How Do We End 'Food Apartheid' in America? With Farms Like This One


As the cost of living rises and wages stay the same, millions struggle to afford nutritious food. Wealth inequality, systemic oppression and lack of access to fresh produce are key factors in this problem. Poor communities are often flooded with fast-food restaurants. For working people with low wages, a $5.20 meal from McDonald’s is very tempting when there is a McDonald’s on every corner. Communities that are most vulnerable to food-related death and disease are inundated with fast-food restaurants.

This is no coincidence—fast-food companies are 60 percent more likely to advertise to children in predominantly black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods.

“The fast-food industry disproportionately targets people of color,” explains Leah Penniman, program director and co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm. On the flip side, farmers’ markets are significantly more likely to take place in predominately white neighborhoods. A white community is three times more likely to have healthy food and grocery stores than black communities.

Research reveals similar marketing trends in poor neighborhoods. Marketing tactics are done in conjunction with toys to appeal to children. But this appeal hides terrible health consequences. Eating fast food in youth is linked to lifelong trends such as higher rates of obesity and higher body fat percentages and insulin levels. And more than 30 percent of children have a drink or meal from a fast-food restaurant daily.

“If we want a society that values black lives, we cannot ignore the roles of land and food,” says Penniman.

Penniman’s love for the land began early in life. When being the only black family in her neighborhood led to bullying, the forest welcomed her with open arms. Her love affair with the land transformed into a passion for environmental justice and joining the fight for food access. Soul Fire Farm was a direct response to the food apartheid conditions Penniman witnessed in the south end of Albany.

“We wanted to start a farm for the people that would do doorstep delivery of low-cost food to families that otherwise would not have access to that food,” Penniman recalls.

“Food apartheid is a human-created system of segregations, which relegates some people to food opulence and other people to food scarcity. It results in the epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other diet-related illnesses that are plaguing communities of color,” she explains.

The farm is run by Penniman, her husband, their two children, and a host of volunteers who deliver food to the doorsteps of those who lack access, and accept SNAP as payment. 

Rates of Farmers of Color

Not only are people of color affected by the lack of access to healthy foods, there is also a systemic issue in the form of a lack of diversity in farm owners. Black and brown farmers are nearly non-existent due to the unequal distribution of government subsidies. Black farmers made up 1.4 percent of the nation’s 3.2 millions farmers, according to the most recent agricultural census. Farmers of color are substantially less likely to own large farms, and in 2012 56 percent of minority farm owners made less than $10,000 with 75.5 percent of farmers of color making less than $50,000.

Despite contributing the majority of the harvesting labor, Hispanics have very low levels of farm ownership.

“Eighty percent of our food is grown by people of Latino/Hispanic descent, but only 3 percent of farms are owned and controlled by Latino and Hispanic individuals,” says Penniman. Farm work is often at the intersection of many oppressive structures. In the 1930s, the United States passed labor laws to protect workers; however, these laws excluded farm work and domestic labor jobs that were traditionally held by blacks and immigrants. Shortly after, the Bracero Program was started by the government to import laborers from Mexico. This program led to millions of Mexican farm workers doing high amounts of manual labor for low wages and under minimally enforced protections.

Though the Bracero Program ended in the 1970s, that mistreatment continues today. As many as 75 percent of Latin American farm workers are believed to be undocumented, and are often exploited, exposed to a multitude of injustices including sexual violence, pesticide exposure and unequal housing opportunities. Low wages are also a significant issue for farm workers and they lack the right to unionize.

“Farm work has always been considered black and brown people work. And [historically] black and brown people have been considered less than human,” Penniman says.

In an attempt to replenish the rates of black and brown farmers, Soul Fire Farm hosts a week-long immersion training where aspiring farmers camp out and learn the basics of farming and business planning. To date, Soul Fire Farm has trained 291 new farmers since 2011.

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Photo courtesy of Leah Penniman, Soul Fire Farm.

Engaging the Youth

Improving the rates of farmers of color isn’t Soul Fire’s only accomplishment. The effects of bad food are more than physical. Inadequate nutrition directly contributes to negative mental health and achievement issues in school.

“There is research that lack of access to good food and lack of access to outdoors leads to learning delays, depression/anxiety, insomnia, and poor eyesight,” says Penniman. The benefits of gardening on physical and mental health have long been known. On the farm, young people are given the opportunity to experience those effects by being exposed to the beauty of the earth.

Soul Fire focuses on the young people—particularly those who are in foster care or have been criminalized through the justice system—and gives them the opportunity to be healed by the land. The farm's Youth Empowerment Program exposes young people to harvesting, cooking and food justice knowledge. In addition, the farm’s restorative justice program allows teens to earn money to pay off court-ordered restitution and avoid incarceration. As of 2016, Soul Fire Farm has trained a whopping 1,335 young people since 2011.

Feeding the Less Fortunate

The oversaturation of the poor and communities of color with fast food is an issue that must be addressed if there’s any hope of improving mortality rates in the United States. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for African Americans and Hispanic people/Latinos, and is the number-one killer of Native Americans. The likelihood of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure increases with frequent exposure to foods high in “bad” fats. All of these risk factors can be fought with fresh foods. However, food apartheid limits access to the nutrient-dense meals that fight heart disease.

“If I feel sick, or I’m heavier than my ideal weight, it's a lot harder for me to volunteer at my child's school or engage in civic actions. We have to take care of ourselves to be present,” Penniman says. 

Though food apartheid is a systemic issue, community initiatives like Soul Fire Farm provide access to health meals and lessons on food preparation. Soul Fire not only provides access to the community, but does it in a way in which low wages are not a barrier. Each week, Soul Fire provides a weekly delivery of 10-15 nutrient-rich, naturally produced vegetables directly to the doorsteps of Capital District families living in communities affected by food apartheid.

This food assists those of varying incomes and citizenships. Through a program called Solidarity Share, higher-income customers pay a little extra for their food in order to support a low-income family. The program is also available to undocumented and system-involved individuals. Says Penniman, “We also have a program one of our friends started called Victory Bus in which he drives between New York City and upstate prison to help people visit their families who are incarcerated. Tickets for the bus are purchased by buying... food from Soul Fire or other involved farmers.”

By providing nutrients for the body, the mind and the soul, Soul Fire Farm is directly acting to revolutionize the conditions for black and brown people. “I consider it my contribution to the Movement for Black Lives to help our people take control of feeding ourselves," Penniman says. "My work is hard, but that's what keeps me going.”

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Photo courtesy of Leah Penniman, Soul Fire Farm.

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