge of being in relation to land, that was a driving force in the theft of Black folks and the violent fields that stained the plantations of the antebellum South. Millions of farmers were kidnapped from their communities across Africa and shackled in chains to build the very foundations of this country. 

“Slavers weren’t just capturing random people,” Penniman said. “They were actually targeting skilled agriculturalists because it’s cold in Europe, and they didn’t know how to farm Brazil and Cuba and the Southeast of the United States. They didn’t know how to grow rice or sugar cane, and so they stole people who did.”

Although our relationship with land had become associated with the harsh and violent conditions faced on plantations, it was in those same fields that community, relationships and experiences were being built despite the shackles of anti-Black racism. Drawing on both African musical heritage and western European sources, enslaved Africans developed a rich tradition of singing spirituals while they worked the fields. These songs would set an atmosphere of melancholy and mourning while simultaneously resisting the constraints of chattel slavery that sought to strip Black folks of love, joy and prosperity. They embodied a critique of the treatment of Black folks and envisioned a liberatory future for their people.

After emancipation and the egregiousness of chattel slavery, anti-Black violence would find new forms of erasure and oppression through flagrant and heinous laws and institutions intended on suppressing the agency of Black folks. Southerners implemented the “Black codes,” which criminalized unemployment and loitering. Black communities were systemically pushed to the margins of society through separate but equal policing that stamped the Jim Crow Era. Black folks would be packed into prisons and rented back to plantations through mass incarceration. 

Those who evaded the prison industrial complex were often trapped in endless cycles of debt and disenfranchisement through sharecropping labor. 

Through the continued suppression of Black liberation, Black folks continued to desire to be culturally reconnected to the land, to grow culturally nutritious foods and own property as a means to build wealth and uplift their communities.

“When our ancestors at the end of chattel slavery in 1865 had a meeting to plan out what their desires were for reconstruction in Virginia, they said, ‘What we need are homes and the grounds beneath them so we can plant fruit trees and tell our children, these are yours.’ This yearning for secure land tenure has been number one since the beginning.” 

Leah Penniman

In 1881, Tuskegee Institute — now known as Tuskegee University — was developed by Lewis Adams, a former slave, in an effort to assist Black folks in this pursuit of racial advancement, economic liberation and self-determination. Positioned on the grounds of a vacant plantation, Tuskegee would become a Black food space. 

The institute was headed by Booker T. Washington, who believed that agricultural education and skills would provide a foundation for Black folks to survive in racially hostile and economically oppressive spaces. Washington modeled Tuskegee and its curriculum to foster collective community development and bolster Black agency in food spaces. Students learned how to craft bricks to construct buildings, nurture livestock on the plantation’s pastures and grow foods that would nourish their bodies and those of their communities.

Washington made sure that Tuskegee employed an all-Black faculty, bringing in rich agricultural knowledge like that of agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. Carver used human connection to land and careful nurturing of the ground to provide his students an education for their very survival. 

Over the years, Tuskegee would prove itself as a vehicle through which nature and the natural bounty of the land could be better heard and tended to through innovations such as Carver’s farming methods to prevent soil depletion, promotion of alternative crops to cotton that were soil-enhancing and protein-rich and development of hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans.

In the 1960s, Black horticulturist and Tuskegee University professor, Booker T. Whatley, introduced the concept of community-supported agriculture (CSA) as a solution for struggling Black farmers. Today, CSAs provide farmers with capital to start the growing season.

Despite the failed promise of reparations in the form of 40 acres and a mule, by 1910, 16 million acres, or about 14% of all U.S. land, was owned by Black folks. 

“Despite the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule, where reparations were actually given to the former so-called slave owners but not to enslaved emancipated people themselves, like people saved up,” Penniman said. “Our ancestors saved their own money over generations to purchase these hard-scrabble like, two-to-three acre, five-acre lots in less desirable condition.”

This land was developed into Black food spaces — into farms that established Black agency in the American food system.

“I think when we have that direct contact in a safe and consensual way, there’s an opportunity for the earth to compost that trauma and give us back belonging,” Penniman said. “We’ve seen it so many times over and over again. I can’t imagine that anything else is happening there except that reunion that the earth is longing for.”

However, anti-Black racism ran deep regarding Black land ownership. Murder and lynchings by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the white caps ravaged Black communities, killing over 4,000 Black landowners and destroying their farms and properties. 

Nationally, Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, according to a report from the Washington Post. A massive loss that is the product of biased government policies and discriminatory business practices.

Today, 95% of agricultural land in the U.S. is white-owned.

