Outside of Albany, New York, a hard-working family is making strides toward food equality and justice. Soul Fire Farm, founded by Leah Penniman and her husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff, has two main purposes: first, to grow nourishing food using natural ancestral methods. Second, to empower other people to learn how to do the same as a means to fight racism. The farm invites thousands of people to their land each year for various workshops, conferences, and gatherings. People of all experience levels and backgrounds are invited to learn the basics of agriculture, with a focus on black, Latino and indigenous participants. Not only do participants learn practical skills, but they also engage in exercises to heal the trauma that they carry as descendants of slaves and survivors of racism.
This work is important on an individual level as well as a systemic one. Long after chattel slavery ended, agricultural injustices continued. Today, the farming industry still largely consists of exploited people of color, usually migrants, who labor under white landowners. The number of black farmers has dwindled due to the USDA’s openly discriminatory practices. The latest agricultural trend, certified organic farming, is often out of reach for black growers, who may farm organically in practice but are hesitant to attempt to be included by the USDA in this movement.
In cities, fast food chains and sub-par grocery stores have further disrupted traditional knowledge around whole plant foods. The result is a food and health disparity that spans the entire country. The act of reconnecting to agriculture—by owning land, growing food or simply consuming that food—is a radical act of empowerment within this context. The team at Soul Fire Farm hand-delivers affordable fresh produce to people who are living under what they call “food apartheid.” The staff trains apprentice farmers and budding activists in growing their own food, resisting oppression, and organizing for food justice. Soul Fire has expanded their reach to include national workshops and published articles, Program graduates have also gone on to start their own farms and healthy food initiatives.
It’s difficult to get anything done without a healthy body, so food justice as a tool to end racism is both necessary and powerful. People around the country are ravenous for the knowledge that Soul Fire provides. Leah and Jonah have built a model for others to emulate—one that prioritizes wellness, healing and empowerment for oppressed communities both urban and rural.