‘Everything is natural and tastes so good’: microfarms push back against ‘food apartheid’ | Food

Ona recent Sunday morning in South Los Angeles, Crop Swap LA volunteers and staffers harvested bags of freshly picked produce from the front yard of a residence. Located just steps from Leimert Park Plaza, the Asante microfarm is the first of what will be numerous microfarms created by the organization, which is dedicated to growing hyperlocal food in unused spaces “in the neighborhood, exclusively for the neighborhood”.

“Everything we’re growing is nutrient-dense and the food remains in the neighborhood,” says Jamiah Hargins, who founded Crop Swap LA in 2018 as a small monthly swap of surplus produce. After spending years in finance and consulting, Hargins decided to create a local food distribution system to address the fact that his neighborhood was a food desert, meaning most residents have little access to healthy food. It’s now one of many Bipoc-led groups across the US that are reclaiming their agricultural heritage and redefining the local food movement by growing on traditional farms and unconventional spaces such as yards, medians and vacant lots as a way to increase food security and health in their own communities.

Crop Swap LA members live within one mile of one of the organization’s microfarms and receive their weekly bags of produce within hours of harvest – which Hargins says is far more nutritious than buying produce that’s been sitting on trucks or in storage for days and weeks – for $50 (£40) a month (Cal Fresh/EBT users pay $25).

Crop Swap LA founder Jamiah Hargins at the Asante microfarm in Los Angeles, California.
Crop Swap LA founder Jamiah Hargins at the Asante microfarm in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

The solar-powered microfarms feature on-site composting, beehives and rainwater harvesting, and plants are grown in long mesh containers made from upcycled polypropylene. Harvests have included Swiss chard, tomatoes, red-veined sorrel and pattypan summer squash, among other produce and herbs. A fruit tree harvesting program provides members with honey crisp apples and Asian pears.

Crop Swap LA’s third microfarm will debut its first harvest in June and its biggest project yet will be an urban farm that will provide produce for a 10,000 sq ft food incubator and grocery store at the forthcoming Marlton Square development in south Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills neighborhood.

The local food movement has long been led by white upper-class activists, such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, which means the needs of diverse communities have often been neglected and the systemic racism that affects the US food system is often ignored.

“Some of the communities that have been systematically kept away from good food are realizing that they can get involved,” says Hargins, who will introduce workshops and training programs next year so others can replicate his group’s efforts. “Our movement here is about refreshing the whole system, which ends up decentralizing food and creating more equity.”

Naomi Adams, who researches environmental justice at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the movement of people growing their own food is gaining momentum and that having autonomy is an imperative for food sovereignty.

“It’s empowering to grow food in your own back yard and don’t have to rely on these food market systems that don’t care about these communities at all – they have no interest in actually supporting communities in need,” says Adams.

Adams notes that the term “food desert” isn’t entirely accurate since it makes areas sound barren and isn’t reflective of what’s actually going on in neighborhoods. Adams prefers using the term “food apartheid”, which describes the system of racist policies that limit access to healthy food in communities.

Even those experiencing food apartheid can still be part of the local food movement, Adams says, whether growing food in a garden or traveling farther afield to access fresh produce.

Adams says that a person’s relationship with food – in addition to their awareness and ability to harvest resources around them – results in how and what they eat. “It matters where people live, but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” she says. “There are many ways to be resilient in the face of food apartheid.”

South Los Angeles resident Tanya Hayley was taking her son for a haircut when she happened to drive by Crop Swap LA’s second microfarm, La Salle, which opened last year. After learning about its mission, Hayley became a member and has since enjoyed Sunday deliveries of grapefruits, oranges, kumquats, red lettuce and herb bundles. “You can tell that everything is natural and it tastes so good,” she says. “I cooked the kale and my son was hovering over the bowl – and he never ate kale.”

There are similar groups run by communities of color across the US.

After the Chicora-Cherokee community in North Charleston, South Carolina, was left without a grocery store for more than 10 years, Fresh Future Farm stepped in. Founded in 2014, the non-profit transformed a vacant lot into a flourishing urban farm that grows bananas, sugarcane, meyer lemons, satsuma oranges, collard greens, okra and tomatoes, among other crops. Two years later, it opened a sliding scale grocery store on the same property – the first one in the area in 11 years.

“Everything we sell from the farm space is harvested to order,” says Fresh Future Farm co-director Tamazha North. “We’re really a necessity for folks to access food.” The non-profit also teaches home gardening classes, which is inspiring a new crop of home growers. “Our dream is to have farms and stores in every neighborhood experiencing food insecurity,” says North.

In New York’s lower Hudson valley, Rise & Root Farm is a 5-acre ( 3-hectare) cooperative run by four multiracial LGBTQ+ women. In addition to selling a wide variety of seedlings and plants, their mission is centered on the healing power of food and farming to build a more equitable food system.

“It’s a sense of pride when you grow your own food and it’s passing on knowledge, storytelling, culture and education,” says co-owner and farmer Karen Washington, a longtime urban gardener who helped transform empty lots in the Bronx into community gardens. “For so long, the food movement has definitely been white-led. We’re trying to reclaim our culture and heritage when it comes to farming and food.”

Washington, who was awarded the James Beard leadership award in 2014 for her work, says it’s important to remember that the US and its food system were “built on the backs” of enslaved Black and Indigenous people.

In the US, 95% of farmers are white, while Black, Indigenous and other people of color often encounter challenges when it comes to securing capital, land, credit and infrastructure. In the last 100 years, the number of Black farmers in the US fell from nearly 1 million to 45,000, and Black farmers received the lowest amount of loans, according to an NPR analysis of USDA data.

“We’re trying to make sure that young Black and brown children understand their place in agriculture and in the food system,” says Washington. “Their ancestors came from an agrarian culture and they can embrace it, too.”

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