Leah Penniman – Soul Fire Farm Interview with Ocean Robbins

Everyone deserves protected, wholesome, and reasonably priced meals for his or her households. You shouldn’t should be wealthy, have a sure pores and skin shade, or develop up in the appropriate neighborhood, so as to have the ability to eat meals that’s good for you. But not everybody has entry to equal alternatives.

The well being alternative hole usually performs out alongside traces of race and sophistication. People who’re white and come up with the money for get pleasure from an a variety of benefits that result in higher well being. Typically, they will afford higher diets. White folks and individuals who come up with the money for are likely to have entry to extra nutritious meals and details about which meals are, in actual fact, more healthy to eat. They have higher housing and safer working situations. There’s extra inexperienced area and areas for recreation — and extra alternatives to train commonly the place they stay. They have extra entry to well being care companies and are much less uncovered to numerous sorts of air pollution.

All of this results in nicely-documented well being disparities. People of shade and folks of low earnings are way more more likely to die from most cancers, undergo from melancholy, be overweight, have hypertension, and undergo from sort 2 diabetes and coronary heart illness.

What’s inflicting these well being disparities? How does racism play into it? And most significantly, what are you able to and I do about it?

Recently, I sat down with Leah Penniman, co-founding father of Soul Fire Farm, to ask her take. Soul Fire Farm is dedicated to ending racism within the meals system. They develop wholesome meals for communities of shade, and so they’ve taught tens of hundreds of individuals, of all backgrounds, tips on how to develop wholesome meals, take lively steps to dismantle racism, and construct a more healthy world for all of us.

Here’s a flippantly edited model of our dialog.

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm


Below is the edited transcript of the video above:

Ocean Robbins: I’m Ocean Robbins, and I’m thrilled to convey you this particular interview with Leah Penniman, who’s the co-founder and co-director of Soul Fire Farm.

Leah has over 20 years of expertise as a soil steward and meals sovereignty activist. She’s labored at The Food Project, Farm School, Many Hands Organic Farm, Youth Grow, and with farmers internationally in Ghana, Haiti, and Mexico.

In 2010, Leah co-based Soul Fire Farm as a black-, indigenous-, and folks of shade-centered neighborhood farm dedicated to ending racism and injustice within the meals system. She’s the writer of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. And she’s one of many main voices within the grassroots motion for meals justice. I really feel so honored to have this time with her.

Healthy, Ethical, and Sustainable Food for All

Ocean Robbins: I simply wish to communicate personally for a second. I based Food Revolution Network with my dad in 2012. We’re dedicated to wholesome, moral, and sustainable meals for all. As we’ve been persevering with that mission, reaching tens of millions of individuals, one of many issues that retains developing, many times, is that with the intention to be true to the “for all” a part of our mission, it takes proactive intention.

Because there’s one thing of an apartheid proper now on this planet of meals. Not all people has entry to the identical farms, the identical agricultural capacities, or the identical monetary sources. And while you have a look at it statistically, there’s an enormous divide. Statistically, the darker your pores and skin shade within the United States in the present day, the extra possible you might be to rely, for almost all of your energy, on unhealthy meals.

And we wish to change that. Which is why we’re right here in the present day to speak about what we are able to do and the way we might be part of transformation, to convey extra therapeutic, love, justice, and wellness for everybody. Leah, thanks a lot for being right here.

Leah Penniman: Thank you to your consciousness and dedication to actually making meals accessible for all folks, which is actually what we stand for at Soul Fire. So thanks.

Farming While Black

hands holding sapling in dirt

Ocean Robbins: Absolutely. You know, your guide, Farming While Black — which is fantastic by the best way, everybody ought to get a replica — it’s devoted to the African ancestors who, earlier than boarding slave ships, braided seeds into their hair. And after I learn that, I felt a chill undergo my physique. I wish to ask you, how do these African ancestors inform the work that you just do in the present day?

