By Thin Lei Win
July 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a backyard in the Bronx in the mid-1980s, a vine laden with sweet-smelling and delicious tomatoes came as a revelation to urban gardening guru Karen Washington.
"It was tomatoes that really got me hooked on growing food, because I hated tomatoes," she said, laughing at the memory.
Her homegrown produce got her thinking about the huge difference between the quality of food available to her white friends elsewhere in New York City and what was on sale at stores in her mainly Black neighbourhood.
Working then as a physiotherapist, Washington saw firsthand how poor diet affects health - regularly treating patients with conditions such as diabetes, strokes and heart disease.
"We got the junk food, the processed food, not the healthy food," said Washington, a straight talker with long blonde dreadlocks.
Alarmed by the disparity, she went on to coin the term "food apartheid" to describe the long-standing dietary inequity in the United States that has come into focus due to the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19's heavy toll on people of color.
"What I wanted to do was ... to have that difficult conversation around race, to make people understand the food system is broken. That it is not fair," Washington told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Dubbed the "Queen of Urban Farming", Washington co-founded Black Urban Growers, an organisation supporting farmers working in urban and rural settings, and also started Rise & Root Farm.
Greenhouses and rows of crops and flowers stretch across the women-led market garden in Chester, New York, which supplies organic vegetables, herbs and bouquets to buyers in the city.
Potted seedlings are on sale too for beginners wanting to turn their balconies or yards into vegetable patches.
'BAD FOOD, LACK OF FOOD'
While the struggle for "food justice" is decades-old, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how racial inequalities still make it harder for many Black Americans to eat well, affecting their health and ultimately cutting some lives short.
Preliminary data from several states has shown that COVID-19 is killing African Americans at a higher rate.
Human rights campaigners say that likely reflects both poorer underlying health with Black Americans more likely to have heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure as well as reduced access to healthcare.
"The bad food, the lack of food, the health disparities, the life expectancy, the incarceration rates, the violence, all of those pieces are all connected to the economic system and who has power," said Erika Allen, co-founder and chief executive at the Chicago-based Urban Growers Collective.
But food production has not always been an almost exclusively white endeavour in the United States.
In 2017, 95% of the country's nearly 3.4 million farmers were white, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) census released last year.
Black farmers accounted for 1.3% or 45,508, compared to the 1920s when their numbers peaked at 925,708.
People of color hold 3% of the country's agricultural land, according to a 2014 government survey on tenure and ownership.
Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire Farm, an urban growing collective based in Petersburg, New York, said the fall in the number of Black farmers reflected decades of discrimination and a backlash over an estimated 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares) of land they owned in 1910.
"Racism and white supremacy are really built into the DNA of the U.S. food system," said Penniman, author of a book called "Farming While Black".
She said the same thinking that justified the theft of indigenous lands and the use of slaves as farm labour morphed over decades into new forms of racial discrimination in the country's food production chain.
Thousands of Black farmers who said they were racially discriminated against for decades by the USDA won $1.25 billion in a court settlement in 2010. A separate $760 million in compensation for American Indian farmers was also announced.
ZIP CODE LOTTERY
Bringing to mind scorched, barren terrain far from towns and cities, the USDA uses the term "food desert" to describe areas with limited supplies of fresh, affordable foods.
It is a term rejected by community farming activists who say the lack of food available in these poverty-afflicted areas is a reflection of discrimination rather than unfavourable geography.
An estimated 54.4 million Americans - 17.7% of the population - live in "food deserts", according to the USDA.
Not everyone living in "food deserts" is Black, but studies have shown that even when poverty levels are similar, Black neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets than other areas.
Penniman, who opened Soul Fire Farm in 2010, lived in a "food desert" in the south of Albany, New York, recalling how hard it was to find fruit and vegetables for her young family as they did not own a car and there was no bus service.
The only option was to buy a subscription from a local farm about two miles (three kms) away through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. It cost more than the family's rent.
That spurred Penniman and her husband to set up a community garden that now offers low-cost doorstep delivery of fruits and vegetables to residents of the Albany-Troy area and runs training programs on how to farm.
"In this country, your zip code is a very high predictor of your life expectancy," she said.
"There's a concentration of hunger and diet-related illness in certain zip codes that correlates with where Black and brown communities live."
Other grassroots initiatives challenging the agricultural status quo are happening in other parts of the country, even as the pandemic forces the suspension of services such as farmers markets and on-site training courses.
In Chicago, Allen's Urban Growers Collective, which uses converted city buses as mobile markets for farm produce, plans to start work on a facility to turn food waste into compost.
Critically acclaimed Burmese restaurant Thamee in Washington D.C. has teamed up with non-profit Dreaming Out Loud to offer customers a selection of products sourced from Black farmers.
The restaurant is also selling pantry items produced by Black, Indigenous and people of color, said co-owner Simone Jacobson.
Washington hopes that changes stemming from the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter movement could prove a watershed in her fight to uproot "food apartheid" for good.
But she said structural changes were needed as opposed to businesses paying lip service to equality by making one-off donations to charity programmes or other PR-friendly gestures.
"You can't go on controlling a food system and say systemic change is going to take place ... Move on and let somebody else take the leadership position," she said.
"You can't always say, 'I'm waiting for you to get ready.' We've been ready for 400 years." (Reporting by Thin Lei Win, Editing by Helen Popper and Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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