Grow food, grow community

October 7, 2020

By Robin Stephenson and Rosa Saavedra

North Carolina farmer Jason Lindsay grows food, but that is not what makes his approach to farming unusual. His mission-focused style of cooperative farming aims to heal the Black community from the deep wounds inflicted by structural racism.

Lindsay, who lives in Oxford, is North Carolina’s network coordinator for Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON), a network of small and heritage Black farmers. A former teacher, his journey to farming started a decade ago with a backyard garden, a passion for justice, and a connection to his agrarian heritage.

“Throughout the patterns of history where we have thrived, agriculture was always the foundation,” Lindsay said.

After the Civil War, many formerly enslaved people, without access to cash, credit systems, or land ownership, were forced into sharecropping—the practice where landowners allow planters to use land for a smaller share of the crop. The practice led to cycles of debt for Black farmers and contributed to the racial inequity we see in our food systems today.

Over time, some farmers broke free of the unjust system. Between 1870 and 1910, more than a million African Americans became farmers on their own land. However, land seizures and USDA discriminatory policies essential wiped out Black farm ownership. Today, less than 1 percent of U.S. farms are owned by Blacks.

“Every time the Black farmer has gotten to a point in which we were thriving, intentional forces came against us to pull us down,” Lindsay said. The tragedy, for the educator turned farmer, wasn’t just the loss of the land, it was the fragmenting of the community.

Farming, especially farming in hostile conditions, required cooperation that bonded community members. Success depended on neighbor helping neighbor.

Farming is not an easy endeavor at the best of times. Lindsay learned early on that there is a lot of pressure to keep a farm going that leaves little space for experimentation. By networking through SAAFON and controlling their own marketplace, Black farmers are increasing self-sufficiency and solving problems is a collective effort.

“One farmer can’t hold the load of an entire region, but regional farmers can hold the load of the region, especially when it is connected to other regions that are doing the same thing,” Lindsay said.  

COVID-19 is lifting the curtain on the fragility of the food systems—the entire process of production to consumption—and exposing the alarming consequences of racial inequity. African Americans are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at shocking and disproportionately higher rates than whites.

A strong immune system is key to surviving the coronavirus, making access to nutrition a vital resource during the pandemic.

“If you don’t have power in the food system, you are more likely going to be more vulnerable to conditions like hunger and malnutrition,” said Todd Post, editor of the 2020 Hunger Report: Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow. The 2020 report outlines recommendations to increase equal protection under the law and build better food systems that are free of racial inequity.

Lindsay wants to make it clear that coronavirus is not creating new systems of injustice but exposing those already built in the system. Breaking the illusion that the grocery store can sustain the Black community and reconnecting the people to the land is part of the answer for him.

“We don’t have a food shortage problem; we have a logistics problem,” he said. “Once you put that farm system into place and it’s connected with the ecosystem that is balanced, there’s abundance—there is always more than you can eat.”

Robin Stephenson is senior manager for digital campaigns and Rosa Saavedra is a regional organizer. Both work at Bread for the World.

African Americans are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at shocking and disproportionately higher rates than whites.

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