Meet Karen Washington, Urban Farming Leader
Karen Washington is a champion of the urban farm. Since starting her own garden in 1985, Karen has dedicated much of her time to founding and supporting community gardens across New York City and organizing the urban farm movement, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Working to bolster black leadership in farming and farming education, she also co-founded Black Urban Growers and School Farm NYC. Just last year, Karen received the James Beard Leadership award and was dubbed “Urban Farming’s Grande Dame” by the New York Times. Now, she and a group of other food and farm activists are working to start a new farm in Orange County New York. Their Indiegogo campaign to get Rise and Root farm under way is happening now.
What drew you to farming and why is it important?
My interest in growing food began in my backyard in 1985 with no prior experience I felt the urge to grow food, then in 1988 I started a community garden (The Garden of Happiness) as a way of beautifying my neighborhood, growing food and working in community. While growing food in NYC, I started to notice the type of food that was in my community, (which is a low income neighborhood) versus, more affluent neighborhoods. The quality of food was poor, and each block was home to a fast food restaurant. In order to buy fresh produce and meat, I had to travel outside my community. I realized then the importance of growing your own food and having land to do so. The power you have in deciding what to grow and why you grow it is part of what we now know as food sovereignty. Farming I believe has always been a part of me, its in my DNA; my ancestors were farmers, we were an agrarian people. Even as a little girl growing up in the projects I always had a yearning to farm.
I was a physical therapist for 37 years until I retired in 2014. Loved my job. Anytime you can help restore function in a person who is injured it makes you feel good.
How does urban farming tie into your background as a physical therapist? As a mom?
I was a physical therapist for 37 years until I retired in 2014. Loved my job. Anytime you can help restore function in a person who is injured it makes you feel good. But I took my job beyond just restoring function; I was concern about what my patients were eating, as well. I felt many of the diseases and illnesses my patients were diagnosed with were definitely diet related. Type 2 Diabetes, Hypertension, Heart Disease and Obesity were exacerbated by the food by they were eating. Many in their 70s and 80s grew up on farms and would tell me their family members lived well into their 90s and 100s without medication. Now they were eating more processed food and being treated with a host of medications. So many times I would bring them fresh vegetables from my farmer’s market and or garden. They would laugh when I told them I was an urban farmer, and tell me how hard farming was back home; however, when I began talking about how good and fresh the vegetables were, and how they got their meat right off the farm, they quickly agreed and sadly admitted a longing for that taste of homegrown farm fresh food.
As a mom, I made sure my children ate cooked meals everyday except once in a while on weekends. As a single parent and young mother, I can remember taking my children to fast food restaurants because they wanted the toy inside the Happy Meal or because it was a place to take a group of their friends. So I can’t judge a family that works hard all day and this is what they have to resort to because of the lack of healthy food options but more so because of convenience. However there is one thing I can say that I am proud of is that we always ate at the table. Something I feel is being lost in today’s society.
As a community gardener and activist I helped to create better options in my community. For instances, in the Garden of Happiness community garden, families are encouraged to grow healthier food for themselves. And the La Familia Verde farmer’s market — going strong for 13 years now — people have access to a variety of fresh vegetables every week during the growing season.
How can we bring more diversity and access to the food movement?
It starts with providing resources and access to land. Right now the majority of farmers are white male. In NY State alone there are 50,000 white farmers as compare to only 126 black farmers. The people in power, who control our food system, are mostly white and male. People with power, must realize that power must be shared. That the food movement must acknowledge there are still system in place that prevent people from obtaining land and or keeping the land that they own.
We are asking businesses and non-profit[s] to look at their staff and board of directors, asking… does it truly represent the people they serve. We must hold true that healthy food is a right for all and not a privilege for some.
My farm partner, Lorrie Clevenger, and I started Black Farmers and Urban Growers organization in 2009 in response to the lack of black leadership and voices in the food movement. We put on our first conference in Brooklyn in 2010; consumers, farmers and youth came from all over the country to attend. What we realized was that an important voice in the food movement was missing, and that voice was, people of color. We were able to shed light on our concerns and issues, which were at times either ignored or relegated as insignificant. We continue to bring to attention the need for a more diverse voice in the food system. We are asking businesses and non-profit organizations to look at their staff and board of directors, asking the question does it truly represent the people they serve; if not, be cognizant for the need to change. We must hold true that healthy food is a right for all and not a privilege for some.
What was the inspiration for starting Rise and Root Farm?
We run the gamut of farmers who have been discriminated against, we are women farmers, and some of us are LGBTQ farmers, and farmers of color. Many of us have been urban farmers for years, and wanted find a way to grow food on a larger scale. We all had experience working around food and social justice issues and felt compelled to honor our ancestors and other trailblazers who made it possible for us to now be farming. Rise & Root farm comes from our collective strength and vision as women who dare to dream the impossible; challenging the status quo by breaking down barriers. Not only do we want to grow food and feed people, but provide a nurturing place for folks to be themselves.
Who are your heroes in the food movement?
George Washington Carver is my personal hero, who I feel he does not get the credit he deserved as the father of agriculture. Other honorable mentions for me are: Will Allen, Malik Yakini, Dr. Monica White, LaDonna Redmond, Dr. Gail Myers, and Natasha Bowens who recently came out with her book ”The Color Of Food”.
Where do you envision the food movement in the next ten years?
If power is not share or shifted and only a few people control our food system then people who can no longer afford food or water will revolt. However, I see hope on the horizon, as many young people want to farm and or be part of the food movement. I have seen a social conscience being felt around food equity. Yet; it will only succeed if we are lead down a path of inclusion, diversity and globalization. We cannot look at the food movement in isolation or just being local.
The complexion of our people is changing as the population becomes more brown and global. So if in ten years you asked me “What will that power structure look like? Is it Power Shared or Power Held?” I hope for our sake it’s the former! Power Shared!