Article

Alternative agrifood projects in communities of color: A civic engagement perspective

Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development
ISSN: 2152-0801 online
www.AgDevJournal.com
Volume 5, Issue 4 / Summer 2015 69
Alternative agrifood projects in communities
of color: A civic engagement perspective
Glennon Sweeney,a * Christy Rogers,a Casey Hoy,b Jill K. Clark,c
Kareem Usher,d Kip Holley,a and Colleen Spees e
The Ohio State University
Submitted June 15, 2015 / Published online July 23, 2015
Citation: Sweeney, G., Rogers, C., Hoy, C., Clark, J. K., Usher, K., Holley, K., & Spees, C. (2015). Alternative
agrifood projects in communities of color: A civic engagement perspective. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and
Community Development, 5(4), 69–75. http://dx.doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2015.054.005
Copyright © 2015 by New Leaf Associates, Inc.
Abstract
In this commentary we very briefly highlight
farming- and land-related historical injustices
impacting African Americans, and outline useful
ways for racially diverse food justice organizations,
activists, and academics to collaborate on place-
based interventions in an equitable and inclusive
way. Place-based strategies to address inequity in
the food system must begin with an equitable and
inclusive environment within which residents can
engage in developing solutions. Equitable and
inclusive civic engagement can build capacity, trust,
and empowerment in marginalized communities,
creating an environment where communities can
enact transformative local food system change
using their own resources. Transformative change
is change that occurs at the very core of ourselves
as individuals and in our communities. Such
change requires us to reexamine our long-standing
customs, assumptions, beliefs, and institutional
COMMENTARY ON RACE AND
ETHNICITY IN FOOD SYSTEMS WORK
a * Glennon Sweeney (Corresponding author), Christy Rogers, and
Kip Holley: Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and
Ethnicity at the Ohio State University; 33 West 11th Avenue;
Columbus, Ohio 43201 USA; sweeney.270@osu.edu;
christyrogers441@gmail.com;
kipholley.kirwaninstitute@gmail.com
b Casey Hoy, Professor of Entomology, College of Food,
A
griculture, and Environmental Sciences, The Ohio State
University, Wooster Campus; 1680 Madison Avenue; Wooster,
Ohio 44691 USA; hoy.1@osu.edu
c Jill K. Clark, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs, John
Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University;
1810 College Road; Columbus, Ohio 43210 USA;
clark.1099@osu.edu
d Kareem Usher, Post Doctoral Researcher, City and Regional
Planning, Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State
University; and Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and
Ethnicity, The Ohio State University; 275 West Woodruff
A
venue; Columbus, Ohio 43210 USA; usher.21@osu.edu
e Colleen Spees, Assistant Professor, Medical Dietetics, The
Ohio State University College of Medicine; 453 West 10th
A
venue; Columbus, Ohio 43210 USA;
colleen.spees@osumc.edu
A
uthors’ note: With special thanks and acknowledgement to
Michelle Kaiser, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Ohio
State University College of Social Work.
Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development
ISSN: 2152-0801 online
www.AgDevJournal.com
70 Volume 5, Issue 4 / Summer 2015
practices, moving community conversations
towards those that build relationships, foster
mutual accountability, and strive for respectful
understanding among neighbors and
neighborhoods. Transformative change doesn’t
come easily. However, practicing equitable
engagement can help build capacity for sustaining
change. Alternative food movement scholars and
activists can lift up and build on community assets,
but to do so requires historical understanding,
recognition of individual and community strengths,
and work to build long-term relationships of trust.
Keywords
alternative agrifood movement, civic engagement,
race, farming
ndustrialization and globalization of the food
system have wrought profound changes in local
food environments with respect to cost, availa-
bility, and variety. And while one result is that food
is a small percentage of household expense in the
U.S. (making up 9.8% of the average budget in
2013) (USDA ERS, n.d.), the cost of a balanced
and health-promoting diet depends on where one
lives (Hilbert, Evans-Cowley, Reece, Rogers, Ake,
& Hoy, 2014). Thus the percentage of income
needed to maintain a balanced diet might vary
widely. Many urban neighborhoods with little
internal wealth or external investment lack full-
service grocery stores, and many of the residents of
such neighborhoods lack adequate transportation
to access affordable, healthy food (McClintock,
2011; Odoms-Young, Zenk, Karpyn, Ayala, &
Gittelsohn, 2012).1 Often families living in these
communities must travel longer distances than
those in other neighborhoods to access full-service
grocery stores, or are limited to shopping nearby at
1 For the purposes of this short commentary, the authors have
chosen to focus on urban food environments and African
American history. We recognize that rural food environments
and the exploitation and marginalization of other racial and
ethnic populations are equally significant, and that they share
some of the social and political drivers of inequality that can
characterize African American neighborhoods lacking full
access to healthy foods. We look forward to collaborating on a
longer article that delves more deeply into the fuller story of
racialized land loss, inequality, and food injustice.