Leah Penniman: Thank you for calling within the ancestors. You know, at any time when I am going out into the sector every morning, I all the time name on the reminiscence of my grandma’s grandma’s grandma, whose title is Suzie Boyd. She is without doubt one of the 12.5 million African individuals who have been kidnapped from the shores of West Africa, compelled onto slave ships, and compelled to do the agricultural labor — unpaid — that constructed the multi-trillion greenback wealth that’s foundational to this nation. And she had that audacious braveness and foresight to assemble up her millet, her okra, her cowpea, her black rice, and braid it into her hair as insurance coverage, and within the perception that descendants would exist to inherit that seed.

So the best way that informs my work on the day-to-day is I take into consideration, you realize, if my ancestors had the fortitude within the face of actually unimaginable horror — watching their infants and cousins get snatched up and never figuring out the place they’d be subsequent — if that they had that braveness to save lots of seed for these descendants they hadn’t met but, then who am I to surrender alone descendants, even in these actually attempting occasions? And so each bodily and metaphorically, I take that seed that my ancestors have handed down, put it within the floor, and reserve it for the following technology. And these seeds are within the type of okra and cowpea in addition to within the type of the farmer coaching that we do, the organizing that we do for extra simply insurance policies.

Racism within the US Food System

farm workers harvesting crop

Ocean Robbins: Thank you. You know, the legacy of farming as practiced within the industrialized world is interwoven with racism and injustice and exploitation of the land, of animals, and, after all, of human beings. As you realize, the first driver of slavery was agricultural.

And in the present day, the remedy of farmworkers is fairly deplorable within the United States. Life expectancy for farmworkers within the state of California, the place I stay, by one estimate, is 49 years. Rates of most cancers are off the charts due to all of the pesticide publicity within the fields.

And but I ponder if the act of rising meals might be one thing we reclaim. It doesn’t should be rooted in exploitation and domination and hurt and injurious motion. It can develop into one thing lovely. And that’s what I see you doing.

Leah Penniman: Oh, thanks for saying that. As you talked about, labor — it’s 85% Latinx and Hispanic folks rising the meals who usually are not protected by the identical labor legal guidelines as different Americans. While being a farm supervisor is among the many whitest professions.

Redistributing Resources

Leah Penniman: And then, as you talked about, after all, meals apartheid. Who will get to eat the meals?

Ocean Robbins: Right.

Leah Penniman: You know, should you’re white on this nation, you’re 4 occasions extra more likely to have a wholesome grocery store in your neighborhood. And that’s why we work so laborious on that. Both on the tangible grassroots degree the place we’re actually rising meals and delivering it at low and no price to the doorsteps of individuals beneath meals apartheid, rising neighborhood gardens in city areas. But additionally on the coverage degree.

And so, we have now a land belief that returns land to indigenous folks and to different dispossessed farmers. We have a regional fund that accepts cash after which distributes no-curiosity loans and grants to new and starting farmers. And so, these are a few of the form of — the macro ways in which we’re seeking to redistribute a few of the sources stolen by way of generations of slavery, sharecropping, and different types of land-based mostly oppression.

Food Deserts vs. Food Apartheid

empty grocery cart in grocery aisle

Ocean Robbins: Thank you for that a lot. There’s quite a bit right here we may go into. (Like) how it’s that we went from 14% of the farmers in America being African-American to 2% within the final century. The proven fact that the USDA lately settled a large lawsuit for preferential mortgage remedy, principally discrimination in opposition to African-American farmers, which made it more durable for them to maintain their farms during the last century.

And, after all, we even have the accessibility points. We have what some name meals deserts. I don’t know should you use that time period. But there’s no denying the truth that 23.5 million folks within the US stay in low-earnings neighborhoods positioned greater than a mile from a grocery store. Mostly, we’re speaking about city settings right here. So being greater than a mile from a grocery store is important and odd, given the inhabitants density. The reality is that black communities are half as more likely to have entry to giant supermarkets as white communities of comparable inhabitants density. And they’re extra more likely to be depending on liquor shops, 7-Eleven’s, and comfort shops that refill on junk meals that’s then inflicting coronary heart illness, and kind 2 diabetes, and weight problems, and so many different well being illnesses.

So I’m curious, while you have a look at this, initially, what are the challenges that we’re up in opposition to? And second of all, what can we do?

