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Changing the Narrative in Food and Farming

Karen Washington is an urban farmer and activist, as well as the founder of Rise and Root Farm, a cooperatively run farm in Orange County, NY. Karen co-founded Black Urban Growers and was a 2014 James Beard Leadership Award recipient, in addition to being called “urban farming’s grand dame” by the New York Times and named among Ebony magazine’s “Power 100” of influential African Americans.

While working as a physical therapist, Karen saw elderly patients suffering from diabetes and hypertension due to their poor diets. “It made me start to focus not only on the food that I was growing, but the effect that the food in low-income neighborhoods was having on marginalized people,” she shares. Reexamining food in these communities led Karen to a number of powerful realizations. “Why is it,” she asks, “that low-income people have processed food and junk food and people who have privilege and money have healthy food options?”

Karen sees that our current food system is set-up for marginalized communities to fail, but she doesn’t think for a second that it should remain that way. “I’m trying to change the narrative around low income neighborhoods and people of color,” she says, “because the narrative for so long has been the fact that we as a people never grew food, that our relationship to food has to be with slavery.” Karen sees that among youth, this narrative is slowly beginning to shift.

And, the shift is already happening in a huge way at Rise and Root Farm. “We bring the spectrum of society to the farm and we bring it with love, with healing and with grace,” says Karen.

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.

ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Karen Washington. Karen is an urban farmer and activist as well as the founder of Rise & Root Farm, a cooperatively run farm in Orange County, New York; co-founder of Black Urban Growers; and a 2014 James Beard Leadership Award recipient. Karen has been called “urban farming’s grande dame” by the New York Times and was named [one of] Ebony magazine’s “Power 100” of influential African Americans. Welcome, Karen.

KAREN WASHINGTON: Thanks! I’m excited to be here.

AO: Ah, I’m excited to have you here. We have so many things to talk about. So you have lived in the Bronx for many years; you’ve lived in New York all your life. And food has been just an integral part of everything that you’ve done. Tell me why that is.

KW: Well, I think, I guess it just started because of the fact I was a health-care professional, so I was a physical therapist for over 37½ years, and so I had a lot of my patients who had diet-related diseases. And many of my patients grew up on farms or had backyards, and so to see them in their 70s and 80s with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, due to the food, it made me start to focus not only on the food that I was growing but the effect that the food in my neighborhood and especially in low-income neighborhoods, the impact it was having on a lot of marginalized people, and especially the elderly. And so my lens started to shift. Like I said, my lens started to shift, and instead of just focusing, okay, I’m gonna put a seed in the ground and I’m gonna grow food, I started to look at some of the social factors and the dietary factors that were affecting people in my neighborhood in regards to food.

AO: So you came to this a way that a lot of people come to it: through health. And you know, we start thinking about, things aren’t working, and you were seeing that firsthand with some of your patients, and you described looking around you in low-income neighborhoods and saying, hmm, something’s not right here. What did you see? When you look around in low-income neighborhoods in the food scene, the foodscape there in a lot of these areas, what are you seeing? What were the problems?

KW: Well, first of all, I get really upset when people designate our communities and neighborhoods as food deserts. And I don’t like that term—I think it’s an outsider term. I’d rather use the term food apartheid, because the fact is that we do have food. What we don’t have are healthy food options. And so when you look around my neighborhoods, especially when people want us to eat healthy, but we don’t have healthy food options. I mean, on every corner there are fast-food restaurants, unhealthy food restaurants, junk food in stores, in local grocery stores. And so I’m up against this, we’re up against this. So on one hand you want people to eat healthy, but on the other hand there are no places for us to even buy food that is healthy. So for me, the system is set up for us to fail. Because you can’t ask people, low-income people to eat healthy but yet the only access they have to healthy food, they have to travel long distances. The only access they have to food is junk food or prepared food or processed food.

AO: Right. And so when you get done working your full-time job, or your two jobs, or you get up and you’ve got to feed your kids, and you look around, the easiest, fastest thing is what you’re going to grab, right?

KW: Right, it’s the fast food option. Correct.

AO: Right. So we’ve seen the consequences of that in our health systems. And that’s interesting, to hear you say, “Hey, food deserts—that’s offensive to me.” So that’s good for people to hear, because that sure is a term people use a lot, right?

KW: Yep. That’s the term they use, and we always feel it’s an outside term, because no one in our neighborhoods use that term. And what I feel—this is my personal opinion—is that it sort of masks really the main problem, which is hunger and poverty. So when you say hunger and poverty, it’s totally different from saying food desert, because hunger and poverty hits you right in the face, and that’s our problem that we have in a country that has so much resources, that we have hunger and poverty.