smaller stores. These smaller local stores may
improve selection in neighborhoods which lack
full-service grocery stores, but often have higher
prices and/or reduced quality (Raja, Ma, & Yadav,
2008). At the same time, rates of preventable
diseases, infant mortality, and other public health
concerns are much higher in neighborhoods with
inequitable healthy food access (Heynen, Kurtz, &
Trauger, 2012; Odoms-Young et al., 2012).
The alternative agrifood movement (AAM) has
broadly positioned itself as an alternative to the
global, industrial food system (Friedland, 2008).
Some AAM members promote local, organic and
identity-preserved foods as important components
of personal, public, and environmental health
(Harper, 2011). While this movement is directed at
all food consumers (regardless of income), access-
ing healthier food is often a matter of consumer
choice for affluent consumers. But within many
economically distressed urban neighborhoods,
accessing healthy food can be very challenging.
AAM initiatives aiming to bring healthy food to
low-income communities have been met, on occa-
sion, with indifference or even open hostility.
Some scholars attribute this phenomenon to a lack
of understanding of, and sensitivity to, the histori-
cal relationship between Whites, African Ameri-
cans, the land, and food (Green, Green, & Kleiner,
2011) as well as the perceived “elite” status of the
AAM (Cadieux & Slocum, 2015; Guthman, 2007,
2011; Harper, 2011).
In this commentary, we very briefly highlight
farming- and land-related historical injustices
impacting African Americans and outline useful
ways for racially diverse organizations, activists,
and academics to collaborate with urban commu-
nities of color in an equitable and inclusive way.
Equitable and inclusive civic engagement can build
capacity, trust, and empowerment in marginalized
communities, creating an environment where
communities can enact transformative local food
system change using their own resources.
The historical legacy of farming in America,
and in particular in the American South, is
formidable. Indeed, agricultural structures and
systems, beginning with slavery and extending to
tenancy, sharecropping, and the crop-lien system,
underpinned land-owning Whites’ subjugation and
I
Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development
ISSN: 2152-0801 online
www.AgDevJournal.com
Volume 5, Issue 4 / Summer 2015 71
control over African American (and poor White)
people and farmers in the South throughout our
early history (Green et al., 2011; Massey & Denton,
1993). The corresponding legacy of these struc-
tures and systems are reflected in both African
American cultural attitudes toward farming, and
the underrepresentation of African Americans in
the American agricultural sector (Green et al.,
2011; Guthman, 2011).
African Americans remain underrepresented
in farm ownership today. Particularly during the
second half of the 20th century, smaller farms
struggled to keep up with the cost of mechaniza-
tion, more complex inputs (e.g., fertilizers, pesti-
cides, new cultivars), and the need to purchase
additional acreage to capture ever-greater econo-
mies of scale. This struggle to compete at increas-
ing scales was systematically greater for African
American farmers than for White farmers
(Hinson & Robinson, 2008). Over the last
century, the country experienced an estimated 98
percent loss in African American farm operations
and a 66 percent loss in White farm operations,
all while the largest (and typically White-owned)
farming operations grew even larger (Green et al.,
2011). Although African American farms tended
to be smaller than White farms in terms of acres
and sales, Wood and Gilbert (2000) found that
when controlling for scale of operation based on
gross sales, African American farmers were still
disproportionately reflected in these farm loss
trends.
Institutional racism at various levels of govern-
ment disproportionately created barriers to land
ownership and farm growth for African American
farmers. In particular, African American famers
were not fairly awarded USDA loans. In 1982, a
U.S. Civil Rights Commission found that in 1980
and 1981 local offices of the USDA loaned less
than two percent of all farm ownership loan
amounts and less than three percent of all farm
operating loan amounts to African American
farmers (Hinson & Robinson, 2008). As a result,
the largest class action lawsuit in U.S. history,
known as the Pigford case, was filed against the U.S.
