Karen Washington

“I am a farmer, I grow food, I feed people body and mind,” Karen Washington said by way of introduction at the beginning of her Feb. 16 lecture. Washington, a board member of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and co-founder of the Black Urban Growers organization, spoke on Feb. 16 about the failure of the American food system, the importance of knowing where food comes from, and the intersections of food justice, racism and socioeconomic inequality.

“How many of you are farmers?” she asked the audience in the Red Pit. One person raised their hand.

“How many of you eat food?” she asked. Everyone raised their hand.

“I find it so disturbing that food is not being discussed in the presidential election,” Washington said, detailing the ways food intersects with health, housing, jobs and education, especially for low-income communities of color.

“I live in the Bronx, there are more fast food restaurants and bodegas than healthy food and hospitals,” she said, discussing the steady rise of diet related illnesses.

Washington criticized a food system, controlled by mega-corporations, that has traded quality for efficiency. “Has the land of milk and honey become the land of greed and money? A few control the food of many. What has happened to our food system?”

In the current food system, she said, children believe tomatoes are grown in supermarkets, and many people are forced to depend on soup kitchens and food banks. “We have lost our minds because we have lost our palates,” she said. “We only taste sugar and salt. But there is a movement of people who want to take back their food system. We already grow enough food, the question is how to get it to the people.”

Decrying the myth of the “food desert,” Washington said that low-income neighborhoods have plenty of food, but not healthy food, despite the fact that food distribution giant Hunts Point is located in the Bronx.

“We can’t focus on just the food, we have to go from the seed to the plate and fill in the dots along the way,” she said. Challenges include access to land in urban areas, gentrification, building rural and urban connections, and an aging farming population in which the average age is 57.9 years old, and 70-80 years old for urban farmers. Washington emphasized the importance of listening to the voices of those most affected by food inequality. “If we want to change the food system, we need to have boots on the ground. If we’re talking about food justice, look around and ask yourself who should be in the room? Who is missing from the room?”

Washington listed action steps: “the power of asking,” the power of sharing stories, “breaking bread and sharing a meal” to connect with people from different backgrounds from one’s own, sharing resources and empowering youth leadership. Concluding with what she called “marching orders,” Washington enumerated rights such as access to healthy and safe food and water and living wages and health care benefits for farmers and other food workers.

Showing beautiful pictures of community gardens, Washington said, “To grow food gives you power. You know how and why you grew it for you, and for your family.”

Washington's lecture was sponsored by the Days-Massolo Center.

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