Why “Food Desert” Isn’t the Preferred Term

Leah Penniman: Absolutely. And we don’t use the time period “food desert” though it’s helpful to grasp the time period as a result of it’s how the federal government describes a zipper code that’s each low-earnings and is between one and ten miles from a grocery store, relying on the inhabitants density. The problem with the time period “desert” is that it implies a pure phenomenon. It implies a gorgeous ecosystem that arose by way of a pure course of. When in actual fact, there’s nothing pure in any respect about sure folks relegated to meals opulence and others to meals shortage, usually on the traces of race. That’s actually apartheid.

And there’s, after all, a complete historical past of how that got here to be. Housing discrimination, by way of redlining, divestment in communities, city renewal, gentrification, all of these programs at play that make your zip code one of many primary determiners of your life expectancy, once more, usually on race traces.

Housing discrimination, by way of redlining, divestment in communities, city renewal, gentrification, all of these programs at play that make your zip code one of many primary determiners of your life expectancy, once more, usually on race traces.
– Leah Penniman, Soul Fire Farm

So, what might be performed about it’s systemic, and it’s not a fast repair. We want to deal with the truth that housing discrimination has really elevated on this nation for the reason that passing of honest housing legal guidelines within the 1970s. Actors go in with the identical credit score rating and resumes, however relying in the event that they’re black or white, they’re being proven properties or not. And then that determines the tax base, and that determines how a lot funding comes into communities or not.

Community Models

women working in community garden

But I believe additionally there are actually lovely fashions to take a look at. For instance, in Detroit, out of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, they not solely fashioned a seven-acre city farm, however they fashioned a co-op — a grocery retailer that’s owned and run by the residents within the communities impacted by meals apartheid.

And so, how will we as a society, study to really belief the management of the folks most impacted by these harms and put money into the institutional infrastructure for us to guide and clear up our personal issues? You know, that co-op ought to have the Kellogg grants, the Ford Foundation grants. You know, it ought to have all of the assist that it must get off the bottom. And proper now, it’s utilizing GoFundMe with the intention to set up primary renovations that it wants. And that’s ridiculous as a result of if a neighborhood is coming collectively to unravel these actually entrenched racial points, systemic points, then we must be 100% behind it. And so, the entire Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Detroit Co-Op, (and different good organizations doing good work to convey therapeutic the place it’s wanted) want funding.

Culturally Appropriate School Lunches

Ocean Robbins: Absolutely. What about faculty meal applications? More than 30 million youngsters rely on them for some a part of their meals survival. They’re not precisely recognized for providing the healthiest choices. They’re beneath-resourced, dramatically. They’re usually depending on commodity crops which are given, primarily surplus by the USDA for little to no-cost with the intention to meet the caloric wants, however not essentially the dietary wants of the scholars of their care.

But some folks fear that if faculties do present more healthy choices, the scholars could not really need them. Because if they simply put a bunch of kale on the market, the scholars could go for the french fries and never eat the kale. So how will we deal with creating the schooling, the demand, and the curiosity? Is it about making extra culturally applicable, recognizable meals? Is it about faculty meals service applications getting higher at preparation? Is it about schooling within the school rooms? How will we cross that bridge?

Leah Penniman: That’s a very good query. So sure, it’s about preparation of that meals being prime quality. It’s about totally funding this system. I imply, with a greenback or two per child, per lunch, and these entrenched contracts with Aramark and Sodexo, there’s no means that you just’re really going to get good greens into the kitchen. So we want to have the ability to actually divorce our metropolis contracts from these giant company aggregators. And the Health, Environment, Ag, and Labor Food Alliance (the HEAL Food Alliance) is engaged on an actual meals and actual meals marketing campaign round this to get cities to interrupt up with, to actually divorce from these large firms and supply domestically.

Getting Kids Interested and Involved in Food

little girl helping mom in garden

Leah Penniman: And then, yeah, having younger folks really concerned in meals preparation, by way of bringing in recipes, getting within the kitchen…

You know, we have now hundreds of younger folks come by way of Soul Fire Farm yearly. And all of them eat the meals as a result of they grew it; they cooked it; they participated. So the concept that one way or the other black and brown people must be educated to eat proper can be a smokescreen. It’s not the problem. It’s about resourcing actually good meals for our younger folks.