AO: Right, and so, you know, like the language of food apartheid might actually describe what you’re seeing more accurately.

KW: Correct.

AO: Now, one of the things that you have said is, “To grow your own food gives you power and dignity. You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family and your community.” So that’s a powerful thing for someone who’s never grown their own food. How did you come to power and dignity? How did you start seeing this in food?

KW: Because I’m trying to change the narrative around low-income neighborhoods and people of color in terms of growing food, because I think the narrative for so long had been the fact that we, as a people, never grew food. You know, that our relationship to food has to be with slavery. And so that statement is a reminder of many of us, especially the African American community, the Latino community, the Caribbean community, is that this is part of our DNA. Our ancestors were farmers. We’re from an agrarian people. And so it’s power in that. It’s power in growing your own food.

And at one time food wasn’t a commodity, land wasn’t a commodity. And so we were able to grow food, to feed our family and our community without consequences, without monetary value. And so I want people to remember that, you know, it’s just recently, because of capitalism, that food has now become a commodity, land has become a commodity. And I want people to remember that your ancestors grew food, had land, and they used it to feed their families and to feed their communities, and it wasn’t based on monetary value. So I want people to remember that, that power of growing your own food and owning up to that, growing your own food that’s culturally appropriate, growing your own food that has been handed down from generation to generation, and using food as a powerful tool to recapture your culture and to really involve yourself in terms of storytelling of your history.

AO: I wonder if you’ve run into the situation—I was hearing a story from a young African American woman who was working in a garden one day, and a young African American man walked by, and she said, “Hey, try this!” And he was like, “I’m not going to get over there and get in the dirt. We don’t have to do that anymore.” I wonder if you’ve run into that.

KW: Well, I think that narrative is starting to change, thank goodness, especially for our young people. Again, we’ve been brainwashed. You know, we have been brainwashed as African Americans because our history has been stripped. And when you look in terms of agriculture, even in the textbooks, that’s not taught. That’s not taught in the textbooks about the rich history of the African Americans. It always coincides with slavery. And so what we’re trying to do is take out that negativity from people. And thank goodness we have this young generation that I see that is starting to get it, to understand that they want to grow food, to understand that they want to own land. And so again, it’s a story, it’s something that has been, a seed that has been planted for so, so long. And what we’re trying to do is definitely change the narrative. And I see through my own eyes that it’s starting to change, especially with the youth.


AO: Right. You know, if I look at your Rise & Root Farm website, there’s a mission on there that is all about having joy and raising good food and laughing a lot. And it’s pretty, pretty excellent. So that is not a mission of strife and striving, right? That’s a mission of abundance and clarity about you’re standing on your place and on the planet. So talk to me about that. Talk to me about that mission, that vision.

KW: Well, Rise & Root is a cooperative farm run by four women. So it’s myself, Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, and Michaela Hayes. And we had this vision—we come from, first of all, we come from urban farming background, and Michaela also has a background in food; she was a chef at one time. And so we always wanted to dream big and think about owning land and farming together. And we were able to succeed, and we do it from a place of love, and we do it from a place of healing and fun and having those sort of attitudes, those positive attitudes, those positive reinforcement attitudes, to make sure that what we are doing, the message that we’re trying to send out to everybody is that our farm is a healing farm, our farm is a loving farm, and you can have those attributes as well in farming. Don’t get me wrong—it’s labor intensive, it’s hard work. But at the end of the day, we love what we’re doing. And we want to share the joy that we have in farming.

We get a charge when people from the city come up to our farm for the first time. First of all, we have young people who’ve never been on a farm—that’s number one—or have never seen a black farmer, Lorrie and I, or have never seen women farming. And so we’re excited about that. We’re excited about what we bring to farming. We’re women; some of us are LGBTQ women; some of us are women of color. And so we bring the spectrum of society to the farm. And we bring it, like I said, with love, with healing, and with grace. And I’m proud of that.

AO: Mm-hmm, yeah, so you all are breaking down, perhaps, some of the ideas that people have about farming and what it looks like.

KW: Definitely. We are breaking down barriers, one foot at a time.

AO: And that’s what it takes, right? You talk about the stories and the reclaiming of the history. That’s really what it takes for people to start shifting the ways that they can stand, right?

KW: Definitely. So what we try to do, especially with our young people, we try to really instill in them, especially if they are fortunate enough to have grandparents and great-grandparents who grew up on farms or who were gardeners, to sit down and capture those stories. Because if you don’t capture those stories, then other people will come in and change your own narrative and tell you that your family never farmed, or your people never did this. And because I’m looking at the climate we’re having now around immigration, and again, people don’t understand, most of the people that are here in the United States were immigrants. Okay, we’re immigrants. And now you’re turning your own prejudice, your own prejudices that people had, other people had on your ethnicity, on your race, and now you’re singling out a new group of people for the same sort of things that your forefathers were up against, in terms of racism.

