Sneak Peak: Family Farmers and Farmworkers Face the Virus

David Bacon | 05.21.2020

The following is an excerpt from our upcoming, special edition Backgrounder on COVID-19 and the food system.

The COVID Crisis and Urban Communities

Malik Yakini speaks for many people in the movements for food sovereignty and sustainability as they face the crisis of the novel coronavirus. He sees it from the perspective of the urban farms of Detroit, as the executive director of the Black Community Food Security Network. “The problems people see now, from the difficulty they’re experiencing getting to markets to the absence of food on the shelves when they get there, really highlight the need for a new food system,” he says.

The city’s urban farmers have had to make immediate changes, just to keep functioning. In Michigan the planting season is just starting, and farmers have yet to figure out how they’ll sell what they intend to grow. “We’ve got collards that we’re just transitioning into the ground now, with green onions, leeks, onions, kale, and soon romaine,” he explains. “To keep everyone safe, we’ve limited the number of people in our farm who can be at work to four at a time, with no volunteers. That’s a big change from the past, when we’d have 15-20 people on a weekend.”

To Yakini, the coronavirus has thrown into high relief the questions that have historically faced the growth of the urban farm system. “Detroit has 139 square miles of land, and a third of it is vacant – more land potentially available than any other city. So one question is how the city will dispose of that part of it that they own, which is managed by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. But it’s really more than just allowing residents to gain ownership. Successful farms have to develop the soil, which is a multi-year project. We need skilled people, and an infrastructure that includes cooling facilities, so that farmers don’t have to sell immediately after harvesting. And the city has to loosen its policies on water use. The need for long-term planning has become much sharper as a result of the crisis we’re experiencing.”

Like Yakini, Karen Washington in New York City sees the crisis as a moment to question the way the food system has failed, especially low-income families and people of color. “We have to acknowledge that we can’t go back, not to business as usual,” she says. “The emphasis has to be on people and planning, not profit. Now we know how valuable food is. What is all your jewelry worth when you have to wait in line to feed your family? But if you can grow food, you can survive. Food and water are more precious than gold.”

Already community activism has changed the way food is being distributed in the Bronx, where Washington lives. In her neighborhood, volunteers from Mothers on the Move and the Mary Mitchell Center deliver bags to older people, who would be vulnerable to infection if they tried to shop for themselves. “Every week I get a delivery of three bags, and then I distribute that food to the seniors I know on my block,” she says. Washington goes across the street to the Garden of Happiness, her community garden, to clean out the chicken coop. She gets a dozen eggs a day that she also gives to elderly people she knows are going hungry. “I’ve been on my block for 32 years and I know who’s hungry. That’s what having a community garden means – that we know each other and take care of each other.”

The Bronx has about 150 community gardens in its food chain, and many have been talking in virtual meetings since the crisis started. “We’re asking, what can we grow for our community? In the past we’ve grown for ourselves, and for the farmers markets. Now we’re asking, how we can set aside a growing box specifically for people in the community, and then aggregate the food grown in those boxes together?”

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Will the community markets, however, like the one she organized 19 years ago, be able to open when the gardens begin to harvest? “Normally it starts in July, which I hope it will this year. We have a mix of urban and rural farmers who come, but the banks now are putting up barriers to quickly reimbursing them for coupons from SNAP and SMNP nutrition programs. The farmers need money right away and can’t wait for reimbursements. I don’t know if they’ll come to our market this year. We need our elected officials to take action to protect, not just our market, but all the community markets, because together with our gardens, we are a system serving low income people of color.”

In California, Black Earth Farm has developed a system for directly connecting community residents with food. “We used to go to events to distribute our produce, but they all got cancelled when the crisis started,” says jabril kyser, earth worker at the farm. “But because we met people at those events, they became part of our cultural network and we know who they are.” Black Earth Farm now has a system for online ordering and delivery for some community members. For others, who don’t live in traditional housing, the farm’s members deliver food to them.

“Our community was affected by food apartheid long before the virus arrived,” kyser explains. “So we’ve developed systems in which it can have access to healthy produce outside of the market-based one, which has never met their needs. What’s holding us back now is capacity.” The farm just acquired new acreage in a small city not far from its base in Oakland and Berkeley, and now is planting watermelon and other melons, tomatoes, strawberries, and collards and other leafy vegetables.

“Our work is way more important now,” kyser says, “because we are providing political and agricultural education to our community at a time when the crisis has shown the shortcomings and failures of the industrial food system. Once the crisis has abated, people will still want to grow their own food if we get organized and teach our community how to do it. We can transcend the consumer slavery relations that caused our problems to begin with.”

Check back in June to read the rest of our COVID-19 edition Backgrounder.

Cover photo by David Bacon..