David Roach learned of the economic crisis facing black farmers while studying business finance at Morehouse College, but years later its far-reaching consequences hit him hard when he saw one of his high school students feeding her young child candy.
The experience led him to found The Familyhood Connection, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit organization in 1994. Today, the organization’s Mo’ Better Food Healthy Economics Campaign (www.mobetterfood.com) educates black consumers about nutrition and agriculture, and helps black farmers distribute their products to local schools, stores, and restaurants.
Independent, family-owned farming has been a vital earnings source for many black families, and its produce could address the shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables plaguing many urban communities. Strengthening black farming could also generate jobs in other areas of the food industry from planting and packaging to distribution and store ownership.
“If our communities don’t participate [in the food system], we’re going to continue to be fed inferior foods at high prices,” Roach says. “We’re going to miss out on jobs that relate to the food industry, unemployment will continue at alarming rates, and our communities will continue to see empty storefronts that could actually be grocery stores owned by African Americans.”
But what can consumers do to help? For starters, we can make a conscious effort to seek out black farmers and add their products to our diets. Mo’ Better Food runs a weekly farmers market in West Oakland and plans to open retail stores in April to give the neighborhood regular access to fresh foods.
The truth is black farmers are increasingly hard to come by. America’s 29,090 principal black farm operators represent only 1.4% of all U.S. principal farm operators. Jerry Pennick, director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ Land Assistance Fund, says that the black community must begin to look at land ownership as the key to economic development and independence before it’s too late.
“It would provide African American farmers with reliable and stable markets and it would provide the consumer with a low-cost quality product,” Pennick says. “Even more, it would keep African Americans in agriculture and help reverse the trend of African American land loss.”
HOW TO START A FARMER’S MARKET IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD
Do your homework. Create a budget to manage the licensing, insurance, advertising, equipment, and other startup costs. Investigate health, safety, and other laws governing farmer’s markets in your area. Also, read the Farmers Market Resource Guide published by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (www.ams.usda.gov/farmers markets/Consortium/Resource Guide.htm).
Recruit black farmers. Contact organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (www.federationsoutherncoop.com) and the National Black Farmers Association (www.blackfarmers .org) to help identify reputable black farmers in your area.
Select a site. Find an attractive, safe, welcoming location with public restrooms and ample parking. Visit www.ams.usda.gov/farmers markets/map.htm to locate existing farmers markets in your area.
Find volunteers and community partners. Recruit dedicated volunteers to manage logistical, financial, and promotional challenges and win the support of neighboring businesses, schools, and community organizations.
Be patient. Educating a community about the potential economic, social, and health benefits of consuming