In America, even the food system is biased, with poor communities of color struggling for fresh produce and other things many Americans take for granted.
“We have a food system that’s unhealthy and unjust,” said Fred Bahnson, director of the Food, Faith and Religious Leadership initiative at Wake Forest University.
The initiative sponsored last week’s “Food, Faith and Justice: A Common Calling,” a conference that centered around the role that faith communities can play in promoting health and access to healthy food.
“A gathering like this event today, focused on food, faith and justice is a way of bringing those things together to look at how communities of faith can create more redemptive ways of growing and sharing food,” Bahnson said of the conference, which attracted more than 150 attendees to Enterprise Conference and Banquet Center at Winston-Salem State University.
It is well known that communities of color lack fresh food markets, yet are overrun with stores that sell liquor, sugary treats and salty snacks. Around the nation, African Americans are addressing that problem in unique ways.
Detroit’s Malik Yakini and Haile Johnston of Philadelphia served as the keynote speakers for the Feb. 20 conference. As Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Community Fellows, the men travel around the nation to advocate for healthy food and farming systems, topics each of them know much about.
Yakini is the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a coalition of organizations and community members that was formed to help increase access to healthy food in the city’s African American neighborhoods. The Network’s seven-acre D-Town Farm features organic vegetables, mushrooms, bee hives, a composting operation and even hoop houses, which allow for year-round gardening. Yakini said his interest in food access began 13 years ago, when the charter school he helped to found launched an organic gardening effort. From the garden sprouted a food sustainability component in the school curriculum and later, an initiative where volunteers tilled and plowed land to help city residents plant gardens on their own land. Yakini founded the Food Security Network in 2006, along with 39 other partners.
He said community gardens and food sustainability efforts are increasing nationwide, thanks in part to First Lady Michelle Obama’s emphasis on gardening and healthy eating. Although their work is far from done, Yakini said last week that he was pleased with the collaborative’s progress.
“I think we’ve begun to impact people’s consciousness about foods. I think that’s been our most important contribution,” commented the father of three. “…We’ve been able to provide greater access to fresh food for the city of Detroit, but we’re still only scratching the surface. We’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do.”
Johnston serves as executive director of Common Market, a food distribution nonprofit that he co-founded in 2008 as a means of connecting farmers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware with wholesale customers. The organization’s clientele has grown to include hospitals, grocers, businesses and nearly 200 area schools. Johnston, who grew up in Massachusetts, said he was impressed by what he saw during the conference.
“You can see by the participation that there’s tremendous interest,” he said. “…It’s been very inspiring to see the faith community invested in this notion. It’s a strong first step toward real change.”
Though the church has always taken steps to feed the hungry, Bahnson wants the faith community to take a more sustainable and health-conscious approach to the issue.
“God doesn’t just want people’s souls; God wants to see all life flourish and be in a place of health,” he said. “…The way we eat has one of the biggest impacts on how people and land do flourish, and right now the way we eat does not, by in large, lead to the flourishing of land or people.”
Peace Haven Baptist Church Pastor Nathan Parrish agrees. His congregation is already addressing the local hunger problem through its sponsorship of a Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina backpack program for kids at Mineral Springs Elementary.
Parrish said his church is now looking to step-up and broaden its efforts through its new Health and Wholeness Ministry.
“I’m interested in the local foods component and about how we can partner and build relationships that not only support local farmers, but also provide access to healthier foods for the whole community,” the Zebulon native said.
In addition to the obvious benefits of increasing access to healthy foods for citizens of all income levels across the community, Parrish said he was hopeful the conference would help unite participants around a common goal.
“In a community like Winston-Salem, where we are so segregated and so divided along lines of race, economics and class … these types of initiatives have a way of healing our community on a deeper level,” said Parrish, who serves as vice chair of the Minister’s Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity. “If people will work together, maybe we will learn how to live together.”
Attendees at the free conference, which included a number of panel discussions, also included people simply interested in and excited about the idea of increasing access to healthy foods. Elisha Covington, 31, was among them. Covington, who works at a health food store, made the trek from Charlotte to attend. The mother of one said she believes the role of food in African American culture needs to change.
“I think food in the black community is destructive,” she commented, referencing the obesity epidemic that disproportionately affects the African Americans. “…As Brother Malik (Yakini) said, I think we’ve gotten kind of stuck in the habit of eating like slaves … and I think the faith-based organizations can help us move away from that.”
Though ending hunger and fresh food deserts in the U.S. is a massive undertaking, Bahnson said nothing is impossible for God.
“The line that keeps coming to mind is, ‘God will create a way where there is no way,’” he remarked. “Right now, the problems with the way we eat are huge and seemingly insurmountable, but God will create a way.”
For more information about the WFU Food and Faith Initiative, visit divinity.wfu.edu/food-and-faith/.