The shift in land ownership went beyond the fear and anger of white planters, as several factors have contributed to the decline of Black-owned farms. 

“We’ve seen time and again, the delays, the denial, the betrayals by the government,” Penniman said. “USDA programs, for example, have been a leading culprit in Black land loss because of delays and denial of lending, and also foreclosure on land that was used to collateralize loans that were given. So there’s a very sensical distrust of USDA programs which have failed us.”

U.S. federal programs utilized discriminatory policies to exlcude Black folks from land purchases and limited access to capital through the denial of farm loans, crop insurance and allotments. No legal protections existed to facilitate transfer of property to the next generation. Black farmers were routinely discouraged from registering to vote and joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), otherwise running the risk of their grant and subsidy application being destroyed or denied. 

The long-documented racial discrimination of this USDA policing ultimately led to the largest civil rights class action lawsuit in U.S. history — the Pigford case of 1999. 

During the same time, a new Black food space was taking root in community and emerging through the gaps of the American food system. In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale established the Black Panther Party for Self Defense to address and decry police oppression of Black folks and the violence imposed on their community in Oakland, California. 

“We’re in many ways inspired by the work of the Black Panther Party, who had an unapologetic political platform but really saw the foundation of their work in their survival programs — that they’d be completely irrelevant if not addressing some of these foundational basic needs around medical care, transportation, food,” Penniman said.

Three years after its conception, the party began to build community self-determination by addressing the needs of their community around medical care, transportation and food. The Panters’ first and most successful community program was the Free Breakfast for Children Program. 

By 1968, most poor children attended school hungry, suppressing the pangs of hunger throughout the day. The national school lunch program offered reduced-price, but not free lunches for children living in poverty. Furthermore, the national school breakfast program was a limited program that hadn’t fully taken hold in most schools. 

The Breakfast Program quickly spread throughout the country and was hosted in 36 cities by 1971. The Panthers had fed more than 20,000 children by the end of the program’s first year. In a 1969 U.S. Senate hearing, it would be admitted that the Panthers fed more poor school children than did the State of California. 

The Black Panther Party focused national attention on several issues faced by the Black community, including the urgent need to provide poor children meals while they attend school. Their program put a spotlight on the limited scope of federal food programs and ultimately applied the pressure needed for Congress to authorize the expansion of what is now our modern-day food programs in public schools. 

“It should be around every turn that there are these liberated spaces where folks can have access to food, clean air, clean water, the dancing, the drumming, the ceremony, the natural resources that allow us to experience and tap into that feeling of freedom and liberation, which really is a birthright for all people.”

Leah Penniman

A history of food injustice in Black communities

The racialized violence that has continuously devastated Black communities is egregious and spurred by anti-Black racism and white fear of Black liberation. Anti-Black racism and land injustice have been profoundly dangerous in the ways they show up through our nation’s exploitative food system. It is anti-Black racism that has continuously disenfranchised Black communities from their relationships with the land and with food. 

In 1920, more than 925,000 Black farmers in the U.S. comprised about 14% of the farmer population. Today, fewer than 49,000 — slightly more than 1% — of farmers in the U.S. are Black. 

“There are trillions of dollars owed, there are many acres of land owed,” Penniman said. “These need to be given back.”

But farms today are overwhelmingly owned by white people, while approximately 85%  are tended to by people of color. Most of these farm workers aren’t provided adequate protections by basic labor laws, leaving them without paid time off, overtime pay or collective bargaining. 

“When folks come to this country to work, their life expectancy drops by over 10 years from what it would be in their counterparts,” Penniman said. “It’s an incredibly dangerous, deadly occupation — heat stroke, COVID exposure, sexual assault. The foundation of this country was to kidnap millions of our ancestors and bring them in the bowels of slave ships to be skilled, unpaid, forced laborers on the land. So we have not been able to divest ourselves from this idea that agriculture needs to rely on the exploitation of human beings and the exploitation of the land.”

This exploitation of Black farmers and the dispossession of Black land has resulted in a lack of access to healthy, affordable and culturally nutritious foods. The experiences of many Black communities today include food apartheid. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 in 10 households in the U.S. is food insecure, lacking close access to foods that are culturally relevant and that meet their dietary needs. Black and Hispanic/Latinx adults experience food insecurity rates of 29.2% and 32.3%, respectively. In contrast, 17.3% of white adults experience food insecurity. 

The USDA uses the term “food desert” to describe the geographically linked disparities in food access, defining the phenomenon as a low-income census tract where a substantial portion of residents has minimal access to a grocery store or supermarket. 

