CHOP planted the seeds. 2 years later, the food equity movement in Seattle is reaping the benefits

In early June 2020, the seeds of Capitol Hill Organized Protest’s community garden were planted on the eve of Seattle’s soon-to-be-famous autonomous zone — the police-free zone in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that stemmed from the protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

CHOP started out as a community-run space free from authorities where discourse could be exchanged over issues impacting the city’s communities of color, but ultimately led to tragedy when four shootings (two fatal) occurred within its boundaries in a span of nine days.

But before CHOP became a subject of national controversy, food inequity, an issue which often falls across racial divisions, was one of the topics it brought much-needed attention to. In the last few years, the extremity of racialized food inequity has garnered more widespread attention and more concerted responses that strive toward food sovereignty — the rights of people to healthful and culturally appropriate food — one community garden at a time.

Some of those efforts began or were inspired by community food ideas spawned at CHOP, while others already in existence gained traction as the need for food equity was amplified by the 2020 movement.

Scattered throughout the streets of CHOP were makeshift community pantries stocked with free groceries and tables where community members served hot, homemade meals from slow cookers.

At the onset of CHOP, guerrilla gardener Marcus Henderson planted the first seeds of a garden in Cal Anderson Park — the Black Lives Matter Garden. Soon, community members and CHOP participants alike came together to contribute and plant a more lasting answer to food sovereignty in Seattle.

Although CHOP has long been dismantled and largely the neighborhood of Capitol Hill has retreated back to its pre-CHOP identity, one entity remains: the community garden, which has paved the way for a larger farming and gardening revolution in the city of Seattle.

Nearly two years on, these seeds have sprouted into much more than just a city garden. Directly from the garden, Black Star Farmers has emerged under the leadership of Henderson. By growing high-quality produce, plants and traditional medicines on multiple urban farms across Seattle, according to its website, BSF “reclaims Black and Indigenous relationships with the land, improving BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities’ food sovereignty, and guides difficult discussions about racial inequality.”

Black Star Farmers is only one element of a much larger Black and Indigenous-run sustainable food movement, including community farms, food businesses and education programs, that is flourishing in traditionally marginalized neighborhoods around Greater Seattle.

Seattle urban farms and community gardens

Community gardens and farms seek to fill a much-needed gap in food access among marginalized communities. By turning unused land into gardens, food gaps can be minimized. Food insecurity has a tendency to rise as a result of gentrification and, according to research conducted by the University of Washington, Seattle is no exception as the third most quickly gentrifying city in the United States. In 2019, food insecurity in Seattle was at 11% citywide and 15% in South Seattle. Black and Hispanic households were twice as likely to experience food insecurity than white households, with rates between 26.6 and 32.4% from 2018-20, according to data from Public Health – Seattle & King County.

With rates hovering around 26.5%, Southeast Seattle households have particularly high food insecurity rates. Some South Seattle neighborhoods lack access to supermarkets and are often called “food deserts,” a term that Karen Washington, a seasoned food justice advocate and co-founder of Black Urban Growers — a New York City-based organization that advocates for and growers in urban and rural settings — opposes. In an interview with The Guardian, she asserted that “desert” conjures images of barren places, rather than capturing the systematic and intentional denial of food access to people living in lower income communities. “Food apartheid,” she said more appropriately captures these root issues.

The food justice movements that emerged during CHOP were not the first of their kind. However, the controversial space amplified the persisting issue and the need for a complete rework of conquering food inequity. CHOP shone a light on the pertinent work that already existing organizations were doing and as a result, individual responses to food inequity began to converge into more cohesive entities, such as Black Star Farmers.

Food banks and traditional assistance programs like community boxes are outdated and often lack context, not taking into consideration cultural, religious, nutritional and other needs unmet by industrially produced foods, said Daniel Horst, African Community Housing & Development farmers market and food access manager.

ACHDO was founded in late 2018 with the goal of providing immediate needs to South Seattle’s African diaspora community, and its founders are deeply rooted in the community. ACHDO advocates for more nuanced approaches, such as the establishment of farmers markets that support small-business owners of color, while also providing access to healthful, culturally relevant food to communities.

At ACHDO’s South Delridge Farmers Market, held two Saturdays a month from May to October, members of the South Delridge neighborhood sell everything from locally grown vegetables and African textiles and beadwork, to Haitian pickles and Senegambian cuisine. The market supports food and agricultural entrepreneurs of color by providing infrastructure and technical support to build their capacity to sell at farmers markets.

In an effort to eliminate food waste and support both vendors and the community, ACHDO purchases leftover produce at the end of the market day and gives it to members of the African diaspora immigrant and refugee community who are unable to attend the market due to barriers related to mobility or transportation.

In 2021, Delridge Farmers Market was born from a youth-led community cafe, organized by Bilan Aden, associate director of ACHDO, at Hope Academy in Southwest Seattle, alongside food-justice workshops.

Community members shared that they wanted to see an affordable market that reflected their culture, Aden said. ACHD allows people to self-select food items, providing a dignified shopping experience.

In the more traditional urban farming sector sits Black Farmers Collective, which has been in action for six years and farming for three years. Starting out as a small space called Yes Farm — a small urban farm planted on Yesler Way — Black Farmers Collective has now expanded to include more acreage along the Sammamish River between Redmond and Woodinville. Their goal is to remove “barriers to production and access to healthy food for young Black communities,” noted Ray Williams, co-founder and director of Black Farmers Collective and former educator in health and nutrition.

According to Williams, Black Farmers Collective explores questions like, “how do we grow food and create a welcoming space for people?” And, “how do we get more Black and Indigenous people involved in food and health?,” which shapes their work. Beyond initiating urban farms and providing healthful food to vulnerable communities, Black Farmers Collective raises awareness about how to cook fresh food in a healthful way, and the many benefits of spending time outside in nature. Williams hopes that BIPOC community members can “experience the joy of being on the land.”

Cultural barriers to food sovereignty dating back generations exist as well.

“Blacks are taught that they were all enslaved on the farm so the last thing they wanted to do would be working on a farm. There is also a history of feeling unwelcome in rural communities and restrictions on where Blacks could live, farm, and sell food,” said Williams. “We strive to raise awareness around the fact that there is a strong history in the food systems for African Americans, being the original growers of food that sustained the country.”

Looking toward the future

The growth of community-run gardens and farms in urban spaces are small but monumental markers of progress toward addressing food inequity in Seattle, which CHOP was a small piece of. However, food challenges are growing. Inflation and high unemployment rates are exacerbated in the aftermath of the pandemic, during which food insecurity rates more than doubled, according to research by the University of Washington.

ACDHO’s Horst and Aden believe that there needs to be a complete overhaul of existing farming and food policies in order for more deep-rooted change to take effect. To start, they wish to see policy changes around food provision that lift limits to allow more culturally appropriate, fresh food options to be available.

“Allocation of funding from state agencies is quite limiting and generally reducing or eliminating the possibility for very small, community-based organizations, which include nine or 10 Black or brown run organizations,” said Horst.

Their loftier goals include changes to land ownership. Current policies, they said, reduce representation of Black landowners in the United States, despite the disproportionate number of individuals of color working on the land.

“There is vast historical data that shows the redlining and predatory lending practices that dramatically reduce the representation of Black farmers and Black landowners in this country,” noted Horst.

Land access is another significant barrier to achieving food sovereignty, due to cost or buying of public land by large corporations. “Land is a major issue and removing that barrier is coming a notable hurdle,” Williams said.

By obtaining land to use for community farms, Williams dreams of encouraging more and more youth of color to become involved with growing food, a simple opportunity which he sees as being a radical change for the future.

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