The coronavirus pandemic has affected every facet of our daily lives. When it comes to our food system — the ways in which Americans produce, purchase and prepare their food — these issues are glaring, particularly for historically marginalized communities.
When we think about food systems, some may begin with restaurants and fast food, but food systems begin at the point of production with agriculture. Food doesn’t come from an ether. Food is planned, planted, maintained, harvested, processed, and distributed. And with over 300 million people in America, many of whom were struggling to feed themselves before COVID-19, we cannot divorce our food from the process used to gain it.
Approximately 84 percent of Americans live in urban areas, while farm and ranch families are less than 2 percent of the total population, with an even smaller percentage being farmers of color. As two individuals deeply connected to North Carolina food systems, one of our main partners has been the organization Communities in Partnership, whose work has sought to directly address food insecurity in Durham's black community during this time by providing food on a biweekly basis. While this has been helpful, this process has raised a serious question: If our demands for food are so high, why is our access to food so limited?
Like most people during this COVID-19 season, we have family members who have been desperate for something to do through the quarantine. Looking to be helpful, we offer to take them out to work with us on different farms in the area. Most opt out, while the few that come out often only last a few minutes before giving up on the work entirely. We hear the work described as tedious labor, something tiring. To some of our family members, it just seems like playing in the dirt and grass. It’s as if they don’t seem to recognize that their food comes from this tedious process. Or, if they do recognize it for what it is, they prefer for it to stay as far away from them as possible.
Because of the historical connection in the Americas between black people and agriculture, the relationship between the two is rife with abuse and trauma, so much so that a deliberate separation between the two often occurs. Continuing from the wound of enslavement, black Americans have regularly experienced trauma in relationship to agriculture, be it through sharecropping or mistreatment by the USDA. That there is the very stereotype of visiting one’s “country cousins” without realizing that only a few short generations ago the vast majority of black American families came from a rural, agriculturally based lifestyle is telling.
To be rural is often to be associated with poverty, and “farmer” is very rarely anyone’s go-to career choice of preference. Agriculture is seen as something akin to unskilled labor. The stereotype of the white redneck or ignorant country bumpkin abound in media and popular colloquialism. It wasn’t until very recently that the South was even recognized for the many cultural exports it provided the nation. As it stands, what has seemingly been produced is a combination of amnesia, apathy, and disdain towards rural communities. In return, this has produced a hostility toward urban communities on the part of rural people, with many rural communities choosing to insulate and remain openly cynical and suspicious of outsiders. Despite the hostility, there is a relationship nonetheless. Just as city kids are dependent on those rural farmers for food, so too are those farmers dependent on industrialized urban centers to buy their produce and supplement the farmer’s infrastructure.
The two communities are interlocked in a symbiotic relationship, both mechanically and culturally. For black Americans specifically, the historical relationship between our presence on this land and our work with this land is impossible to erase. All of us have rural roots. And, as COVID-19 has readily pointed out, it doesn’t take much to halt American infrastructure in a moment of panic. For communities and people already without ready access to healthy, affordable food, the quarantine we’ve lived through does not improve the situation but makes it that much worse. Likewise, for a people historically discouraged and disenfranchised from equitable land usage and capital improvement, the options available to address and survive through the situation at hand are that much fewer. While this doesn’t mean we must all become farmers, this does point out the very urgent need for reconciliation between the urban and the rural. We won’t survive otherwise.