You’ve seen the community gardens, the small farms springing up in the city, the folks standing out on the side of busy streets sowing the seeds of tomorrow’s harvest. Some of these spaces are emerging in areas where families have to travel several miles before reaching a grocery store. But what’s striking about a lot of these green spaces is not their urban existence; it’s the people taking care of the land.
Across the city, gardens have emerged in communities of color, but the stewards don’t always match the neighborhood demographic. Without representation and community ownership, are these spaces making the food system more equitable? Not according to food justice activists like Duron Chavis, Manager of Community Engagement at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
Since 2002, Chavis has served as a community advocate in the Richmond metro region. When Chavis graduated from Virginia State University with a degree in mass communications, he had no idea he’d become a champion of regional food justice. He became invested after meeting farmers through starting Happily Natural Day, a festival he founded in 2003 while working at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia.
Almost ten years later, in 2012, Chavis started the McDonough Community Garden in Southside. He had just moved to that part of the neighborhood and he was eager to grow. He spent a great deal of time talking to his neighbors and working with the city to transform an underutilized plot of land into a community garden through the city’s Richmond Grows Gardens program. He toiled in the garden after work and on weekends, taking care to engage with folks who walked by. Chavis has since moved from the neighborhood, but seven years later, the McDonough Garden is still a place where folks can grow, congregate, listen to music, and revel in the outdoors.
“It’s everybody’s space,” he says.
As an urban agriculturalist, Chavis’s goal is to realize equitable food systems by way of education, communication, and collaboration.
Food justice, says Chavis, necessitates equity and ownership. It’s not just about building gardens; it’s about empowering communities with the tools to take control of their own food system, which includes helping establish grow-spaces.
“What [food justice] means to me is that communities have ownership of the means of production, distribution, consumption, processing, and waste management,” he explains.
Chavis is a busy man. In addition to coordinating a community storytelling project that will showcase the work of urban agriculturalists, Chavis spent the last weeks of winter reviewing applications for the fourth cohort of the Lewis Ginter Urban Gardener training program, an initiative that teaches aspiring gardeners how to both build relationships and develop green spaces in communities. The group will work with two faith-based organizations and the Richmond Association of Black Social Workers to create an agricultural space on the border of Richmond’s East End and Henrico.
The review process is selective. Only 16 people are chosen from a pool of more than 40 applicants. Chavis strives to create as inclusive a team as possible, which means taking into account applicants’ race, gender, sexuality, religious perspective, ability, income, and education. Given the importance of establishing trust when doing community work, garden program applicants who are from the neighborhood are given priority.
“We try to make sure the cohort has as much difference as possible, so that when people are in the room, they get the experience of having to build community across difference,” says Chavis. “[This] is important because it’s a skill to be able to work with people who don’t have your shared lived experience.”
The Lewis Ginter Urban Gardener training program is designed to probe the systemic disparities that have perpetuated food insecurity in neighborhoods and households across the country.
“My conversation is about racial equity,” says Chavis.
“For the Ginter Urban Gardener program, the first thing we talk about is race and place,” he says. “It’s not just that they don’t have grocery stores, it’s also that they don’t have affordable housing. It’s also that these areas have high levels of police intervention. There are also places with high eviction rates. All of this is about racism and focusing on the urban center.”
Injustice rooted in redlining, poverty, and gentrification
Today in Richmond, it’s easy to find cheap or free garden land in areas with lower property values, which tend to be in communities of color. Perhaps that’s why predominately white-run organizations have established farms in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Church Hill and Manchester.
Food grown in these spaces may or may not be an alternative to the grocery store for residents with lower incomes. But the lack of accessible fresh food from nearby grocery stores is only part of the problem in food-insecure areas. The history of racism and poverty that beleaguers these neighborhoods is as much a part of the picture as the land in the frame.
Chavis says food justice goes beyond building gardens in so-called food deserts, which the USDA defines as areas where fresh and healthful foods are inaccessible. It means having conversations about the history of why and how power has been stripped from communities.
To understand the relationship between urban agriculture, gentrification, and food sovereignty, we have to step back to the 1930s, when redlining effectively made it impossible for Black families to get home loans and amass wealth. As a result, few could afford to purchase, rehabilitate or repair their home, explains Brian Koziol, Director of Research and Policy at Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia. Even after the Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal in 1968, white flight and systemic racism served to perpetuate the wealth gap that exists today between whites and people of color.