Ocean Robbins: Studies present us that rising meals and getting ready meals is the easiest way to incite urge for food for that meals.

We have youngsters. I do know you do too. And once they’re concerned in getting ready a meal or planting something within the backyard or harvesting it, they’re so more likely to eat it. And there’s a sure pleasure that comes from that feeling of connection to what we’re consuming. And it strikes me that a part of what you’re doing helps folks to reclaim their relationship to meals itself.

Reclaiming Heritage Foodways

Leah Penniman: Absolutely. And there’s some actually highly effective work on the market. For instance, the Heritage Foodways group does some work creating meals pyramids which are based mostly on indigenous and ancestral foodways. And there are fantastic authors on the market like Mike Twitty and Bryant Terry, who’re additionally uplifting our ancestral foodways. Because there could be a fantasy on the market that white folks eat that “healthy food.” And that our meals as black persons are all fried and unhealthy. But it’s really not the case. The foundation of a West African conventional food plan is legumes, tubers, inexperienced greens, fish, and a variety of spices.

And so, discovering methods to connect with that and actually attain again past the time when our diets have been very colonized by each firms and in addition slave masters, to be frank. And to reclaim these heritage foodways is tremendous necessary.

And youngsters are so enthusiastic about that. They are so excited to cook dinner with these meals. And should you spice it correctly, it tastes good. It’s simply that some folks don’t know tips on how to use spice, so…

Human Nature

closeup of tree root system above ground

Ocean Robbins: You know, while you simply named the standard staples of the West African food plan, it struck a chord in me. I’m fascinated with how therapeutic it’s, how necessary it’s to reshape our id as human beings. The reality is that all of us have roots in a way of life and a means of feeding ourselves, that’s aligned with our nicely-being and the nicely-being of the planet. And nevertheless far estranged we could also be, nevertheless far again into our ancestors we could should look to search out these roots, I believe that we have now, inside our DNA, one thing of the knowledge of every thing all of our ancestors have ever skilled. And that lives in us. And it form of will get to this core nature of what does it imply to be a human being.

Because, I’ve bought to confess, typically I have a look at human beings — and as a white man, perhaps it is a specific perspective I’ve — and I really feel ashamed of what we do. I really feel ashamed of how we deal with animals. I really feel ashamed of how we deal with one another. I really feel ashamed of how we deal with the Earth. And I really feel ashamed of how we produce meals and have turned it right into a commodity that’s exploitative and damaging and extractive. And on the identical time, I consider that we’re additionally able to one thing else. And it strikes me that there’s a knowledge within the ancestors, as I hear you communicate of it, that we are able to draw upon to return ourselves into higher alignment with who we actually are.

The Importance of Cultural Heritage

Leah Penniman: I admire you saying that. The Table Underground is a very enjoyable meals justice podcast, and there’s an episode the place Owen Taylor of True Love Seeds talks precisely about that. He talks about how his Italian ancestors had to surrender their language, their culinary traditions, their faith, dialect, and actually assimilate. And within the course of, depart behind this knowledge.

And it made me assume how necessary it’s for European heritage people, for all people. Talk to your grandparents. Go again. You know, learn, pray, dream. And actually strive to connect with what it was earlier than this mission of domination took over the creativeness of your folks. Because all of us have, really, indigenous roots should you return far sufficient. I’m speaking about pre-conquest Europe, pre-conquest Africa, pre-conquest Asia. And how will we perceive what it’s to recollect the supply of that knowledge and attempt to begin implementing that in our lives? So I actually admire you saying that.

Drawing Inspiration from Nature

low angle view of pine tree tops

Ocean Robbins: Thank you. Leah, what have you ever realized from farming, from soil, from the rhythms of nature? And how has it knowledgeable the way you relate to the issues going through humanity?

Leah Penniman: That’s an enormous query. I’d say there’s nothing of worth that I haven’t realized from nature. One lesson is that I’m all the time watching nature and attempting to emulate biomimicry on the religious aircraft.

