By Kia Campbell
As a dietitian and nutrition educator, I often think about how marginalized communities are negatively affected by an inability to access healthy food. As an African American Muslim, who like, all African Americans, comes from a farming legacy, I believe that we should be on the forefront of movements that improve our connection to nature and the land. I live in a city that is experiencing an exponential rise in the farm-to-table movement, which focuses on producing and consuming foods locally; specifically, that all food on the table is grown, produced or harvested directly from a local farm.
This return to using and buying local food is amazing until you notice that Black people, who represent a significant percentage of the population, are largely missing from this progressive movement. Owning and operating local farms that supply local restaurants, farmers’ markets and community markets are an important means of providing nutritious food as well as economic opportunities for communities of color.
The NOI pioneered the farm-to-table model before it was deemed hip or progressive.
Through my parents, I was exposed not only to the religious components of Islam but also the importance of food through their experience in the Nation of Islam (NOI) under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The NOI pioneered the farm-to-table model before it was deemed hip or progressive. I vividly recall stories of the NOI grocery stores selling products made from beans, chickens, squash, wheat, and cattle that were grown on land owned and operated by Black folks. These farms also supplied “Steak ‘n Take” restaurants, bakeries and other food-related businesses.
The NOI’s motto of “Do For Self” and much of its economic blueprint revolved around Black people managing our own food production and providing food and other agricultural needs for the community.
They believed that a connection with the land and its resources was directly linked to improving the health and economic outcomes of Black communities. When I reflect on the NOI’s agricultural endeavors, I think about how Black people, at the end of slavery, struggled to create farms both as a means of feeding themselves and making a living.
Author Edna Lewis, who was often referred to as the “Queen of Southern cooking,” was born in a rural Virginia community started by her grandfather after emancipation in the 1860s. In her classic cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking, Lewis provides beautiful and poetic descriptions of life in Black farming communities of the Virginia Piedmont. For instance, she reminiscences about when life in Black communities was centered around worshipping the Creator, farming and education; a time when Black families experienced the joy of “finally” owning the land that they toiled over; the delight of rising every morning to cultivate land after hundreds of years of being owned and forced to produce yields to which they had no right.
During her childhood in the 1920s, every family had at least a small garden, if not a full-fledged farm. What you ate was determined by the seasons, weather or your geography. Planting time was determined by watching the constellations or listening for certain animal calls or behaviors. The members of Edna Lewis’ community were nourished by the blessing of The Creator’s will, strengthened by prayer and hard work. There was no “fast food” except for the fruits and vegetables you pulled straight from the earth. This was a time when neighbors traded seed, food, and labor.
When did we stop being cultivators and producers of our own nourishment?
Reflecting on the legacy of Edna Lewis and the NOI, it is apparent that Black people have moved too far away from food production. We have transitioned from the people driving the food system to those benefiting from it the least. We once grew, processed, and prepared the food that nourished our communities. However, we are no longer benefiting economically from this industry and, in turn, our food-related health issues like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, are increasing. In my city of Durham, N.C., Black folks don’t own or manage many farms. In fact, we account for a small percentage of people who shop at farmers’ markets. I would be remiss to ignore the trauma of 400 years of forced agricultural work and the continued dispossession of land that intentionally dismantled Black farms, thus exempting Black communities from food and economic advancement and sustainability.
Nonetheless, racism existed when Edna Lewis’ grandfather started his farm after emancipation and when the NOI became involved in the agricultural industry. Despite the challenges of racism, owning and cultivating land with one’s own hands was worthwhile. When did we stop being cultivators and producers of our own nourishment? One reason may be a lack of healing from our historical traumas and a shift in our own priorities, away from the importance of buying and cultivating land.
As Black Muslims who are descendants of a “ Do For Self “ legacy, we should be on the forefront of movements to improve our connection to nature and the land.
As Black Muslims who are descendants of a “ Do For Self “ legacy, we should be on the forefront of movements to improve our connection to nature and the land. With the holy month of Ramadan steadily approaching, I am reflecting not just on how to better myself, but also on how to be a benefit to my religious community, my geographical community and the physical environment in which I live. What does it mean to be a Khalifah — to be “deputized” by Allah as stewards on this earth, maintaining peace, balance, and justice for all of its inhabitants?
Surely, this must include producing food that is in balance with nature, in addition to ensuring that all citizens have access to healthy wholesome food. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe we can start by intentionally supporting Black-owned farmers, markets, and restaurants. We can start small gardens or participate in community gardening efforts. More importantly, we can encourage our children to pursue degrees in horticulture, agricultural science, technology animal husbandry, and finance. Thus, we will rebuild a cadre of skilled professionals and future generations of Black farmers who are invested in improving the health and wellness of Black communities, moving us closer to reclaiming our connection to food as nourishment and our rightful inheritance as stewards of the earth.
Kia Campbell is a wife, mother of two sons, registered dietitian, nutrition educator, writer and an amateur gardener. She is a proud member of W. Deen Mohammed Islamic Center of Durham, North Carolina.