Natasha Bowens describes herself as a "young, brown female who likes to farm." And while she didn’t grow up doing it, she’s now dedicated her career to creating a network of other people of color in farming and food justice.
Like many people Bowens became an activist in college, and focused her early career working on the 2008 elections, and on health policy for the Center for American Progress. Along this path she began connecting the dots between politics, social justice, the environment, health and food and was inspired to start farming. But the more she got involved, the more she began to notice a lack of people of color heading farming or food justice initiatives.
"I saw this disparity. I thought food justice movements were being led by communities of color. They were leading movements on the ground but they were then being taken over," she says. "There are organizations that are supposedly supporting communities of color, but their funding is not going to communities of color."
In 2010 she began a blog titled Brown.Girl.Farming, and soon after started working on The Color of Food, a multimedia project that gathers stories of people of color leading farming and food justice initiatives in their hometowns. Bowens traveled across the country, doing interviews and taking photographs, and is set to publish a book in the spring. Based on what she learned in her travels she also developed the Color of Food map–which charts farms and food justice initiatives owned or operated by
Sow Much Good Located in: Charlotte, N.C. Founded in: 2008 What they do: Sow Much Good addresses the health, racial and socioeconomic disparities that result from lack of access to healthy food. Mecklenberg* County in the Charlotte, N.C. area has at least 73,000 residents living in areas without adequate access to grocery stores. Sow Much Good aims to have an impact on high levels of diet-related health problems in low-income communities of color by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables and engaging the local community through programs and workshops. Robin Emmons, the organization’s founder and executive director, was just named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes. She says racial justice is a foundational tenet of their organization. "I choose food as my platform to promote social justice as it a microcosm for many disparities that systemically exist among every underserved, marginalized or fragile group in our society," she says.
Real Food Challenge Located in: Cambridge, Mass. Founded in: 2008 What they do: Real Food Challenge aims to activate youth to become key stakeholders in creating a more green and just food system in the U.S. Based in Massachusetts, Real Food is a national organization with regional chapters across the country. Using a social justice model that encourages participation between youth, educators, business leaders, and government officials, the Real Food Challenge works with youth and college students to advocate for policy changes that would shift money away from industrial food systems and toward community-based food initiatives. "We hope that through developing young leaders who understand the food system and issues of power, privilege and oppression, we foster a larger and longer-lasting racial and economic justice movement," says David Schwartz, campaign director for Real Food.
Huerto de la Familia (The Family Garden) Located in: Eugene, Ore. Founded in: 1999 What they do: Huerto de La Familia aims to create a space where Latinos can connect with their cultural roots and develop employable skills through farming. According to the American Community Survey, the Latino population in Eugene has grown by 85 percent since 2000. Huerto de La Familia aims to increase healthy food access to this growing community, which continues to be low-income. The organization operates a farm, garden and food justice project that works with these local Latino families. Sarah Cantril, Huerto’s executive director, says racial and economic justice principles guide their work. "The political environment in Latin America drives many Latinos to come to the U.S., and once here they become part of one of the most food insecure communities in the country. We aim to acknowledge their backgrounds in agriculture and use it to create a space where Latinos can produce healthy food and also further their economic wellbeing."
Hattie Cartham Community Garden Located in: Brooklyn, N.Y. Founded in: 1970 What they do: The Hattie Cartham Garden reclaims spaces in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to create urban gardens and use these spaces to educate the community on healthy eating. The project is said to be one of the oldest community-led agricultural initiatives in the country and is named for Bed-Stuy native and activist Hattie Cartham. In addition to fruits and vegetables, the garden also produces medicinal herbs for local residents. Organizers run a nearby farmers market with produce from larger state farms. In a recent interview, garden vice president Yonette Flemming said, "The most unique aspect about us is that we are African-American run and African-American directed, and we intend to go in that direction for as long as we can." In addition to teaching community members about food justice and agriculture, they also run entrepreneurship programs for youth and other local community members.
ReVision Urban Farm Located in: Dorchester, Mass. Founded in: 1995 What they do: ReVision Urban Farm provides food and shelter for homeless people and residents of the surrounding community. The project began when ReVision House, a women’s homeless shelter, created a small farm adjacent to the shelter, which then merged with Victory Programs eight years ago to become ReVision Urban Farms. Now, the farm actively provides food for shelter residents, and community-sourced agriculture for city dwellers and farmers markets. The organization also provides job training opportunities for women in the shelter. "Good nutrition is one of the most basic needs people have," ReVision manager Shani Fletcher says. "The community in which we are located is a poor and working-class neighborhood populated primarily by African-Americans and West Indian immigrant families. We work to provide these communities with ready access to affordable, healthy, fresh and culturally appropriate food."
People’s Grocery Located in: Oakland, Calif. Founded in: 2003 What they do: People’s Grocery improves West Oakland’s economy and the health of its residents by creating a vital local food system. The organization operates the California Hotel Garden and Greenhouse, run out of the California Hotel public housing development in West Oakland, as well as an education institute on food justice. In addition they have an internship program, which they call an "allyship," where participants run workshops and trainings that the organization hopes will foster "the development of equal relationships (everyone is a peer) and equal participation (everyone has agency) for working cross-racially and cross-culturally in food systems change." At a recent talk at the Commonwealth Club, executive director Nikki Henderson talked about her personal experiences with the intersection of food justice, racism and health. "Part of what I want people to latch onto, and feel in their guts around food and health, and African-American communities, is that the things that we experience every day, the survival mode, the rat race that is experienced by so [many] of us every day is not divorced from these other issues we deal with. Housing and health, and education and policy all live close to the surface," she said.
*Post has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Mecklenburg County.