Department of Agriculture in the late 1990s and
was settled in 2000, resulting in ongoing claims
processing for African American, Hispanic, Native
American, and women ranchers and farmers
(Hinson & Robinson, 2008).2
The loss of farm land ownership pushed many
African Americans into urban spaces, migrations
reflected in many central cities that are now home
to large African American populations (Green et
al., 2011; Massey & Denton, 1993). Unjust prac-
tices of urban housing and neighborhood exclusion
such as redlining, block-busting, restrictive cove-
nants, and steering segregated neighborhoods by
both race and class. This was followed by consist-
ently inequitable and reduced investment in
minority neighborhoods by city governments and
private interests throughout the U.S. (Gotham,
1998; Highsmith, 2009; Logan & Molotch, 2007;
Massey & Denton, 1993; Schildt, 2011). Racism,
exclusion, and disinvestment led to a downward
spiral in opportunity that is reflected in high
unemployment rates, high vacancy rates, high rates
of preventable health problems, and failing local
economies (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom,
2004; Massey & Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1996). As
local economies failed and access to necessary
resources like credit and insurance declined, many
businesses (not just food-related businesses) left
these neighborhoods (Massey & Denton, 1993).
The combined effects of these practices made the
acquisition of land for any use—residential,
commercial, farming—challenging for the African
American community (Gotham, 1998; Highsmith,
2009; Logan & Molotch, 2007; Massey & Denton,
1993; Schildt, 2011). Thus the U.S. food system
remains inequitable, long after overt racism has
subsided (Alkon & Agyeman, 2011).
Reconnecting people with food and farming is
often seen as a means of addressing the vast, often
racialized economic and health-related disparities in
the food system. The AAM often recognizes and
critiques the inequities and injudicious policies
inherent in the modern food system (Alkon &
Agyeman, 2011; Cadieux & Slocum, 2015;
Guthman, 2007, 2008, 2011; Harper, 2011). Yet
prescriptions for small-scale urban agriculture and
diet-related behavior do not examine the root
causes of the injustices they are meant to address
(Guthman, 2007, 2011). And because of the rich
2 See http://www.outreach.usda.gov/settlements.htm
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72 Volume 5, Issue 4 / Summer 2015
history of farming in African and African Ameri-
can culture (despite the multiple barriers to land
ownership and repeated attempts to exploit African
American labor in the U.S.), many African Ameri-
cans find it offensive when Whites travel to urban
neighborhoods and offer to “teach” them how to
garden (Guthman, 2008). Though well-intentioned,
AAM proponents may be offering a short-term
solution when they could contribute powerfully to
a sustainable, long-term one by investing in com-
munity engagement for collective empowerment
and transformative change.
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race
and Ethnicity (Kirwan) has worked with low-
income communities of color to build capacity for
transformative change for over a decade, and has
recently summarized a set of principles for equita-
ble and inclusive civic engagement as a result of
this work (Holley, in press).3 The following
abridged summary of principles for equitable
engagement and transformative change is taken
from this work in the hopes that it can be helpful
to the important food justice activism and
scholarship across the country.
Transformative change is change that occurs at
the very core of ourselves as individuals and our
communities. Such change requires us to reexamine
our long-standing customs, assumptions, beliefs,
and institutional practices, moving community
conversations toward those that build
relationships, foster mutual accountability, and
strive for respectful understanding among
neighbors and neighborhoods. Transformative
change requires a shift in how we measure
engagement outcomes (changes achieved), and
3 Much of what we have learned over the last 10 years has
been in conversation and co-learning with our community
partners. This learning, grounded in the writings of Peter
Block’s Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community and
The Abundant Community, and Eric Uslaner’s Civic Engagement
in America, is detailed in “Growing Together for a
Sustainable Future: Strategies and Best Practices for
Engaging with Disadvantaged Communities on Issues of
Sustainable Development and Regional Planning,”
“Expanding Democracy: A Framework for Bolstering Civic
Power and Rebuilding Communities,” and “Shining the
Light: A Practical Guide to Co-Creating Healthy
Communities,” all available at
http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/
perhaps even more importantly, a change in how
we work within communities (changes in how
engagement occurs).
The principles that can serve communities well
in the context of the AAM include facing the
effects of race, history, and power inequities as a
community, embracing the gifts of diverse
communities, and building trust and commitment
in the community engagement environment.
Additional principles include honoring dissent and
protests as expressions of civic voice, practicing
radical community hospitality, and adapting to
community changes.
The historical legacy of the relationship of
African Americans and food production in
America is a particularly painful one. It is a history
rife with profound injustice and inequity. The
cumulative impacts of rural and urban disempow-
erment, displacement, and exclusion has resulted in
long-standing urban and rural inequities. Yet this
history and its consequences should be
acknowledged and understood—not ignored—
today. All of our communities, however well or
poorly they have been treated, are important places
in people’s lives. Our communities are places
where our personal histories unfold. Embedded in
each place is its own history, which is a part of
each community member’s personal narrative as
well. Too often the people who make up the
neighborhoods, and their stories, are ignored or
forgotten. Transformative change in the food
system can begin by creating empathy and oppor-
tunities for people within communities to explore
their histories together, leading to a greater
understanding of how history shapes our personal
and community narratives as well as the inequities
we experience.