So again, in order to prevent history from repeating themselves, you must share your stories. Capture those stories—if you’re lucky, like I said, for the young people, from your grandparents, your great-grandparents—and capture those stories so that you can own them. Because if you don’t do it, then someone else is going to come in and rearrange and change your own narrative.

AO: It’s fascinating how that works, right? If you are cut off from your story, what have you got?

KW: Correct.

AO: Somebody else’s version. Karen, can you tell us about the first empty lot?

KW: Yeah! I mean, I can definitely…I mean, I see it every single day, now that it’s a community garden. But when I moved here in 1985, it was my first house; I was a single parent at the time, raising two children. And I was really, really, you know, happy—I mean, I had part of the American dream. And I was looking forward to also seeing across the street the same houses that were built. But what happened was when the developer got across the street to start building, he built half of the lots on the street, but then when he got to a particular, I think it was supposed to be three additional homes, when he got to that particular area, there was so much bedrock, and he would have to pay—he’d already got a subsidy, so he would have to pay an additional money out-of-pocket—that he left it. And so from 1985 to 1988, every single day, I would come home and I would look across the street, and that lot became garbage filled. I mean, you know, in the middle of the night, people would come and throw their tires and mattresses, abandoned cars. It was absolutely horrible. So that’s what I was faced for the first three years of living in my new house in the Bronx.

AO: And then something shifted.

KW: Yes. “Something shifted” was community. I mean, I guess that’s what you call… That’s why the name “community gardens,” for me, means so much is because, looking out my window, I happened to see a guy—his name was José Lugo—with a shovel and a pick. And I saw him out my kitchen window, and I went over there and I asked, you know, “What are you doing?” So he says, “I want to start a community garden.” And I said, “Can I help?”

And so at the same time, the New York Botanical Gardens was just starting a new program called Bronx Green-Up, whereby they were going to go around the Bronx and turn empty lots into community gardens. You know, I look back at my past and I have to say that someone sprinkled some sort of golden dust on my past, because it just seemed, everything just seemed to align for a reason. And so now the Garden of Happiness will be celebrating, next year, 30 years. So we’re celebrating 30 years, and now we have over, around 116 community gardens in the Bronx!


AO: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Karen Washington, who is an award-winning urban farmer and activist, founder of Rise & Root Farm, and co-founder of Black Urban Growers. Today we’re talking about urban farming, social justice, and much more.

So how does race and affluence play what role, and how do you see it most predominantly in the food system?

KW: Because [unclear] tell me that our food system is broken, and I used to drink the Kool-Aid, but I don’t believe it anymore, because the food system is set up to be exactly what it is: a caste system. And I say that because, you know, I live in two worlds. I live in a low-income neighborhood but yet I have friends that live in affluent neighborhoods. And so why is it that when I go into my store, I’m hit with junk food, and when I go to my friends’, who have privileged and affluence, they have healthy food. Why is it that low-income people have processed food, junk food, and people who have privilege and money have healthy food options? It’s based along race. It’s based on race and it’s based along privilege.

Here we are, the United States of America that can grow food to feed everyone, but yet we have hunger and poverty. You tell me that. I mean, [unclear] just sort of answer the question: Why do we have hunger and poverty, and why is hunger and poverty in some of the poorest neighborhoods, inner cities, even in rural areas there’s hunger and poverty—why is that? When we have the capability of making sure that all people have food that is fresh and is local and is accessible. And it’s based on the fact that we have a capitalist system that again bases the value of food on commodity. And as a result, even pays farmers not even to grow on land! And so this system, the capitalist system is set up for us to make money. And as a result, as companies continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and the people on the low end of the pole continue to get, at least in terms of resources, continue to get poorer, continue to have the disadvantage when it comes to their food system.

So for me, it’s set up. It’s set up to fail. And so as a result, we have people, low-income people, and now you’re starting to see the middle class fall into that same bracket. We have 1 percent of people of affluence, and you have 99 percent of the population trying to make it. That’s unheard of!

AO: Yeah, right. Right. It’s hurting a lot of people, and it’s, you know, when we have food that’s hurting people, that that’s going to continue for generations. So the work that you’re doing to say, “Hey, look, you can actually make some of your own food, so you can know where it comes from”—this is vitally important for people. And you’ve seen the growth of that over the past 30 years, that it is possible for people to create spaces—despite the fact that, you know, you’ll get pushback on that and people will want to sell it off, and all those things, that it is possible to rise.