Due to the increase in wealth disparities, explains Koziol, “people in poverty aren’t able to maintain property. And without access to credit, there’s no ability to maintain and reinvest in property.”
This was further exacerbated by the years leading up to the housing crisis, when the percentage of subprime loans to African American households was 28 percent higher than those to white households, says Koziol.
In 2009, the wealth gap between white and African American households was $236,000, according to a longitudinal study conducted at the Brandeis University Institute on Assets and Social Policy. Researchers found that years of home ownership were the foremost contributor to a racial wealth gap that had increased by 178% since 1989. Per the study, “Residential segregation by government design has a long legacy in this country and underpins many of the challenges African-American families face in buying homes and increasing equity.”
In Richmond, 86 percent of communities redlined with the label “hazardous” by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s remain low-to-moderate income; 90 percent of these neighborhoods have majority-minority populations, according to researchers at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
“Historically, over time, people of color in this country have been a vehicle for wealth extraction, either through labor or paying rent,” Koziol explains. “Systemically, it’s an issue of keeping people in a state of poverty through wealth extraction and resource extraction.”
“In terms of property values, what we’re seeing now is gentrification in a number of neighborhoods that have historically been redlined and disinvested,” he adds. “Those property values are going up so, without really beating around the bush, property values are, by and large, tied to whiteness.”
Chavis says this history is ignored by many white-run non-profits operating in communities of color.
“Right now in Richmond we don’t have food justice,” he says. “We have a lot of representatives of communities that are not from those areas making a lot of money off of increasing access to healthy food… none of them are doing work around racial equity, explicitly or intentionally.”
Food justice goes beyond food
In order for change to be realized, there has to be a shift in narrative, says Art Burton, founder of Kinfolk Community Empowerment Center and the Food Justice Corridor. “Food justice is about opportunities, not problems,” he offers.
Since 2015 Burton has overseen the Food Justice Corridor, a stretch of land that encompasses four public housing communities in the East End and an expanse running northwest between Mechanicsville Turnpike and Creighton Road. The corridor operates in a space that some would label a food desert, but Burton, who’s been farming since childhood, takes issue with that term.
“Maybe we have an issue with people not knowing the importance of eating healthy. Maybe we have an issue with people not knowing how to access healthy foods. But we don’t have a food desert,” said Burton in a TED Talk.
The term ‘food desert’ “implies that nothing can grow there and that it’s a recurring problem, and that’s not what these spaces are,” adds Victoria Lynn, of the Richmond Food Justice Alliance, a partner organization within the Food Justice Corridor. The resources are often there, say Lynn and Burton — sometimes it’s just a matter of making those connections.
That’s what the Food Justice Corridor has set out to do: facilitate access for food in a way that goes beyond putting vegetables in the refrigerator. The idea is to promote a “culture of health” by helping people connect with resources that can alleviate inequities deeply rooted in systemic racism. That includes access to housing, alternatives to youth incarceration, and means for reentry after incarceration.
“This is about ownership,” says Burton. “It’s not about all that’s wrong.”
Urban agriculture, says Burton, is just one mechanism used to facilitate an equitable food system. “It’s a community engagement tool,” he explains.
Burton acknowledges competition for funding in the field of urban agriculture non-profits. Larger, well connected organizations make it difficult for grassroots non-profits like Kinfolk to compete for funding. “The money is running laterally to well funded white organizations,” he explains. That’s why Burton, who has worked as a community organizer for decades, is working to streamline a coalition of Black-run non-profits across the city. “We have to get all of the organizations [to spread] the same message of what we’re doing and why.”
What will it take to realize a food-just Richmond?
Chavis is excited about the opportunities flourishing across the region. He points to Burton and Lynn’s work, as well as that unfolding at Virginia State University, where Dr. Leonard Githinji runs a Sustainable Urban Agriculture Certificate Program on the university’s Randolph Farm.
“Food justice is a situation where everybody should have access to affordable, fresh food wherever they are,” says Githinji in a greenhouse. Under that hot roof, students will learn permaculture fundamentals like aquaculture. They’ll raise chickens and orchards. And, if Githinji has his druthers, they’ll take away skills that they can use to promote food access and security in their communities.
“This is how you build community,” says Chavis. “Give people access to the resources and work with them, support them, and watch them figure it out on their own.”
All photos by Cat Modlin-Jackson. Top Photo: Food growing in a greenhouse on Randolph Farm.