As we shift toward embracing healthier, more sustainable food practices, it’s worth remembering that food access is not only about sustenance — it’s also about equity. This is the philosophy of a rising number of social-justice-focused agricultural initiatives working to spread empowerment and inclusivity in their industry, among them the 80-acre Soul Fire Farm, in Grafton, New York.
“This work was partly inspired by our experience living in the South End of Albany and struggling to find fresh food for our children,” says Leah Penniman, who cofounded Soul Fire with her partner, Jonah Vitale-Wolff, in 2011. “When community members found out we had farming experience, they encouraged us to start a ‘farm for the people.’ Our first program was doorstep delivery of fresh produce to our neighbors.”
As a young Black child in the rural Northeast, Penniman found it difficult to understand where she belonged — but always found solace in nature. (“When human beings were too much for me to bear,” she says, “the earth held firm under my feet.”) At age 16, she answered an advertisement for a farming job in Boston that promised an opportunity to serve the urban community. It sparked a journey to address the discrimination and loss of land faced by Black farmers over the past century. In 2018, she channeled that work into a book, Farming While Black, proceeds from which go to Black farmers.
Soul Fire now has a staff of 10, who are committed to ending food apartheid — a term that describes systemic lack of access to healthy foods — by establishing food sovereignty in marginalized communities. Its initiatives include farm training for people of color and offering the weekly harvest to neighbors for little or no cost. The property opens to the public on community farm days, giving participants a chance to get their hands dirty while learning about the Afro-Indigenous farming and spiritual practices that guide their work.
“I would like Soul Fire Farm to be remembered as a community for a new generation of Black and brown farmers,” Penniman says, “supporting them in finding their way home to the land, restoring their ancestral right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system.”
Despite pandemic setbacks, Soul Fire was able to continue its Solidarity Shares CSA (community supported agriculture) program. The farm currently hosts virtual and in-person tours and will soon begin to host youth programs. “Having young people here really pushes the movement forward,” says food justice coordinator Brooke Bridges. “Being able to plant tiny seeds and watch them grow reminds me that, although things can shrivel due to lack of sustenance, the cycle will always begin again.”
+ More Justice-Focused Farms
Muloma Heritage Center
Artists and chefs — including Mashama Bailey of the Grey, in Savannah, Georgia, and Adrian Lipscombe, founder of the 40 Acres & a Mule Project — will use this 38-acre plot on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island to create educational culinary experiences centered around African American foodways and farming techniques. muloma.com.
New Roots Cooperative Farm
This 30-acre farm, created by a group of Somali refugees in Lewiston, Maine, provides organic produce to the community through farmers’ markets and CSA boxes, and recently installed solar panels to make its operation more sustainable. The farmers are collecting donations via GoFundMe to purchase the plot they’ve been working since 2016, with the goal of scaling up and making longterm improvements to the land. newrootscooperativefarm.com.
Sweet Water Foundation
“There grows the neighborhood” is the motto of this Chicago-based initiative, which blends urban agriculture, art, and education to transform vacant lots and abandoned buildings into productive, sustainable community assets. Among its projects: the Perry Avenue Community Farm, where visitors can pick seasonal vegetables like kale and tomatoes sprouting from the South Side neighborhood of Englewood. sweetwaterfoundation.com.
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Taking Back the Land.
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