Embracing the gifts of diverse communities is
also essential. Every community has assets, and
many can be found in the skills and talents of the
individuals living in the community. These gifts can
manifest themselves through the abilities, compe-
tencies, and unique experiences of each member of
the community. For example, some community
members may possess artistic skills that can be put
to use promoting community events. Others may
possess leadership skills, language skills, a gift for
working with children, or have connections to
Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development
ISSN: 2152-0801 online
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Volume 5, Issue 4 / Summer 2015 73
other organizations that wish to partner. Flora and
Flora (1996) describe such skills and talents as
human capital and such relational connections as
social capital, both forms of community capitals that
also include the natural (in the land), built (grocery
stores, for example) and financial forms of capital.
When a community is aware of and embraces all of
its capitals, it can draw from these collective assets
when confronting challenges. It is also through
realizing and celebrating the gifts inherent in its
people that further social capital is built, and it is
through such relationships that the bedrock of our
communities are formed.
Transformative change cannot occur without
empowerment. Building trust and commitment is
a necessary step toward empowering communities
to create transformative change. A culture of
distrust often exists in impoverished communities
as a result of years of disinvestment, broken
promises, and structurally segregative policies
(Gotham, 1998; Highsmith, 2009; Logan &
Molotch, 2007; Massey & Denton, 1993; Schildt,
2011). Suspicion of new public and private
initiatives is a common result of this sad
experience, frequently culminating in civic
disengagement. But trust can be built by forging
relationships based on mutual support. Trust can
also be fostered by making and keeping promises.
Building trust in communities where high levels of
doubt, suspicion, and disengagement are present
requires consistency and long-term commitment
by organizations and individuals. Further, building
trust means building empowerment; that is, it
means promoting and supporting leadership in
community members and recognizing that local
community leaders are essential to achieving
transformative change. Finally, mutual
accountability is vital to community engagement;
not only can it create more complete and honest
communication between community stakeholders,
but also encourages shared responsibility and
shared learning, which are essential aspects of
building trust. Through mutual accountability,
communities can ensure that the agreements and
plans created to strengthen the community today
will be able to withstand political and social
changes tomorrow.
Examples of the principles of equitable and
inclusive civic engagement in action can be found
in Kirwan’s work in its home community of
Columbus, Ohio. “More Than My Brother’s
Keeper” (MTMBK) is a program run in partner-
ship with key community anchor institutions,
including the local children’s hospital and a
neighborhood community-development collabora-
tive. The program supports at-risk African Ameri-
can male youth (ages 10 to 14) and their families
residing on the south side of the city. MTMBK
incorporates both experiential learning and inten-
sive mentoring to help kids discover their own
assets and build relationships of mutual trust with
each other and with the Kirwan (and other partner)
staff and community members. While Kirwan leads
conversations among community stakeholders to
address issues of affordable and safe housing, food
access, and healthy and diverse “third places,”4 the
needs and strengths of the boys and their families
are the key drivers of the program’s adaptive
design. This collaborative process has resulted in
the creation of a neighborhood leadership acade-
my, a plan for addressing housing needs in the
neighborhood, a community focus on supporting
vibrant third places, and a plan to address issues of
food access and insecurity, particularly with the
community’s children.
Place-based strategies to address inequity in the
food system must begin with an equitable and
inclusive environment, within which the people can
engage in developing solutions. Change doesn’t
come easily. However, practicing equitable and
inclusive civic engagement that recognizes our
collective, and often painful, historical legacy can
help equip community members and collaborators
with the tools required to build capacity for sus-
taining change. Alternative food movement
scholars and activists can lift up and build on
community assets, but to do so requires historical
understanding, recognition of individual and
community strengths, and working to build long-
term relationships of trust.
4 Third spaces are community meeting places that are neither
work nor home. See Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place:
Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other
Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 1999.
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74 Volume 5, Issue 4 / Summer 2015
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF02717262
... In a set of 24 commentaries on race and ethnicity in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development (2015), many authors, both academics and activists, reveal the range of these projects. Some examples that push against the colorblindness of neoliberal projects include campaigns to increase civic participation and strengthen community assets in order to overcome racist histories related to farming and land access (Sweeney et al. 2015). Others focus on transforming everyday practices by using anti-oppression methods that break down racial hierarchies and attend to the intersecting class dimensions of power (Garzo . ...
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