KW: What we’re trying to do is just educate people around the food system, you know, that if you have access to a community garden, make use of it—you know, grow your own food. Even use the community garden to sit and talk about, do storytelling, talk about culture and tradition.

We’re trying to find land, because all of a sudden we have this influx of so many young people that want to be farmers. That’s what I see—I mean, you know, at one time, 10 years ago, if you were to ask me, “Do you see hope for the future of farming?” I would have said “No way!” But my eyes have opened, and I think a lot of it is the fact that people are starting to understand the power of growing food—that there is a food system that is broken, broken in terms of the fact that corporations are now gobbling up, agribusiness is starting to gobble up the family farm. As we speak, right now, every second, someone is, a family farmer is losing land. And so young people are starting to understand the value of land, land ownership. They want to own land and they want to farm. And so now I’m starting to see young people, as I travel across the country, as I attend conferences, as I speak at various colleges, there is a light in their eyes and they want to understand where their food comes from, but they also want to be able to control their food. Even the colleges now are starting to balk against these big corporations coming in and taking over their lunchroom. And so there’s a movement called like the Real Food Movement that’s starting in various colleges around the country, whereby they want now local farmers to buy from.

AO: Right—they’re kicking out the Pizza Huts and the…

KW: Right, exactly. Kicking out these big agribusiness, fast-food chains, and now asking local farmers to come in and be part of their lunch program and their food program and their food systems.


AO: It’s hugely important for young people to have that experience of good food, and to have the power of saying, “Hey, no—we’re going to do it differently.”

KW: Correct.

AO: You know, one of the things that I thought was interesting when I was reading about some of your work is you had an opportunity to meet Michelle Obama. And she was a woman who, her time in the White House was spent very well in helping people redefine the story of food and redefine the story of movement. And I want to ask you, we’re living in pretty different times now, and we have an administration that has been very clearly not in support of…you know, they’re trying to already cut back on lunches in schools, and there’s a lot of other things that they’re sharpening their knives for, coming after. Tell me about how this shifts your work. Does it shift your work? What kind of influence—

KW: Oh, it definitely, because if you look at…see, the thing is, like I said from the very beginning, my lens has shifted when it comes to foods like this. Now I can’t only just concentrate on food because food intersects housing, it intersects education, it intersects economics, the environment. Look what is happening with immigration, folks! If you don’t think immigration ties into our food system, then you are wearing blinders. You know, I used to hear the governor of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, all complaining about that the immigrants are coming, taking our jobs. And I said to myself, “Oh, they are?” I said, “Well, you know what? Prevent them from coming, and have your sons and daughters go in the fields.”

AO: Yeah, see how many people you can hire.

KW: Right, right—see how many people. They’re taking our jobs? They’re doing a job that your daughters and sons don’t want to do. They don’t want it.

AO: That’s right. And then farmers will say that loud and clear, over and over again, if anybody would listen, you know: they cannot hire people. If they didn’t have immigrants, there would not be workers to do this work.

KW: Correct. And so that—I want people to know that. So you’re talking about a population that is at the heart of our food system, and you’re trying to demonize them in such a way. But you don’t understand the work ethic that these people have had, and what they’re doing to our food system. So if you’re going to round them up and you’re going to kick them out, who is going to be in those fields?

AO: Right, yeah, that’s a super big question.

KW: And that’s a big question we need to ask ourselves, and also to ask this present-day administration that is the laughing stock of the world. I mean, I just sit back, it’s the absolute laughing stock of the world. You know, at first, to be honest with you, I said to myself—because I’m a very spiritual person—I had to go to church, and I said, “What has happened?” But you know, my faith tells me, “Karen, sit back and just watch as this…because racism has to rise.” You know, whenever there’s a cancer, it has to rise to the top; the boil has to bust open. And so I’m just sitting back and just watching it play out. Because if we were to say things—and this is very important what I’m going to say—because if you’re going to say things negative, there are people out there that believe this man, believe his words.

AO: Mm-hmm, many of them.

KW: So what we need to do is to sit back and watch—watch things happen, watch things happen, so that people can see for themselves how horrible this administration is going to be on the value of the American public, on the health of the American public. To sit back and just watch this unravel before our eyes. And then you’ll see what choices that you have made to allow this administration to come into office, as we are now the laughing stock of the world.

AO: Karen, it has just been an absolute pleasure to hear about your work and what you’re thinking our steps forward are. And I just really appreciate you joining us today.

KW: Thank you. Can I just say one more comment, just to make sure people understand?

AO: Please do, yeah.

KW: This is the year of collaboration, you all. None of us can do this work alone. But we can do this work together.

AO: If our listeners wanted to hear more about your work, Karen, where should they go?

KW: Yeah, or

AO: Thank you so much.

KW: Bye now.