Well before the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States, food insecurity was a problem throughout the country. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11% of households were food insecure at some time during 2018. The spread of COVID-19 across the country has only highlighted the fragility of the food supply chain. For many, it's led to a renewed interest in people growing their own food and a push to rely less on larger industries for food.
But this conversation has been happening for years among Black, Indigenous and people-of-color farmers and food producers in the Pacific Northwest.
“Black Futures Farm is working to restore Black people to the land,” said Malcolm Shabazz Hoover.
As the co-founder and co-director of the Black Futures Farm, Hoover runs the community farm with his partner and wife Mirabai Collins and a staff of volunteers. Sitting on just over an acre of land in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood of Southeast Portland, the farm boasts everything from Kentucky pole beans to bok choy and squash to strawberries, along with flowers, medicinal and cooking herbs, and 17 different fruit trees.
The Black Futures Farm is part of a coalition of Black and African-identifying food producers that, along with educators, community builders and advocates, are working towards a goal of Black food sovereignty. The Black Food Sovereignty Coalition aims to provide healthy, culturally relevant food to people in the Black community through stewardship of the land and to deconstruct barriers to wealth through the creation of food.
“It’s not just ownership of land,” Hoover said, “but of being able to use the land and produce food to feed the people.”
“Black people have had horrendous experience with agriculture in America,” Hoover said. “A lot of our ancestors were brought here because of our expertise with the soil. Not just because we were hard workers, but because we lived abundantly in agricultural societies in West and Central Africa.”
During the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Hoover said, Black people were able to acquire land. But that quickly changed.
“We were systematically disinherited from that land,” he said, “cheated from ownership and red lined out of ownership.”
Both of Hoover’s parents grew up on farms, but even as the first generation not to live on a farm, he still remembers always being surrounded by things that were growing. His mother was a florist and landscape designer and always had plants growing both inside and outside of her home. Same with his father.
“My dad had hundreds of house plants,” Hoover said. “I was always surrounded as a child by growing plants and plant-life.”
Hoover also spent time with his grandmother, who had a huge garden. “All the grandchildren had their own little thing they got to water in the garden,” he said. “My [thing] was lettuce and strawberries.”
Three years ago, Hoover moved to Portland and was working at the Oregon Food Bank as the equity and diversity coordinator. On his breaks he would visit MudBone Grown, a community farm adjacent to the food bank, where he would chat with Shantae Johnson and Arthur Shavers.
“I would go out and talk to Art and Shantae,” Hoover said. “And they’re working and I’m talking and Art says, ‘Bro, we love talking to you, but this is hard work. If you’re going to be out here, you need to help.’”
They started with the basics, teaching Hoover how to weed around plants without destroying their root systems. Hoover said he had been anxious at work and would go to the farm to calm down; it felt therapeutic.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I don’t even want to go back in the building. I want to be doing this,’” he said.
Hoover ended up spending more and more time on the farm and even starting his own home garden. Eventually he took the Master Gardener course at Oregon State University, before helping found the Black Futures Farm. Now, Hoover said, "I'm pretty much farming full time in addition to my job at Impact Northwest."
The farm is run by a group of Black and African-identified people whose aim is to grow food using both ancestral practices and innovation and to provide for their communities.
As the coronavirus pandemic impacts BIPOC communities at a disproportionate rate, Hoover pointed to the racism and classism in the national food supply chain.
“If you're wealthy and you can buy, then you can get whatever you want, because money is still working.” Hoover said. “But if you're poor and you don't have access to resources or skills, then what are you gonna do? So we teach people to grow food.”
As a life-long activist and community developer, Hoover is buoyed by this new passion.
“Working in the soil has given me a sense of purpose that I haven't had since, maybe ever.” he said. “I don't think I've ever been this committed and it has ever been this clear for me about what has to be done.”
To hear the full OPB interview with Malcolm Shabazz Hoover, use the audio player at the top of this page.