Growing up, every window in my apartment faced “the back”—in New York City, this means that my apartment faced another building, blocking any sunshine that came our way. We didn’t have a backyard, window garden, fire-escape garden, or any plants, and every succulent I bought in college died. In short, I have no experience with farming. To say that I had no idea where my food comes from is an understatement.
But it’s not just me. Black communities—and especially Black urban residents like me—are denied access to healthy, life-giving food. We have little say as growers or consumers about where our food comes from, but we are continually shamed for our dietary habits.
A painful historic line connects Black people who were fed table scraps—during slavery and after its end—and the Black communities of today who still don’t have access to culturally appropriate, nutritious, and affordable food.
When Black people and Black farmers are excluded from conversations about transforming a capitalist food system centered on overconsumption, Black communities suffer. A racially just food system must be community-led—and that means providing Black farmers with the resources and power to make decisions and feed their communities.
557 Years of Power
While agriculture is a booming business—valued at over $42 billion in New York State alone—Black farming has declined precipitously. Racist lending discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has consistently refused to provide financial resources to Black farmers, and white supremacist terror have led to the near extinction of the Black farmer. In 1910, there were 925,000 Black farmers nationwide. In 2017, there were only 35,000. The expropriation of Black labor and denial of resources established that was further exacerbated by multiple forms of anti-Black racial discrimination—and it continues today. According to recent USDA data, for every five dollars made by white farmers, Black farmers make only one.
A painful historic line connects Black people who were fed table scraps—during slavery and after its end—and the Black communities of today who still don’t have access to culturally appropriate, nutritious, and affordable food. The American food system was built on generations of dehumanizing violence and trauma that denied Black people bodily autonomy and the right to speak for ourselves. This history starts with how this country was built—on stolen Indigenous land by way of genocidal violence and terror, and cultivated by African people who were enslaved—and continues through the current exploitation and extraction experienced by migrant farm workers in the US.
Today, Black people, whose labor created this country’s wealth while their bodies were objectified, bought, and sold, are still expected to accept their exploitation for the massive accumulation of wealth for white power under racial capitalism.
During the Reconstruction era (1865-1877), Black Americans hoped for reparations in the form of “40 acres and a mule,” as promised by the Union shortly before the end of the Civil War. Though this promise was never fulfilled, Black freedpeople worked for wages and purchased land on which they grew food to build something for themselves and their families. When the federal army withdrew from the South, bringing Reconstruction to an end and denying Black people protection, newly empowered white supremacists used arson, intimidation, and physical harm to unleash terror on Black landowners in the South and, indeed, throughout the US. Jim Crow laws also established systemic obstacles to Black land ownership, dashing any remaining dreams of reparations.
Why were these barriers created? Because there is power in land ownership and profit to be made from the land and its harvests. There will never be more earth for us to claim, and those who own it decide what we eat.
My experience growing up is not unique among Black urban residents—but we are not at fault here. Our experiences are the result of generations of racist barriers to land ownership and divestment from our communities. Without the government’s support, Black people have had to advocate for and support ourselves.
Community-Led Movements for Food and Land Justice
Despite systemic barriers, Black food liberation movements took shape as early as 1896, when Callie House created the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association. Later, the National Farm Workers Association, Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program, New Communities Land Trust, and Federation of Southern Cooperatives were formed. All are examples of Black community-led initiatives to combat wealth inequity and provide Black communities with opportunities to steward and own land—growing a movement in spite of white supremacist policies and violence.
The uphill battle for Black autonomy continues 157 years after emancipation—namely, the battle for the power to decide what we consume, what our societies look like, what type of future we want our children to have, and on the most basic level, what we eat.
Kama Doucoure from , a pilot-phase investee, says it best: “No matter who you are, you gotta eat. No matter where you are, you got to eat.” These simple words highlight how much power there is in being able to feed people and decide which foods they can access. A “pro-Black” food system is a racially just one where Black people’s health is not determined by our geographical proximity to well-resourced white communities. In a pro-Black food system, all Black folks have reliable access to healthy and nutritious food.
Farming provided Black people who managed to retain land ownership during Jim Crow with a means to feed their families and live well. Onika Abraham, a founding board member of Black Farmer Fund and Executive Director of , shares how her grandparents, who were farmers in Alabama, “grew row crops like soy and corn on about 40 acres, and my grandmother grew every single thing that their family ate. Corn, hogs, chicken, all of that…though they were on paper considered poor, certainly by our modern terms, they were incredibly rich in resources, and they were so rich in relationships.” Although her family was not wealthy, having land and food security gave them the stability to live well.
Unfortunately, most Black folks today do not have access to this legacy.