Although about 23.5 million people live in food deserts — nearly half of which are poverty-afflicted and have a greater concentration of Black folks — this framework fails to address the dominant food system as a product of intentional policy decisions, such as redlining, that are the root causes of inadequate healthy and affordable food. 

Karen Washington has spent decades amplifying urban farming as a way to increase access to healthy, locally-grown food.

“You’re just using an outsider’s term of people who’ve never been in our neighborhood, and you’re not talking about the critical things we need to talk about around food,” said Karen Washington, Black food advocate and co-owner of Rise & Root Farm. “How it impacts people of color, where they live, how much money they have.”

Making these practices invisible prevents us from having conversations about food system agency and from mobilizing transformative solutions beyond attracting more grocery stores.

Although common, living in an area with minimal access to nourishing food does not necessarily mean that a person is food insecure. In fact, these areas are often flooded with food choices—just not ones that are healthy, affordable and culturally meaningful.

Without easy access to nourishing food, people — largely low-income and Black folks — are forced to turn to more convenient and affordable options, namely fast food. 

A study by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that these barred communities are likely to have four unhealthy eating options for every one healthy option. These areas also suffer from higher rates of diet-related diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which are the leading cause of death and disability today.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, Black people are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than whites, and twice as likely to die from diabetes.

“You’re told to eat healthy food but yet you don’t have healthy food options,” Washington said. “Then when you’re asked to eat healthy food, it’s expensive.”

These health inequities are the result of barred access that prevents Black folks from fully participating in the food landscape and a barbaric history of unjust policies and practices that have left neighborhoods without access to affordable homes, good jobs, well-funded schools and un-policed streets.

To fully understand access to culturally nutritious foods, we must look at all systems that create inequitable facets of society. Most people who experience food apartheid live in low-income communities. The reality is, food security is a social justice issue built on the foundation of the suppression of Black prosperity and leaves many communities engulfed by hunger and poverty.

Most of these poverty-afflicted areas are a product of disinvestment and unjust federal programs that led to segregation, not only in geography but also in economics. 

In the 1930s, while federal intervention and community investment helped expand homeownership and affordable housing for countless white families, it also segregated the country and undermined wealth-building in Black communities. This state-sponsored system of segregation — this institutionalized anti-Black racism — pushed Black folks out of the new suburban homes and instead into urban housing projects and areas of immense disinvestment.

Redlining – segregating communities through racially discriminatory real estate tactics – was used as a tool to deny Black folks mortgage insurance, mortgage refinancing and federal underwriting opportunities. Entire Black communities were classified as financially risky and a threat to local property values.

This process of redlining not only barred Black folks from home ownership, but it forced communities into economic decline and the perils of community disinvestment. What is left today is millions of Black communities that lack access to basic resources like healthcare, banking, job opportunities, public transportation and culturally nutritious foods to put on the table. 

Rise & Root Farm is a five-acre farm in New York, and is run cooperatively by four owners who are women, intergenerational, multi-racial and LGBTQIA+.

“If you are hungry, your body, there is this instinct of survival. And so you would let go of the rent so that you can buy food,” Washington said. “And yet you need the rent because you need shelter. And so you can’t talk about one without the other. So you’re asking people to eat healthy, but if they don’t have a roof over their head, if they don’t have living-wage jobs, all of those impact the ability of people to purchase ‘healthy’ food.”

At its core, the term “food apartheid” is a way for us to visualize the manifestations of structural oppression and systemic, anti-Black racism that are inextricably linked to the food system. This framework puts clearly into focus the deliberate violence, policy choices and chronic community disinvestment that have resulted in racial inequities in access to healthy and affordable food. 

“I’m trying to use a term that strips away that sort of artificial, sanitized word and starts getting people to say, ‘Wait a second, we need to look closer at this food system that’s racially charged, that really has impacted so many people of color,’” Washington said. 

Furthermore, “food apartheid” identifies white supremacy as the foundational catalyst in the policymaking process and calls attention to the aftermath of decades of systemic racism that led to the erasure of community sovereignty by means of segregation and the deniability of social and economic mobility. 

“When people say the food system is broken and needs to be fixed, and I say no, no, no, it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing,” Washington said. “It is a shift, and that needs to be the power in the hands of the community. The communities have to come together and start to understand and own their power.”

Washington believes that change is going to come — that Black and brown communities will once again find themselves in the position to feed their communities, be self-sufficient and self-reliant and to take care of our own.

“You cannot continue to put people down, that they have no food to eat, no clothes on their back, no roof over their head. You cannot continue to do that because the masses are going to come together, and they are going to uprise.”