Recently, Soul Fire Farm has gotten a variety of stress to develop greater, franchise, or create some unusual empire of meals justice, which is de facto bizarre. But I have a look at the forest. And if there’s a pine tree on the sting of the forest that’s getting a variety of daylight, she doesn’t really develop six occasions taller than all the opposite timber. She takes these further sugars and minerals and dumps them into an internet of mycelium fungal hyphae to share with the opposite pine timber and non-pine timber all all through the forest in order that they’re all fortified. And they will have their mast yr collectively. And so, if one is weak, the others maintain her up.

And so, I take into consideration applicable progress of organizations, of actions, as actually being this trans-native, dispersed, mutuality net of interdependence. And not a lot replicating a mannequin of hierarchy and domination. And that’s one thing that our mannequin of progress as a corporation and a motion is de facto modeled after — the best way the forest shares its sources. We wish to be a superorganism just like the forest.

How Growing Food Can Change You

Ocean Robbins: Beautiful. If somebody doesn’t develop a ton of meals or develop into a real farmer, do you assume that rising one thing, rising something, planting any seed, nonetheless adjustments their life in a roundabout way?

Leah Penniman: Absolutely. And even should you can’t plant a seed, like make buddies with a tree. I’m a giant fan of literal tree-hugging. You know, your exhale turns into the tree’s inhale.

But yeah, you possibly can develop sprouts in your kitchen counter. You can develop a little bit salad backyard with turnip greens and lettuce and scallions proper in your window sill. You may even develop a pepper in a pot in your balcony. And so, I actually am a giant proponent of beginning small with no matter area you’ve gotten. And that relationship of watching your plant on daily basis, nurturing it, and inspiring it, I believe, awakens part of us that has been asleep and that all of us must be in contact with. So I encourage anybody and everybody to develop one thing should you can.

Heavy Metals in Urban Soil

urban garden surrounded by buildings
iStock.com/Eric Broder Van Dyke

Ocean Robbins: One of the locations lots of people are rising meals is in neighborhood gardens and faculty gardens. And but, usually we discover that in city communities, the soil is contaminated with lead and different heavy metals. Is there something we are able to do about that in order that it’s suitable for eating that meals?

Leah Penniman: Absolutely. And that is very private to me as a result of once we have been dwelling in Worcester, Massachusetts, and had our first youngster, Nashima, she was lead-poisoned from a neighborhood backyard. And we didn’t discover out till her one-yr checkup. And, after all, we did all of the issues a guardian would do to assist their youngster. But as activists, we additionally began to consider what in regards to the million different kids on this metropolis. And we went round testing soils and doing remediation. We began a youth co-op known as Toxic Soil Busters that’s nonetheless doing remediation.

What to Do About Contaminated Soil

Leah Penniman: So all that to say, there are a couple of choices. Probably the bottom hanging fruit, the simplest factor to do, should you’re both not sure about your soils or you’ve gotten soils which are contaminated with lead is to construct a raised mattress. You can simply use some pine, which is able to final a pair years. If you’ve gotten entry to hemlock, it’ll final 4 or 5 years. Build a raised mattress. Fill it with clear compost or topsoil or a mixture with a weed barrier on the backside. And develop proper into that. And simply be sure that the pathways are lined with wooden chips.

If you’re formidable and keen to perform a little little bit of learning, you possibly can really bioremediate utilizing crops like geranium, sunflower, and mustard. It could be a one to a few-yr course of to get these crops to really clear the soil. And it requires cordoning off the realm to maintain it protected when you’re doing the remediation — and actually some coaching. But that’s one thing that we did in sure areas and have been capable of get lead ranges down from round 2,000 to beneath 400, which is taken into account protected sufficient to develop in.

Ocean Robbins: Do the crops simply take within the lead, after which you need to take into account them poisonous? Or do they really rework it in a roundabout way?

Leah Penniman: They take within the lead. Lead and arsenic are parts, and so they really can’t be damaged down by way of a standard chemical course of, solely by way of an atomic course of. And crops, sadly, usually are not atomic. They don’t have that energy to degrade atoms. So they’re simply shifting it into the physique of the plant. The plant turns into poisonous then and must be disposed of and moved right into a protected, lined landfill, the place it’s not gonna seep out into the atmosphere.

