African-American farmers aim for better food choices

    At the farm garden beside Martin Luther King High School in Northwest Philadelphia, yellow flowers on the okra plants are still blooming, but it’s about time to pull up this summer’s tomato plants.

    In the Gap: Voices from the Health Divide is a news and dialogue partnership between WHYY and 900 AM WURD. In this installment, series producer Taunya English spoke with two African American farmers in Philadelphia. 

    At the farm garden beside Martin Luther King High School in Northwest Philadelphia, yellow flowers on the okra plants are still blooming, but it’s about time to pull up this summer’s tomato plants.

    The tour with community farm coordinator Chris Bolden-Newsome includes a survey of the peppers, collard greens and onions. Bolden-Newsome is from Greenville, Miss. His parents, Rufus and Demalda, are farmers in Tulsa, Okla.

    With shoulder-length locks under a straw hat and earth in every crease of his hands, Bolden-Newsome looks the part of an urban farmer.

    He prefers the title “food justice educator.”

    His job: Get good food to more people.

    “I mean when I say ‘good food,’ food that is sustainably grown, didn’t hurt the earth, didn’t hurt the workers,” he said. “We are really doing, I think, the hard work of, first of all, letting people know what food is.”

    Early on, the school’s student-farmers offered their vegetables to the bodega up the street, but they didn’t sell.

    “The neighborhood that uses that store was not familiar with fresh food on that level,” he said. “The idea of buying three of four tomatoes for a dollar, they could see the their dollar go further if they bought a bag of pasta and a can of tuna.”

    A nearby Weavers Way food-coop closed recently. That leaves the area around the school mostly in the hands of the Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Checkers—and all their marketing dollars.

    “You can eat five different ways to kill yourself in this neighborhood, but you really have to walk a spell in order to find something that’s good for you and your family. And beyond that, when you do find it, the food is sub-par,” he said.

    Bolden-Newsome says this and other Philadelphia neighborhoods need better choices.

    Farmer Anaiis Salles launched a startup business last year to tend food gardens for social service agencies.

    “In doing my research, what I saw was communities of color being serviced by people who are not people of color,” said Salles. “I was seeing grant money going to managements—and I will say these organizations are doing wonderful work—but at their top level, people of color are not included.”

    Interim House Inc. in Germantown was one of Salles’ first clients. The garden there includes snap peas, kale, collard greens, broccoli and heirlooms tomatoes.

    The halfway house serves three meals a day to 25 women.

    After spending time in prison, some clients are developing a taste for the organic produce from the backyard, but so far just a few women have gotten their hands dirty to help grow the food.

    “They have big work to do in terms of transforming their lives, so we’re in the background,” said Salles. “I’m happy to work side by side with them, happy to know they are enjoying the food. That’s enough for us.”

    Salles wants to squash the idea that organic produce has to be expensive, so she shows people how to grow their own—but not everyone’s buying.

    While working at an apartment garden several years ago, Salles asked a young resident if she wanted to take some of the harvest home.

    “She says ‘No, thank you. I get my greens from the market.’ It was free, she didn’t even have to grow it,” said Salles. “It was handed to her; organic collard greens, full of great nutrients, and she didn’t want it because it hadn’t come from the supermarket.”

    That’s why, Salles says, urban farmers must also be food educators.

    “In the city of Philadelphia, I’ve identified a gap between what I call the eco-elite and eco-illiterate, and in that gap there are health issues, there are economic issues, class, race and even—at times, even gender issues,” Salles said.

    “There’s trauma around working in the earth amongst folks of African descent. We were forced to work other people’s fields to raise their food,” said farmer Chris Bolden-Newsome.

    “This is deep trauma, and the symptoms show up in all sorts of things,” he said. “The area where I’m concerned is how it shows up in our food ways and our disconnection from all the those things that nourished us.”

    Bolden-Newsome works to restore the image of farming, but his students hear a different message from friends and classmates.

    “Verbal harassment from the football team, from other students passing by: ‘What you doin’ in them fields. We don’t have to do that no more. We don’t have to live like that no more.’ All that sort of stuff you hear,” he said.

    The farm’s many successes have been quieter.

    “Being able to actually be in their bodies, because this is physical work. This is different from being on the football team, or the basketball team. So I have kids that came out here chubby, pudgy, round, and they’ve left with bodies that they feel good working,” Bolden-Newsome said.

    Taunya will discuss this story on WURD’s HealthQuest Live show at noon Tuesday, Sept. 27.

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