Family Farmers and Farmworkers: A Pivotal Moment for Change

Family Farmers And Farmworkers Face The Virus: How Food Sovereignty Activists See The Crisis as a Pivotal Moment for Change

David Bacon | 06.11.2020

The following is a special edition, eight-page Backgrounder covering the experiences and insights from farmers and farmworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Download a PDF of the Backgrounder here or read in full below.

Correction: The original article incorrectly said, “Corporations are proposing limited supply management similar to Canada’s…”  The correction is: “Corporations are opposed to limiting supply management similar to Canada’s…”

The COVID Crisis and Urban Communities

Malik Yakini speaks for many people in the movements for food sovereignty and sustainability as they face the crisis of the novel coronavirus. He sees it from the perspective of the urban farms of Detroit, as the executive director of the Black Community Food Security Network. “The problems people see now, from the difficulty they’re experiencing getting to markets to the absence of food on the shelves when they get there, really highlight the need for a new food system,” he says.

The city’s urban farmers have had to make immediate changes, just to keep functioning. In Michigan the planting season is just starting, and farmers have yet to figure out how they’ll sell what they intend to grow. “We’ve got collards that we’re just transitioning into the ground now, with green onions, leeks, onions, kale, and soon romaine,” he explains. “To keep everyone safe, we’ve limited the number of people in our farm who can be at work to four at a time, with no volunteers. That’s a big change from the past, when we’d have 15-20 people on a weekend.”

To Yakini, the coronavirus has thrown into high relief the questions that have historically faced the growth of the urban farm system. “Detroit has 139 square miles of land, and a third of it is vacant—more land potentially available than any other city. So one question is how the city will dispose of that part of it that they own, which is managed by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. But it’s really more than just allowing residents to gain ownership. Successful farms have to develop the soil, which is a multi-year project. We need skilled people, and an infrastructure that includes cooling facilities, so that farmers don’t have to sell immediately after harvesting. And the city has to loosen its policies on water use. The need for long-term planning has become much sharper as a result of the crisis we’re experiencing.”

Like Yakini, Karen Washington in New York City sees the crisis as a moment to question the way the food system has failed, especially low-income families and people of color. “We have to acknowledge that we can’t go back, not to business as usual,” she says. “The emphasis has to be on people and planning, not profit. Now we know how valuable food is. What is all your jewelry worth when you have to wait in line to feed your family? But if you can grow food, you can survive. Food and water are more precious than gold.”

Already community activism has changed the way food is being distributed in the Bronx, where Washington lives. In her neighborhood, volunteers from Mothers on the Move and the Mary Mitchell Center deliver bags to older people, who would be vulnerable to infection if they tried to shop for themselves.

Farmers’ market in Berkeley, California. Photo courtesy of David Bacon.

Will the community markets, however, like the one she organized 19 years ago, be able to open when the gardens begin to harvest? “Normally it starts in July, which I hope it will this year. We have a mix of urban and rural farmers who come, but the banks now are putting up barriers to quickly reimbursing them for coupons from SNAP and SMNP nutrition programs. The farmers need money right away and can’t wait for reimbursements. I don’t know if they’ll come to our market this year. We need our elected officials to take action to protect, not just our market, but all the community markets, because together with our gardens, we are a system serving low income people of color.”

In California, Black Earth Farm has developed a system for directly connecting community residents with food. “We used to go to events to distribute our produce, but they all got cancelled when the crisis started,” says jabril kyser, earth worker at the farm. “But because we met people at those events, they became part of our cultural network and we know who they are.” Black Earth Farm now has a system for online ordering and delivery for some community members. For others, who don’t live in traditional housing, the farm’s members deliver food to them […]


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