Come to the Table’s School for Food Justice, Faith, and Storytelling (SFJFS) held its third session on February 16, featuring a presentation on the state of farming, and specifically farmers of color, in the U.S.
While this cohort of SFJFS is not open for new members, we thought it would be helpful to share five insights from each session with our network. The second cohort for SFJFS will begin in the fall of 2023. Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date on the latest information from the Come to the Table team.
Five Insights from Session 3
The bootstrap mentality fails to address the centuries of lack of access due to discrimination against communities of color.
“What happens when you don’t have boots?”, one participant asked upon reflecting on the history of farmers and landowners of color in the United States. This statement, held up in comparison to the long-held American ideal of “picking one up by their bootstraps,” has a complicated and often unknown history. It used to be a sarcastic sentiment, taken from a physics textbook in the late 19th century (as in, no one can pull themselves up by a bootstrap). As the statement evolved, so did its meaning. For centuries white Americans have applauded themselves for their ability to “make something out of nothing,” with little regard for the policies, situations, and realities that positively impact white communities and negatively impact BIPOC, immigrant, and poor communities. When this participant asked “what happens when you don’t have boots?” he was referring to centuries of discriminatory practices by lenders and markets upon farmers of color that have unleveled the playing field.
Addressing inequities in the food system requires naming the specific injustices present.
Acknowledgment of harm done to farmers and landowners of color is essential in order to bring about social and racial justice. RAFI-USA’s Executive Director Edna Rodriguez shared about the Farmers of Color Network, both its creation and subsequent results. “We spent a lot of time building trust with farmers,” Rodriguez recalls, in order to reach those farmers of color who hadn’t received services, grant opportunities, or support accessing additional markets. Because of a commitment to equitable outreach and relationship building, the demographics of applicants to RAFI-USA’s re-granting program shifted from about 12% of farmers of color to 50% in one year. “That was the signal that we needed to shift more intentionally to support farmers of color,” Rodriguez said.
Policy action that specifically addresses racial inequities in the food system is hard fought.
Rodriguez continued on the importance of supporting farmers of color up to the federal policy level: “Making things right for those farmers that have lost their farms or have been at a disadvantage over the years due to lack of services or discrimination is something that needs to be baked into policy, and that’s a hard lift.” For example, the American Rescue Plan included $5 billion designated for debt relief for farmers of color, yet it was met with nearly a dozen lawsuits that argued it was discriminatory against white people. Rodriguez continues: “It’s really difficult to move those pieces of legislation forward when you’re intentionally saying that you want to make things right for Black farmers.” RAFI-USA continues to explicitly support reparations but also focuses on identifying the specific barriers and challenges that farmers of color face in accessing USDA programs and resources, especially issues affecting small, diversified farming operations. We are also prioritizing our efforts on regions that have been historically underserved, such as Puerto Rico, U.S. territories, and non-contiguous areas. By understanding the specific challenges facing these farmers, we can develop targeted policies and programs that can help them access the resources and support they need to succeed.
Partnerships between faith communities and farmers of color are realizable.
How we grow, eat, and share food are not just activities of daily life, but rich, theological statements about how we understand God, creation, and our neighbors. Faith communities intentionally reaching out in support of farmers of color is an expression of their faith. Since its creation in 2021, RAFI’s Farm & Faith Partnerships Project has connected over 20 faith communities to farmers of color. These relationships are mutually beneficial and sustainable and they advance social, economic, and racial justice. Farmer Ken Daniel of Singing Stream farm spoke to participants about his work partnering with churches, “The CSA model has been a plus,” Daniel said, “because we’re getting into spaces that traditionally the small Black farm hasn’t been able to get into.” This opportunity for faith communities to increase market access for small farmers is achievable and theologically meaningful.
The impact of farm and faith partnerships adds up.
Faith communities who participate in CSA shares choose to enter into a kind of shared vulnerability with the farmers, which deepens their relationship between one another and the land. Shareholders have reported a stronger connection to the land and the labor of farmers. That connection has a direct impact on the quality and length of the partnership- churches have become invested for the long term, and it shows. Shareholders who dedicate even a small portion of their food dollars to a local farmer make a collective impact. Take, for example, the Wake County CSA: in 2022 there were over 100 shareholders in Wake County that supported eight local farmers of color, which for three seasons of CSAs accounted for over $70,000 worth of income for those participating farmers. Because faith communities have said yes to this partnership, market access is increasing for farmers of color, and community members are getting access to local, fresh food.