Karen Washington

For Black farmers across the country, an uprising has already begun. Black folks are again turning to their ancestral farming practices to reclaim and mobilize Black food spaces — settings and experiences created in Black solidarity and in opposition to the dominant food system — in an effort to uproot food apartheid in their communities. 

Black food is an act of resistance

A ray of sunlight cascades over the raised beds of Black Joy Farm. Its light intimately weaves through rows of broccoli, eggplants, tomatoes and corn — its warmth gently embracing every fruit and vegetable it touches. Its shimmer illuminates the rich reds, greens, purples and yellows of the plants that find root in the dark soil humus. 

The sweet and sour aroma of a red bell pepper envelopes the crisp morning air. The cluck of hens erases any other noise throughout the 5400 square foot, urban farm. 

Justin Mashia co-founded Bronx Sole, a running group, to address poor health in his neighborhood.

“You can be in that space and not even know you’re in the city, especially when you’re around the chickens and they’re making so much noise,” said Justin Mashia, manager of Black Joy Farm. “They kind of drown out all of the city noise. It’s a beautiful thing.” 

Nestled behind a shopping center in the Longwood neighborhood in the Bronx, Mashia works with others at the Black Feminist Project to tend the land, sow the seeds and reap the crops of Black Joy Farm. Much of the fresh produce, herbs, eggs and other foods grown at the farm are provided to families across the Bronx at low to no cost. Over the seven years that Black Joy Farm has been in operation, hundreds of pounds of fresh food has been given away to Black and brown folks residing in the poorest congressional district in the nation.

“I can’t help everyone at the same time, but we can do our part,” Mashia said. “Just imagine if we had more of these spaces and how we could truly feed the community. We need the access to the land, because if we have access to land, we have access to food, and access to food is how we can build, in ways, wealth in our communities.” 

The effects of food apartheid are felt throughout the borough. Despite a rich history of community organizing and advocacy, large disparities continue to bar communities from equitable access to food. Although it houses the world’s largest food distribution center, The Bronx has ranked last in all of New York State’s 62 counties in health outcomes since 2009. 

“Food justice is so important because we’re disconnected,” Mashia said. “Being Black in America, all we know is fast food. We know fast foods, but most of us don’t know growing food.”

Black food spaces such as Black Joy Farm provide nourishment to communities who have continually been involuntarily deemed undeserving of foods that holistically tend to and nurture our entire being — foods that connect us to community and root us in the Earth. Black folks need, deserve and are owed spaces in which we can relish in our ancestral ways of knowing and tending to the land and surround ourselves with the beauty of fresh, ripe foods to eat. 

Black food spaces have the power to liberate us from hunger and the power to heal our minds and souls as we work to reclaim the very intimate parts of ourselves that have consistently and violently been stolen from us. When we are able to regain our divine connection to the land, we are also able to find sanctuary from the abuses of anti-Black racism and patterns of white dominance.

Students get to plant greens of their own during the summer youth programs at Black Joy Farm.

“Sometimes I have a blanket and just lay out there, just put my hands out and just lay and look at the sky, and just watch the clouds go by,” Mashia said. “It’s a healing space more than just a community farm. It’s an oasis from the harsh and crazy city life that we live.”

In a society where the police conceive of themselves as soldiers at war with communities, where politicians blatantly craft oppressive and dehumanizing policies and where Black folks are still hunted for the fear of their liberation — fear of their very existence — spaces must exist for Black folks to catch a breath. It is for our survival that we carve our spaces for ourselves where we may find rest, peace and a reprieve from the violence and oppression of anti-Black racism.

“Our space is a safe space for anyone in the community,” Mashia said. “You don’t have to come in there to grow something or want to learn about anything agriculturally. You can just come in there. Some women just come in there and they just want to sit in the space and read a book.”

According to Mashia, it can be easy to forget that the kids that attend the Black Joy Farm summer programs are dealing with so much more than the food injustice that plagues the Bronx. While Black Joy Farm relishes in the beautiful depths of Blackness, the environment outside is harsh. 

“They’re dealing with domestic issues, drugs and alcohol, and all these crazy things — gangs and things like that,” Mashia said. “Being able to come here, they’re using the space to release and feel like they can be themselves and let their guard down, and they’re in a happy environment.”

Black farmers like Mashia are returning to their agricultural roots with the intention of feeding and healing their people who have always been systemically denied access to healthy, affordable and culturally meaningful food and spaces to exist unencumbered by the white gaze.

“That’s what we’re always fighting for: access to these spaces,” Mashia said. “If we had these spaces, just imagine what we could do.”

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.