Hydrocarbons — natural supplies, together with, oil, and even plastics, can really be degraded by fungi, algae, and crops as a result of they will break down their compounds somewhat than parts. Again, in all probability past the scope of this podcast. But should you’re a nerd like me, and you want chemistry, there’s quite a bit to study on the market.

Ways You Can Take Action Right Now

man and woman with crossed arms smiling in front of garden
iStock.com/Charday Penn

Ocean Robbins: So if a few of our viewers wish to assist contribute to wholesome, moral, and sustainable meals for all, in the event that they wish to perhaps make a optimistic influence, or make a contribution, or be in proper relation to marginalized communities, what are a few of the high issues they will do?

Leah Penniman: Well, the excellent news, as my daughter says, is the meals system is every thing it takes to get sunshine onto your plant. It’s such a large arc. There are plenty of factors of intersection and many proper solutions.

A few form of straightforward issues you possibly can do proper now’s on the Soul Fire Farm web site there’s a reparations map, which accommodates black, indigenous, and folks of shade-led meals and farming initiatives all throughout the nation. You can look on that map, discover a mission close to you, and see what it’s they want. It could be volunteer work. It could be cash, or land. Try to assist your native BIPOC-led organizations.

Another factor you’ll find at SoulFireFarm.org is an motion information that has a complete bunch of insurance policies and payments that must be handed into regulation with the intention to shield farmworkers, to return land to indigenous folks, to guard black farmers from shedding extra land, and so forth. And so, please do name your congressperson. Tell them that you just assist particular items of laws, like those you can see within the motion information. That might be actually, actually useful. And, after all, donate to black and brown-led organizations. All the lists are all around the web proper now. But we have now our listing as nicely at Soul Fire Farm of orgs that want assist. So that’s how one can pitch in.

Soul Fire Farm’s Capital Campaign

Ocean Robbins: You even have a capital marketing campaign, and will you inform us a little bit bit about that and the way folks would possibly have the ability to contribute in the event that they wish to step ahead in a daring strategy to carry your work ahead into the long run?

Leah Penniman: Oh, thanks for bringing that up. I used to be going to neglect about it. But, so, Soul Fire Farm, regardless of its nationwide attain, even worldwide some would say, operates out of the lounge of a single-household dwelling and has hundreds of individuals coming by way of for coaching applications.

So lately, the county well being division stated that is now not cute. Y’all must construct a industrial constructing so that you just’re as much as hearth code, and ADA, and well being rules, and so forth. So we’re within the strategy of elevating cash and constructing these buildings in order that we are able to proceed to function and even develop our farmer coaching applications, which have a multi-yr ready listing. And it’s very thrilling as a result of my accomplice Jonah is a grasp builder. So every thing is straw bail, timber frames, pure plaster, and renewable vitality. And we’re even accepting clay soil from our alumni to place into the pure plaster, so everybody’s land will likely be part of these buildings.

So go to our web site, SoulFireFarm.org, if you wish to pitch in for the capital marketing campaign and assist us proceed to develop the following technology of black farmers for years to return.

Ocean Robbins: Wonderful. My spouse and I are proud donors to Soul Fire Farm. I believe this work is so necessary. I’m so grateful to you to your braveness, your reality-telling, and your willingness to embrace so many painful realities with such dignity and love. And the smile and the enjoyment that comes by way of in your work is so magnificent. I believe it takes a particular being to face the darkness, ache, and violence that you just do, and to proceed being a stand for the love and the enjoyment which are attainable in all of us.

I thanks, Leah, for who you might be, for what you do, for the stand you are taking, and actually for lighting a means for all of us to see the best way ahead, that’s worthy of who we’re as human beings.

Leah Penniman: Thank you a lot. Love is really the one reply to society’s issues, so thanks for affirming that. And I want you all the very best with your endeavors.

Ocean Robbins: And you as nicely.

Tell us within the feedback:

  • Were you conscious of Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm’s work?
  • Do you’ve gotten a relationship with soil or rising your personal meals?
  • Does this interview encourage you to take any optimistic actions?

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