New York Org is Dedicated to Ending Food Apartheid

Less than two percent of all farmers are black in the United States.

Soul Fire Farm exists to see that percentage increase and the racial injustices that run rampant through the food and agricultural systems disappear.

Located in Grafton, NY, Soul Fire Farm began in 2010 under Leah Penniman, co-director and farm manager, and Jonah Vitale-Wolff, co-director and operations manager.

“We are an Afro-indigenous-centric community farm,” said Cheryl Whilby, administrative program manager at Soul Fire Farm. “We are all about working to uproot racism within our food system.”

Team at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY
Team at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY

The need for farm-fresh fruits and vegetables in South Albany was the inspiration for Soul Fire Farm to begin doorstep delivery over a decade ago. When the neighbors of Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff discovered that they could farm, they asked the two if they would start a farm for those in that community to provide access to farm-fresh produce.

Soul Fire Farm still mainly operates to provide this doorstep delivery service to those affected by food apartheid in the low-income areas of the capital region. The food delivered includes fresh fruits and vegetables — and occasionally even chicken and eggs if they’re available.

“[The communities] are often communities of color, living under food apartheid” where there’s little access to fresh fruits and vegetables and where community members likely live “more than a mile away from their nearest grocery store,” Whilby said.

Youth at Soul Fire Farm
Youth at Soul Fire Farm

Soul Fire Farm calls this “food apartheid” instead of a “food desert”- the traditional terminology — because the latter suggests that the issue is naturally occurring rather than human-made.

The initially saddening fact that this major flaw in our food system was human-made is lightened by the fact that it can be fixed because it was human-made.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Soul Fire Farm to close its in-person educational sessions, the team at Soul Fire can bring the farm to the community through their keynote speaking engagements across the country and community outreach programs.

“We want to influence policy,” Whilby said. “We want to own our own farmland and be able to manage our own businesses. So, we’re offering these training programs for our community members so that this change that we’re looking for in our food system can happen and we can be a part of it.”

Soul Fire Farm is working towards its goal by educating the BIPOC — black, indigenous, or person of color — community through their farming programs. The programs focus on enabling the BIPOC communities to have a say in the food system by teaching farming practices and how to become food justice leaders.

Two women learning how to farm
Soul Fire Farm educational session

“The food system, it was built around land theft and genocide of indigenous people and exploitation of black and brown labor,” Whilby said. “A lot of people just don’t realize the connection between racism and food so the first step is educating folks about what that is — why we continue to say there is racism in the food system.”

The team at Soul Fire Farm has seen an increased desire from the community to get involved in their activism and programs. Since the in-person programs were moved to online sessions, the audience has been able to expand. Whilby went in-depth on the training and activities that they offer:

Organizations are coming to us to do our ‘Uprooting Racism’ training where we’re really giving folks tangible steps to work towards uprooting racism within their institutions, their communities, and just recognizing when oppression is occurring in their workspace. It’s not always obvious to people, so going through those different steps of what oppression looks like and how it might be impacting your workers who might be black, indigenous, person of color is just really important to establish that initial foundation to be able to have these conversations that bring about change.

Soul Fire Farm has been able to widen its educational tools because of the online sessions that it is offering.

“It has also allowed us to reach a wider audience and make our program more accessible,” Whilby said of the online learning. “So some of the online programming we’ve been doing include our 3D virtual series which is kind of an extension of the immersion [in-person] program.”

These online sessions last about one hour. They teach farming practices such as pasture-rate poultry, beekeeping, herbal medicine, and other farming techniques so BIPOC communities can grow and provide for themselves, especially during a pandemic where food insecurity is possible.

Teen helpers at Soul Fire Farm
Teen helpers at Soul Fire Farm

Soul Fire Farm has also been connecting with the Troy and Albany areas to build gardens for individuals and communities. Team members and volunteers alike helped build approximately 40 gardens in the Troy and Albany areas, as opposed to the ten gardens that they had initially set out to build.

“People were a bit nervous about what the food supply chain might look like,” said Whilby. “They wanted to be able to have the tools and resources to grow their own food if anything ever happened and it was harder to have access to food.”

Soul Fire Farm provides the community with the tools, resources, and information to ensure that their crops can grow and will last.

The Farm also plans to ramp up its efforts next year and into the future.

It is hoping to build more housing units on its land so student-farmers can stay on-site and get instructed even when the weather grows cold. The goal is to see the less-than-two-percent number of black-owned farms increase through these initiatives.

The Soul Fire team is also looking forward to the community days where volunteers come to help prepare the farm for the season or help harvest crops once the season begins.

“It’s also just a healing phase for our community members,” Whilby said. “Folks are living in urban environments with limited access to being out in nature and that’s really important for our people to have.”

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This story is a product of GrowthFest, LLC. GrowthFest is a media company that focuses on the success of business in the Capital Region of New York.

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Samantha Hart

Samantha Hart

Content creator, writer, and marketer. Editor at GrowthFest.