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People of color speak out against ‘food apartheid’ and bias against indigenous groups

Ecumenical Advocacy Days session also showcases self-sufficiency in Baltimore and the Black Church Food Security Network

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by nrd via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — While serving as pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III became concerned about the nutrition and health of some of his members.

“I pastored there for 14 years and during my time, I saw many members of my church being hospitalized repeatedly for diet-related issues,” said Brown, a speaker at an Ecumenical Advocacy Days plenary on Wednesday.

Desiring a pipeline for nutrient-rich foods, Brown thought of turning to a business outside the church, but when that didn’t work out, he hit upon an idea closer to home — growing food on the church’s next-door lot.

“While I’d seen this land a ton of times, on a particular day, frustrated by food apartheid in my community, I saw and received the vision to start growing food on our own land, and that’s just what we did,” he said. “I went to the congregation and shared the vision and we transformed that lot” into what became known as Maxine’s Garden, named after a member who contributed her gardening wisdom to the endeavor.

The Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III

The result: “We grow 1,200 pounds of produce and partner with others as well to make sure that our community and our neighbors and congregation receive the support that they need,” he said.

That success story was lifted up during “Enough for All: How Nutrition, Equity and Sustainability Build Peace.” The afternoon session also featured Julie Bautista, a domestic policy analyst for Bread for the World; the Karyn Bigelow, co-executive director of Creation Justice Ministries; and moderator Manoj Kurian, coordinator at Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.

Brown is now the executive director of a national organization called the Black Church Food Security Network, which he highlighted during the plenary. “We co-create Black food ecosystems, anchored by Black churches in partnership with Black farmers and accomplices. We’re located around the United States, most of our member churches being (on) the East Coast. We help churches start gardens on their land. We help churches to host farmers’ markets, featuring Black farmers.”

There’s also a fruit tree orchard program. In addition to growing lemons, oranges and tangerines in Jacksonville, Florida, orchards are planned in the Baltimore metro area and in Buffalo, New York, Brown said.

“We’re connecting all of these churches and farmers together to co-create the kind of system that we need that furthers food sovereignty and not charity or begging or subjugation to systems that advance racism in our food system,” he said, “and we invite partnership and connection on any of these things.”

As part of his presentation, Brown gave examples of multiple Black ministries that have provided for their people during various points in history, including the Great Depression, as part of food sovereignty initiatives. On a starker note, he talked about how Blacks have lost land over the years due to various reasons, such as pervasive federal discrimination, lack of access to good legal services, and even being run off their land in some cases.

“In the years following the Civil War, people of African descent bought land or were provided land and owned 15 million acres after the Civil War in these United States,” he said. “By 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms in this country, and just in the span between 1920 and 1975, that dropped down to 45,000 Black-owned farms, and now, African Americans only make up 1% of the nation’s rural landowners. That’s a very steep decline in land ownership and stewardship, which is why we believe that justice has to be a part of the equation when you’re talking about food security and food sovereignty and standing against violence of all kinds.”

One way that food can be used as a weapon is through the creation of neighborhoods with little to no access to healthy food, he said.

“In many of our communities, when you have more corner stores than you have places to get nutrient-rich produce, that’s violent,” he said. Some would call those communities food deserts, but “we say ‘food apartheid’ to point to the intentional ways that communities are developed,” with Black communities often being far from healthy food.

Kurian, the moderator, noted that there are global systems that benefit the rich but make others more dependent and more vulnerable.

Bautista, who was raised in Guam, talked about how indigenous people are put at a disadvantage on the island, where much of the land is occupied by a U.S. military base.

Julie Bautista

“Currently, there is no meat processing facility or a slaughterhouse on the island, which simply means that every time I ate meat when I was a child, it was imported. Locally raised meat is prohibited on the island, even though we have all this land to produce food for resources for our people. This is a problem,” she said. “Indigenous communities have the land, yet they don’t have access to it and people are going hungry. We have a system that only values domination of the land and that’s why militarization receives so much money.”

However, “food security is global security, and if people are hungry and struggling, we really don’t have anything to be proud of,” she said.

Turning to the topic of Native American rights, Bautista talked about the need to overcome policy barriers and financial structures that hinder Native Americans from providing for their people despite having land. “The system leaves them with no choice but to lease it to corporations who exploit the land and promote mass production,” she said.

Karyn Bigelow

Bigelow, the final featured speaker, declared that “people should have access to safe and nutritious food at all times.” However, multiple factors, including climate change, are getting in the way, along with violent conflicts, food justice issues and other sources of instability.

“When people are exposed to natural disasters, when people are exposed to violence and other things, it makes it hard to address the vulnerability that people have to hunger, and this is becoming worse and worse” of an issue, she said. “We have done a great job globally at being able to cut world hunger, extreme hunger, in half, and yet we have found over the last five years that the numbers keep rising, unfortunately,” she said. “We’re undoing that work that we’ve done because one of the main reasons is climate change and also armed conflict and unfortunately, a lot of that armed conflict often has origins over climate-related issues,” such as access to water.

Pushing for positive change, she said, “in order for us to see peace, in order for us to see justice, we have to address this issue of food security and its connections to climate and sustainability issues.”

Ecumenical Advocacy Days draws to a close Thursday with participants fanning out virtually to visit their elected officials to speak with their staff about issues important to those attending EAD. Watch for further reporting from Presbyterian News Service here.

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