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New York farm committed to ending racism and injustice in food system


Soul Fire Farm provides outreach opportunities for farming and activism

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Staff and volunteers spend the months between April and November growing and cultivating crops at Soul Fire Farm. (Photo courtesy of Soul Fire Farm)

LOUISVILLE — There is a farm in New York state with a goal to feed people living in “Food Apartheid” neighborhoods, a term they use to describe areas with little or no access to fresh, healthy food. Soul Fire Farm was started in 2011 thanks to a group of committed individuals who believe everyone, regardless of race or background, should eat healthily.

“We grow our food and get it to those who need it most through a weekly doorstep delivery of vegetables and eggs. It goes to people who live in neighborhoods with no access to fresh healthy food,” said Leah Penniman, co-founder and co-director of the farm. “People pay for food on a sliding scale, depending on their income. We work with many refugee families who receive a fully subsidized food share.”

The idea, according to Penniman, was to bring diverse communities together to share farming skills as well as promote spiritual activism, health and environmental justice. Penniman says the farm cares for the soil and uses sustainable growing methods that were taught by African and indigenous ancestors.

“We provide both young people and adults with opportunities to learn how to farm, run a business and organize for a more just food system,” she said. “Over a thousand people come through our trainings each year. Many of them, including Latinx, Asian and other people of color, go on to farm, run community gardens or take leadership in the food system.”

Penniman says that racism and injustice are “baked into” the U.S. food system. “Approximately 85 percent of U.S. food is grown by Hispanic and Latinx people, but they only make up three percent of farm management,” she said. “On the consumer side, if you have dark skin, you are four times more likely to live in neighborhoods without a supermarket or a farmer’s market. You are more likely to have diabetes, obesity and other diet-related illnesses. That’s not an accident, that’s policy, a systemic lack of access to food, land, credit and training.”

Soul Fire Farm grows enough food to feed 250 individuals a week through its farm share program. (Photo courtesy of Soul Fire Farm)

Between April and November, people come to the farm for trainings and workshops, whether it is for a few days or a week-long program. In the winter, Penniman finds herself on the speakers’ circuit, appearing at universities around the country as well as conferences related to food and social justice. She’s also writing a book called Farming While Black, which will be published by Chelsea Green this fall.

“We have three full-time year-around staff as well as five seasonal part-time employees. Our network of volunteers is large,” she said. “Every month, we have a volunteer day that draws about 60 people and there is at least a dozen more that will do things remotely like research and translation.”

The farm is a non-profit organization with a 15-member board of directors. Food production takes place on a portion of the 70 acres they steward. The farm grows vegetables and raises poultry for eggs to feed 250 individuals a week through its farm share program.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP) was among its first supporters, something not lost on Penniman who says PHP has helped build the farm’s credibility with other foundations and leverage additional support.

Andrew Kang Bartlett, PHP’s associate for national hunger concerns, has visited the farm and has been impressed with what he’s seen.

“We first heard about Soul Fire Farm through partners in the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance,” said Kang Bartlett. “When I visited, along with the farmer from Stony Point Center and our Hunger Action Advocate, I was amazed at the abundance of vegetables growing on this sloping and relatively small farm. The diversity was astounding.”

“But beyond the skillful farming was the commitment to justice, building relationships and weaving a web of solidarity with communities struggling on the margins,” he added. “Every year, they raise funds so they can provide weekly, no-cost, doorstep delivery of farm fresh food to a dozen-plus Capital District families who are impacted by immigration policy, police violence and incarceration.”

The spring meeting of the PHP Advisory Committee will be hosted at Stony Point Center in part to visit Soul Fire Farm and to learn about these innovative initiatives and building just and resilient communities.

In addition to providing fresh food and educational programs, Soul Fire Farm is also committed to reparations work. Alumni of their Black Latinx Farmers Immersion created a national reparations map to help return land and resources to communities of color.

“We are committed to a large-scale policy change and getting resources back to the people from whom it was stolen,” said Penniman. “We are working with several national alliances to change the rules of the system to make them fair for everyone.”

The work and grant partnerships of the Presbyterian Hunger Program are made possible by gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing.

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