Food Providers, Farmers Fight To Sustain Minority Communities

Finding good healthy food is often a challenge in inner city communities. On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, two writers for the online magazine TheRoot.com explore how people of color are trying to change the kinds of food that are being produced �" and what's on sale at the local corner store. Host Michel Martin talks with Chicago Public Radio reporter Natalie Moore and Baltimore-based freelance writer Frank McCoy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're continuing our coverage of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day now with a conversation about food. Since its inception, the online publication TheRoot.com has followed the course of the environmental movement among people of color. Today, the publication focuses on those who are trying to change the kind of food available in urban communities.

Here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio is Frank McCoy. He's a regular contributor to The Root. He wrote about black farmers breaking into the organic and local food industry.

Also joining us, Natalie Moore, South Side bureau reporter for Chicago Public Radio. She wrote about dearth of grocery stores in South Chicago and how a group of Arab and African-Americans are working with corner stores to help fill that void. And she joins us from Chicago Public Radio.

I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. FRANK MCCOY (Journalist, TheRoot.com): Thank you for having me.

Ms. NATALIE MOORE (Journalist, Chicago Public Radio): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Happy Earth Day to you both.

Mr. MCCOY: Happy Earth Day to you.

MARTIN: So Frank, can you give us a sense of how many black farmers there are and how many of those are working on local or organic farms?

Mr. MCCOY: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2007 census, there are roughly 32,000 black farmers across the country. Not very many compared to the overall number. Of that number, they have not drilled down to look at who are the organic farmers by race or ethnicity. However, I found by talking to people across the country that there is a growing number of farmers.

As one person joked with me, he said black farmers have always been organic farmers in that they haven't had the money to buy the pesticides and to buy a lot of the other things that were harmful to the Earth, so they are working more closely to the traditional way of growing crops.

MARTIN: Which is using animal but not lab-produced fertilizers, rotating crops.

Mr. MCCOY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Creating their own tools that fill their needs.

Mr. MCCOY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, you wrote about a farmer collective in the South, the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network, SAAFON.

Mr. MCCOY: Yes.

MARTIN: And you said that their customers include local four-star restaurants and Whole Foods.

Mr. MCCOY: Yes.

MARTIN: How do they make those connections?

Mr. MCCOY: When I was chatting with the individuals who are involved with this, what they told me was that they initially got these farmers and began to train them in order to make sure that they were certified by the USDA as well. Once you gain that certification, you get a label, and the label is something that patrons at the farmers markets will look for, buyers in restaurants will look for, and some places like Whole Food will look for. And so they work their way up that chain of education and then suddenly they get more of a market.

MARTIN: You know, during the campaign, Barack Obama - during the presidential campaign - Barack Obama was ridiculed for talking about things like arugula and encouraging people to, you know, grow things like that. But I did want ask, are some of these farmers growing things that their own relatives won't eat - and go yuck?

Mr. MCCOY: I've heard a little bit about that. They might be growing endive. They might be growing arugula. They might be growing anything. As good farmers, they're going to grow whatever will grow and whatever the market will bear. So it's clearly going to happen that way.

MARTIN: Maybe it's changing their eating habits. Who knows?

Mr. MCCOY: It definitely is.

MARTIN: Learn to love that arugula. So that actually speaks to Natalie's piece. Frank, you were writing about the supply side. Natalie, you wrote about the consumer angle, but specifically looking at the lack of availability of any kind of fresh food in certain neighborhoods. And you specifically looked at South Chicago. Briefly, explain like how is this possible. I think - I mean I know that this is a familiar issue for many people, but I'm sure there are some people who really can't believe that there are neighborhoods...

Ms. MOORE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...with no fresh food available, or very little.

Ms. MOORE: Somebody just asked me yesterday - what is a food desert? And these are neighborhoods that dont have grocery stores and also dont have access to fresh healthy food. What you often find in food deserts are a lot of fast food chains and corner stores. And in these corner stores youre not finding a meat section or a produce section. There's a lot of processed food. You know, nothing that you would really want to have a daily diet of.

MARTIN: And you pointed out that - and has always I think been the case - is that it happens that in some neighborhoods certain ethnic groups tend to gravitate toward certain businesses. And in the neighborhood you wrote about there are often a number of Arab merchants and that there's some tension that's developing, some sort of racial tension developing between the store owners and their clients - or their customers, rather.

Ms. MOORE: Right.

MARTIN: Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Ms. MOORE: That's not uncommon in a lot of urban cities where you have black neighborhoods and you have outsiders who have set up shop. But what is happening in some of these neighborhoods is that instead of looking at it as strictly a racial issue, they're framing it around food deserts. So some people might remember what happened in L.A. with the Korean stores and in - being in black communities, in trying to foster better relationships, and so that's the case here with the Arab merchants and black customers.

