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You Can Grow Food in Your Own Backyard: Exploring the Meaning of Food Justice in Charlottesville

by Channing J. Mathews

As an avid patron of Black food and wine in the greater Charlottesville area, I am always on the hunt for a new spot to highlight and bring more visitors to our Black owned businesses. But last month’s adventure took me on a more deeply rooted journey grounded in the question: “What can food justice look like in Charlottesville?” 

This August, I had the privilege of joining youth participants of the “Charlottesville Food Justice Camp” to explore this very question. The 5-day camp offered Black and Brown high school students the chance to explore the meaning of food sovereignty. Combining historical knowledge with farming science and fun,  the program looked to engage the next generation of food activists. The camp was created by the Charlottesville Community Food Co-op, a group of volunteers hoping to start a community-owned grocery store that would be owned, operated, and governed by low-wealth residents. “We saw the camp  as a way to expose BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color] high school students to issues around food justice/food access by meeting farmers, chefs, activists, and artists of color working in these spaces.  ” notes Lisa Draine, camp organizer. “This involved teaching the youth how the country’s capitalist system, dominated by big corporations, determines how our food is grown, distributed, and sold.  We hoped that if young people learned about alternative models of meeting people’s needs, they would see the value of a grocery store that was collectively owned — and perhaps they would become ambassadors for it in their communities.”

Curious about their experiences, I joined the campers in their visit to the Black-owned Cattle Run Farm to learn about raising livestock. Our visit to Cattle Run Farm underscored the generational nature of farming practices, as co-owner and head of operations, Sarah Morton describes: “We are a third generation Black-owned, woman owned and Veteran-owned farm. And we are raising the 4th generation to do the same.” Sarah speaks highly of her young niece and nephew who have raised and sold livestock since the age of four. Sarah’s no nonsense attitude speaks to the discipline it takes to run a livestock farm using sustainable practices such as rotational grazing to maintain the viability of the land. 

The ongoing impact of the camp was clear as this year’s iteration of it was peer led by three campers from the previous year–Raelyn Trent, Zaneyah Bryant, and Zeniah Bryant–who stepped in to lead the camp when its previous leaders were unavailable to do so in the second year. As a result of their efforts, 16 youth visited eight different spaces within the week, including four farms and urban gardens. During these visits youth engaged in conversations with local BIPOC food activists to learn more about food justice and its historical roots, such as the ways in which enslaved Africans and Indigenous populations contributed to knowledge of the medicinal and healing properties of local plant life, and the ways that discrimination against farmers of color often bury their contributions to food cultivation. 

I had the opportunity to sit down with two of the campers, Charlottesville High School sophomores Jaikeira and Nakeira Washington, who also happen to be identical twins. 

Jaikeira Washington (Left) and Nakeira Washington (Right)

This was their second year of participation in the camp, and they both emphasized how their experiences changed the way they thought about systems of food access and insecurity. They voiced the critical need for greater access to healthy foods within low-income neighborhoods, which is often limited by 1.) long distances/limited transportation options between low income neighborhoods and healthy food options (often referred to as a food desert) and 2.) a lack of knowledge of how to cultivate your own food, even within your own backyard. “I just feel like in the Black and Brown community, we are not getting the healthiest choices. Grocery stores are not always in our neighborhoods or near our neighborhoods. It’s just not healthy options for us beyond what’s at the gas station,” Jaikeira notes. 

By participating in the camp, both girls emphasized how exposure to farms owned by farmers of color and cultivation of knowledge around organic, medicinal, and generational farming practices shifted their understanding of who could be a farmer. From trying and cooking healthy foods such as okra and fresh picked tomatoes, to extracting the healing properties of lemon balm, and plantago major, aka “the white man’s footprint”, youth learned from farmers who looked like them. “It’s really important to know that a farmer is not a white man in overalls. It can be anyone,” Jakeira pointedly states. “You can grow food in your backyard.” Nakeira discussed experience in terms of thinking critically about what she consumes “[The camp] kind of opened up our palate. We are trying new things that are healthy and taste good. [I learned] It’s so important to know what you’re eating. If you are gonna eat chicken from the grocery store, figure out what’s the [real] size of the chicken breast. Are they really that big, or are we just eating chemicals? It really made me think about, ‘What am I eating?’” 

Food Justice Camp participants take a cooking class with local chef, Paul Myers using fresh ingredients from September Sun Farm

Participants in the food justice camp cultivated a personal toolkit of skills and practices to reconnect with the land and share such knowledge with others, starting with family. “My biggest takeaway is that you want to be able to prepare for the next generation. It’s really important to know how to garden because these [camps] are not gonna be here forever. So it’s really important to go back to these roots and know your culture, who was here first and how did they survive and get to this point. It just really made me think about generations after me and how I want my kids to know how to reproduce things.” As Jaikiera notes, passing on such knowledge is critical to our voices, traditions, and cultural knowledge being preserved through oral histories, and reclaiming our contributions to culture within and beyond Charlottesville. The practice of linking food with history, access, and equity is a practice of returning to the roots of our collective work to build, strengthen and maintain our communities, often starting at our own dinner tables. 

For more information on local BIPOC Farm Spaces visited by Food Justice Campers:
Cultivate Charlottesville’s West Street urban garden with Aleen Carey and 
Amyrose Foll
Cattle Run Farm with Sarah Morton
September Sun Produce with Zakaria Kronemer and  Kendall King
Sankofa Community Orchard with Duron Chavis

Additional Activities:
Cooking class with Chef Paul Myers  at Plenty Cville
Art class with LaRissa Rogers at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative
Kayaking with the Rivanna River Company and the Rivanna Conservation Alliance

Sponsors of the Food Justice Camp:
The Bama Works Fund
The Hartfield Foundation
The Equity Center at UVA
The Rivanna Conservation Alliance
Ebenezer Baptist Church
Visible / Records
The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative


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