The Food System Today
Government institutions like the USDA have historically served as gatekeepers to financial resources that could nurture and support Black farmers. In 1982, the US Commission on Civil Rights determined that “the USDA’s Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) may have hindered the efforts of Black small farm operators to remain a viable force in agriculture. Furthermore, as the Commission has found in the past, USDA and FmHA have failed to integrate civil rights goals into program objectives and to use enforcement mechanisms to ensure that Black farmers are provided equal opportunities in farm credit programs.”
In the early 1990s, Congress passed the Minority Farmers Rights Act that would, for the first time, devote federal funds to programs focused on Black farmers. Although the bill passed Congress, the funds were not appropriated. It took a 1992 “Caravan to Washington” of Southern Black farmers and their supporters to finally pressure Congress to appropriate monies for the program. In 1999, Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit against the USDA, alleged racial discrimination against African-American farmers in the agency’s allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996.
As Dãnia Davy has argued for NPQ, we need a pro-Black farmer policy regime. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 has replaced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which passed in 2021 but has been on hold because of opposing lawsuits from white farmers who claim that the act gives Black farmers an unfair advantage. The new bill’s authors removed any language specifying restitution for Black farmers who faced USDA discrimination. For centuries, white agricultural institutions have kept Black people from having decision-making power and access to capital. This ongoing economic injustice continues with these recent policy moves.
Farming For Us, By Us
The Black Farmer Fund was created to support Black farmers and food entrepreneurs in the US Northeast who, despite their funding needs, have been denied the resources they are due. In addition to providing Black farmers with capital, we provide individualized technical assistance and business coaching to address the historical lack of support for Black farmers. As an organization in solidarity with Indigenous communities, we acknowledge that we are on stolen Indigenous land while contending with the fact that enslaved African Americans produced of the US’s food and raw materials for textiles for a century but were never fully compensated, creating a massive wealth gap that continued to grow as a result of US government policy and the actions of racist white farmers, who together sabotaged Black farmers’ efforts to create wealth.
The Black Farmer Fund flips this power dynamic through our community-led Investment Committee, which brings together Black farmers, restauranteurs, herbalists, caterers, and chefs to decide who receives funding. This is critical because typically, the people who decide what, if any, resources go to Black farmers are not farmers, members of Black communities, or even an active part of the food system. In finance, decisions are made to ensure that the investor takes on the least risk while extracting as much wealth as possible from the investee. In contrast, Black Farmer Fund’s investees receive supportive capital, allowing them to show up authentically in their work and create new opportunities for themselves and their communities. In addition to having monetary value, these farming businesses add to their communities and the environment through their work. We put power in the hands of Black farmers and prioritize what is best for their businesses—and, ultimately, for their communities, through access to nourishing food—not what will maximize the profits of outside investors.
Ultimately, land access is not solely about the potential to feed communities. It is about power. Those who own the land get to say what happens on it and can exercise power over those who don’t have it.
Beyond the benefit of healthy, life-giving food, it is important to redefine profit because there are other social and ecological benefits to investing in Black communities. We must reframe risk as the risk of not investing in these communities. What is the risk to their survival? To the planet? Since power in the food industry is largely concentrated among white-owned agribusinesses and institutions, we must shift power to Black farmers and food entrepreneurs to create change.
Ultimately, land access is not solely about the potential to feed communities. It is about power. Those who own the land get to say what happens on it and can exercise power over those who don’t have it. From a farmer’s perspective, you have nothing without confident ownership of your territory—but many Black farmers don’t truly own the land they steward. Instead, they must work to feed themselves and their communities while holding other jobs that sustain an extractive food system that disempowers them. Every past attempt to shift power has been systematically blocked by white terror.
Our ability to choose what and how we are fed is the ultimate form of freedom, and Black people deserve the chance to decide for themselves.
Yet, today, there is an explosion of conversations about racial equity and post-pandemic funding for Black organizations. We’re saying: we need the power to decide, and we need it now. If we are eating well, we’re free to use our minds to conjure alternative futures. For an alternative future, we don’t need to go to science fiction—we can start with Black communities having good access to food and our ancestors’ work. Collective decision-making practices and economic cooperatives have existed in Black communities for generations. We are continuing that legacy today by creating spaces for Black farmers to shape their own investment terms by making decisions together, and investing in each other, while pushing the US food system to collectively invest in Black people.
This is a story of Black resilience and Black brilliance. It’s a story about how, despite centuries of discrimination, terror, and backlash, Black folks are still claiming spaces for their people. Self-determination has always been the goal. Our ability to choose what and how we are fed is the ultimate form of freedom, and Black people deserve the chance to decide for themselves.