But they're looking at it - well, how can we make the corner stores more variable? Is there any way that the stores can get money to have fresh food? Some of the owners are saying, well, no one's asking for arugula or anything that's green, so their argument is, are they supply something that's not a demand? So that's where the education around food justice issues come in.

If people - if their lives only revolve around a two-mile radius, they may not know what they're missing and how their neighborhoods are underserved. So in addition to this campaign, you do see some organic gardening on vacant lots in neighborhoods like this and a real movement to try to teach people about eating better. Not so much social servicing them into healthy eating, but just explaining what the options are.

MARTIN: Okay. Before - I do want to focus on the group that you wrote about, the Inner City Muslim Action Network. But before I do, just briefly though, would you explain why it is that there are no supermarkets in these areas?

Ms. MOORE: Well, I think the black dollar is, quite frankly, undervalued. And it's not just in poor neighborhoods that you see this. There was a food study report that came out about Chicago that said even middle class to upper middle class neighborhoods that have black populations, they can be food deserts too. So - and I personally work and live in a food desert so I can attest to that. And if you dont have mobility, you know, I can drive to another grocery store.

And if people are relying on public transportation, it may not be as easy, so I think you have white flight that happened to some of these neighborhoods that, you know, weren't all black and then some of the businesses left, and I also think that just black dollar is undervalued and businesses dont always want come in those neighborhoods.

MARTIN: Frank has something to add to that.

Mr. MCCOY: By contrast, with this economic red lining, yesterday I got a call from the publicist for Fairway Foods, which is a very large market which is on the West Side of Harlem, 125th Street. And I asked him directly, I said why did you go there when a lot of other supermarkets dont want to? And he said, all we want is access to highways. We know that the customers will come if we have the food. And they found out, as many other merchants have found out, that if the mainstream sort of vendors go into the black communities, particularly middle class and even other types of income classes, that people will go and buy produce or buy products there. It's just giving them the opportunity to make the purchase.

MARTIN: So Natalie, tell us about this group that you wrote about, the Inner City Muslim Action Network. What are they trying to do?

Ms. MOORE: The coalition is black and Arab Muslims. And so they're approaching the corner stores. They did a survey of some store owners and they did a survey of some of the residents. Residents talked about that they felt like they weren't treated fairly, that the prices were too high, that the prices were capriciously done. It could be - you know, a can of tuna could be something one day and then something completely the next day.

Some of the owners talked about the difficulty of operating in those neighborhoods. So they're in the conversation phase right now. But what they're hoping for is to turn the corner stores into an inner ethnic cooperative model. If the big chains aren't coming, what can be done to make those corner stores have healthy food? And they're also looking at getting some state money that's supposed to go to fresh food and they want that money not to just go to the bigger chains.

You know, we can't beg the stores to come in, and if this is the model, let's make the model better for the corner store.

MARTIN: Interesting. So Frank, final thought from you. What about this whole question of the subsidies that are available? I mean are there policies that are at work that kind of help perpetuate what it is that we're talking about now?

Mr. MCCOY: They certainly are, and that the farmers are very small - the average black farm is only about 116 acres. But what's happening in reverse is that the micro farms are being - farmers are beginning to bring their produce into farmer's market and their cooperatives. And so as they bring them into farmer's markets in Harlem or they bring them into farmer's markets in the Midwest or they bring them into California, they're gaining the consumer base there which allows them to also turn to the state and the local other governments and say we have a base here, why can't you also give us some support as well?

As Will Allen, one of the 2008 MacArthur Genius Award winners said, it makes no sense to ship food 1,500 miles when you can ship it 60 miles from a local farmer, and there are many black farmers that are beginning to get into this whole movement of bringing the food to the cities.

MARTIN: And Natalie, final thought from you - did you get a sense that what they're trying to do in Chicago is something that people are trying to do in other places? The idea, to use a phrase from an earlier century, casting down your bucket where you are, trying to take the model that exists and revive it as a opposed to, you know, just complain about it or eliminate it?

Ms. MOORE: Honestly, I can't say that I've heard of anything like this that deals with the racial component in food deserts. I think around the country you see guerilla gardening. In urban neighborhoods you see farmer's markets coming in using black farmers. The Food Justice Movement, you know, what it means to be black and green is something very different. So I see that, but I haven't seen anything like this and I do believe that it's pretty unique.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted. This is interesting.

Mr. MCCOY: Yeah, the idea that doing for self is certainly important and it's increasingly important across the country.

MARTIN: Natalie Moore is South Side bureau reporter for Chicago Public Radio. She joined us from there. Frank McCoy is a freelance journalist who is a regular contributor to The Root. He covers business and technology. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MCCOY: Thank you for inviting me.

Ms. MOORE: Thanks for having me.

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