GRAFTON, N.Y. (NEWS10) — When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, and meat, dairy and eggs quickly disappeared from store shelves, it quickly became apparent how important farm workers are in our area. A few weeks later, the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized and sparked protests across the nation, including in the Capital Region.
A local farm found itself crucial in the conversation. Located in Grafton, Soul Fire Farm found itself at the crossroads of these two issues.
NEWS10 ABC visited on a crisp September morning as the sun shined through the corn stalks, and that’s where we found the founder of the farm, Leah Penniman, connecting with the land and doing what she loves most.
“Getting to feed the community and take care of the earth at the same time,” she said as she went through her harvest from the morning.
It’s a passion that became paramount earlier in the year, as the pandemic hit.
“Farms are essential workers, right? So we’ve been busier than ever,” she explained. “We’ve definitely noticed the demand for low cost, affordable food is up because people are really struggling with their food security and their access.”
With all hands on deck, Penniman and her team were busy harvesting, bundling and packing up produce.
“We do door stop delivery to people who are survivors of food apartheid in Albany and Troy. Additionally, we bring boxes of food to refugee center, churches,” Penniman added.
For the past decade, Soul Fire Farm has been doing more than just growing vegetables. It has grown into a movement to cultivate a better future for underserved black communities.
“Many of the people who receive food and gardens are the people impacted by anti-black racism and also engaged in the movement for black lives,” Penniman said.
“This farm has helped ground me and helped me think of what is important; different ways to make things happen,” said Kiani Conley-Wilson, the Assistant Program Manager at the farm.
Spreading seeds and a message, Conley-Wilson spearheaded Soul Fire in the City, helping to build more than 40 garden beds throughout Albany and Troy.
“Instead of relying on someone else to grow food, we can rely on ourselves. Being able to pull up, go in your back yard and pick something is really empowering,” she described.
A movement for food justice, that’s made its way into Abigail Gomes backyard, just outside of Albany.
“We have kale, this huge tomato plant,” Gomes pointed out.
All confined within her 8X9 raised garden bed.
“When we talk about the health issues, food is medicine. What better way to have access to medicine than to grow it yourself,” Gomes pondered.
When it comes to black lives, people in low income neighborhoods disproportionately lack access to fresh produce. They are also more likely to suffer from diet-related illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
“The food is there, but when you go to the stores that are there, it’s not good options. The healthier options are further away than they are able to get to,” Gomes explained.
“We see the issues of food, policing, education, and housing as all integrated. We’re not going to have a racially just, equitable and fair society if we act in isolation. So we need to pay attention to the systemic reasons folks don’t have enough to eat,” Penniman said.
Part of that solution is to grow more food within our cities. Gomes teamed up with Conley-Wilson and Soul Fire in the City to build her garden bed. When asked about her experience in gardening, she said, “I did not garden; it was not my thing.”
Soul Fire provided the materials and guidance, and Gomes and her family did the rest.
“Having this here actually gave me some really good relief during this COVID situation,” Gomes recollected. “Every morning, I come outside and I come here. It’s a part of my routine. I start picking away and pruning. This has brought some solace to me. I love the fact they created something that connects the community.”
It’s ground work she hopes to lay with the students she works with at Sheridan Prep, in Albany’s West Hill neighborhood.
“I’ve been getting the wheels churning figuring out how I can translate this program. My job is to find a way to bring these opportunities to them in a way that does not hurt or harm them financially or economically,” she explained.
Especially after a particularly violent summer in the city.
Gomes said, “The families are hopeful. Even though they are aware of reality, they want more, they want to do better.”
Sowing seeds of hope to get beyond the violence.
“There is a connection that begins to grow between the child and their community. They start to see themselves as a part of their community and as a contributing member of their community and they want to take more care of it,” Gomes explained.
A connection to the land is what led Penniman, Conley-Wilson and the team at Soul Fire to explore the root of these problems through food and farming while black.
Soul Fire Farm has been overwhelmed with thousands of inquires from all over the country from people who want to help with their mission. If you’d like to learn more, you can visit https://www.soulfirefarm.org/
Gomes’s garden was such a success this year, she plans to add on another bed next summer to grow more fresh produce in her backyard.
If you’d like to learn more about the disparities in health in black communities visit, https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aahealth/index.html.