Sustainable East Bay Urban Farming project team’s message for Black Lives Matter

As a team of academics and practitioners working together on an urban agriculture and food security project in the San Francisco East Bay Area, we wish to express our outrage and sorrow over the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and other Black Americans. These murders were enabled by the systemic racism embedded in our nation’s cultures, governance structure, and economies.

Agriculture in the U.S., and the fortune of the U.S., was built on the enslavement and exploitation of Black people and the theft of Indigenous land. Today, approximately 75% of the current labor force on US farms is Indigenous and Latinx-identifying –– many who had to leave their own farms due to policies that have disenfranchised rural communities around the world. In sharp contrast, White people account for 96% of the owners, 97% of the value, and 98% of the acresof private U.S. agricultural land. This is not an accident, nor has it always been this way. Decades of racist agricultural policies have systematically discriminated against Black farmers, resulting in Black farmers owning between 16-19 million acres in 1910 to only 1.5 million in 1997. From slavery to present day, our agricultural system has always relied upon the labor of Black and Indigenous peoples of color—often denying them  labor protections and voting rights—and land grabs via the displacement of Black and Indigenous peoples of color from their homes.* We see how this structural racism continues into today in the East Bay, undergirding many of the barriers that East Bay urban farmers face.

The inequities in food production reflect those in food access and security. Almost 800,000 San Francisco Bay Area residents experience food insecurity, with the highest rates (12%) in the East Bay. Often referred to as a food desert, the East Bay fails to provide affordable, equitable access to fresh, healthy and culturally-diverse foods for low-income and often historically marginalized communities. Community food insecurity is interwoven with racialized economic disparities, which are prevalent in the East Bay. People are going hungry as they sacrifice meals to pay for the high cost of living. Across the nation and here at home, COVID-19 has magnified these disparities as thousands have lost their jobs and food distribution channels have fractured, leaving the most vulnerable even more exposed.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s (BIPOC) bodies are threatened by the current social and economic systems which are built on land and labor stolen from BIPOC communities. Similarly, our work, and the benefits we derive from it professionally, are only possible through the labor, time, and sacrifice of urban farmers, many of whom are BIPOC. Without careful consideration, and significant stakeholder input, our work reinforces the very systems and power dynamics we seek to dismantle.

We must dismantle these systems of oppression. We pledge to increase our commitment to BIPOC community members: centering you, amplifying your leadership, and transferring power to you. We acknowledge and apologize for instances where we have not done this successfully, or if prior researchers, academic and otherwise, have not sufficiently shared research results with the communities served. We invite feedback on our process. While this particular project ends in a few months, many of our teammates are actively deepening our service to our Bay Area communities. We pledge to engage in ongoing learning and sharing of resources that aim to end anti-Blackness and racism in our food system; to leverage university resources in service of BIPOC farmers and food system change-makers; and to engage in a process with BIPOC community partners to deepen meaningful relationships and restructure our processes to enable more equitable project development, publications, outreach, learning and funding. 

We encourage you to reach out to or in conversation with teammates whom you know to offer feedback or if you are interested in participating in these decisions and actions moving forward.

We encourage you to reach out to or in conversation with teammates whom you know to offer feedback or if you are interested in participating in these decisions and actions moving forward.

Mandela Partners: Swiftly changing to be in service to their communities during crisis

Mandela Community Meals Partner- Thank Que Grill

For over 15 years, folks at Mandela Partners have supported an East Bay regional food system that serves local farmers of color and low-income, low-access communities. Via its food hub – Mandela Produce Distribution – Mandela Partners sources sustainably grown-produce from local growers and distributes through a network of food access programs, independent grocery stores, and community-based businesses. But when the pandemic hit in March, they had to change up their model and fast. They re-focused their efforts on providing free CSA-style produce bags and produce-based meals which meant reconfiguring their warehouse and repurposing partners’ restaurant kitchens. They still play their role as a trusted, caring food distributor and community-connector, but how that is expressed shifted in a big way. Interim Executive Director, Mariela Cedeño, chalks up Mandela Partners’ ability to quickly meet their communities’ changed needs to their deep, multi-year relationships in the local food system — community groups, local businesses and small growers, and even funders — and to their organizational culture that prioritizes equitable community-based work.

Emergency relief produce site

In the midst of that rapid spin and subsequent months, the Mandela Partners team has seen afresh the inefficiencies of the conventional food supply chain and the inequities embedded in our current food systems. Mariela says, “The impact of Covid-19 has been severe – the communities we serve are at most risk of contracting Covid, have been the most impacted economically by Covid, and are dealing with higher levels of food insecurity prior to and as a result of Covid. Covid-19 has shed light on and exacerbated the food access and economic inequities that low-income communities of color have been enduring for a long time.” Furthermore, resources to support food insecure communities have left out the small businesses that are part of these communities. For instance, while admirable, the state-run and locally administered “Great Plates Delivered” program for at-risk adults, precluded many local smaller-scale food-makers. So, Mandela Partners is piloting their own community meal program with eight of their local partners.

Mariela wants to leave us with the strong message that this continued pandemic time should serve as a reality check. Our East Bay food systems cannot go back to what they were before pandemic. Our inequitable systems weren’t working then for many East Bay residents, and they won’t work after. So let’s make the needed changes stick! And groups like Mandela Partners are still hustling to support their communities. If you’re able, your continued or new support to their Emergency Relief Fund will go a long way!

Heartfelt thank you card for Mandela Partners!