SLOANSVILLE, NY — On a warm August morning in this hamlet in upstate New York, Ashanti Williams and Arian Rivera are breaking ground on a new vegetable plot on their 95-acre farm. Winter is coming, and they need to plant cover crops to prepare the land for new growth next spring.
Williams, 32, and Rivera, 39, owners and operators of the Black Yard Farm Cooperative, grow produce that’s culturally relevant to the neighborhoods they came from in Harlem and the Bronx. That means crops like lima beans, collard greens, callaloo, hot peppers, and different rice varieties. “Food is medicine,” says Williams. And in their communities, two historically underserved areas of New York City with large populations of color, people need the food “that actually helps you heal and grow, as opposed to things that are going to make you sick.”
Their mission—to supply fresh food to people of color and encourage Black farming, food sovereignty, and land ownership—grew out of their personal experiences of food injustice. When they were living in both Harlem and the Bronx, good produce was scarce, and fast food was everywhere. Such bleak foodscapes have allowed for obesity and its related illnesses, like blood pressure, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes, to thrive. In the Bronx, obesity affects nearly 32 percent of the population; in gentrifying Harlem, it affects between 21 percent and 31 percent of adults. The disease pattern holds across the country. Among Black, non-Hispanic Americans over age 20, obesity affects nearly 39 percent of men and 56 percent of women.
Against that backdrop, the Black Yard Farm works closely with the Corbin Hill Food Project, an organization that buys fresh produce from farms in the Northeast and distributes it through low-cost shares in low-income areas of New York City, offering flexible payment and signup schedules to accommodate residents’ needs. New School University professor Dennis Derryck and a group of largely Black and brown co-founders started the organization in 2009 after realizing that the major cause of death in Harlem and the Bronx “really came down to food,” explains Derryck. “Just poor quality of food. It was a health problem.”
To source and distribute its produce, Corbin Hill works with farming hubs, aggregators, and packagers that center the wealth-building of low-income communities and people of color. The goal, explains Derryck, is to not only provide these people with fresh food but also establish food sovereignty, “where communities own the decisions, decide what they get, and share in the wealth.”
Lack of access to healthy, affordable food is just one of a vast web of factors driving obesity and related health issues in Black communities. But it’s one where farmers like Williams and Rivera, and the activists and educators who support them, are striving to make an impact. Simply supplying fresh fruits and vegetables, however, is just the first step. Ultimately, all of their efforts are geared toward freeing their communities from the food system that makes them vulnerable in the first place.
When Rivera arrived in Harlem in 2007 by way of Philadelphia, he immediately noticed the poor produce—wilted vegetables, spoiled food—in local grocery stores. “I was having trouble finding good food for my kids,” he says. This food injustice moved him to quit his office job at Columbia University, enroll in a two-year farming program, and work at various farms before co-founding Black Yard. Since its launch in October 2020, Black Yard has operated exclusively through fundraising—so far, they’ve raised over $41,000—and the personal savings of Rivera and Williams.
Williams, a Bronx native, experienced the lack of grocery stores and poor-quality produce in the neighborhood firsthand. But her family, with a history of farming in the South, set up local community gardens to offset this dearth. Growing up, she learned urban farming, set up youth farmer’s markets, and eventually raised chickens. “The access to fresh fruits and vegetables is very limited,” she says, “so a big part of my childhood was having that pointed out.”
Food sovereignty is a concept that, as Black farmer and author Leah Penniman once explained, suggests that “If you can feed yourself, you can free yourself.” The best way to overcome an unjust food system, in other words, is to take control of it, replacing the corporate, capitalist model with one that is community-oriented. Doing so doesn’t just mean better food access. It also blunts the impact of predatory marketing and the chronic stress of living with structural racism.
“It's as much about economic development and empowerment as it is about public health,” says Craig Willingham, deputy director of CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute. “A lot of the energy around this movement is about setting a precedent for who's growing the food, what communities they serve, and the market that dynamic can create.”
In low-income areas, groceries that sell fresh, affordable produce tend to be scarce. The term “food desert” is often used to describe these neighborhoods, but food policy researchers prefer “grocery gap.” There’s plenty of food in these areas; the problem is that most of it is unhealthy. Across the country, fast-food chains have proliferated in minority neighborhoods. Along with a disproportionate number of convenience stores, bodegas, and dollar stores, they offer overworked, low-income people tantalizingly affordable and convenient food options at a steep health cost, contributing to rising obesity. But researchers say obesity is a complex disease involving behavior, physiology, genetics, and cultural factors. Supplying healthy food to people is important, but it’s not going to decrease obesity rates overnight.
“One reason why people store adipose tissue is chronic stress, which can be associated with issues such as racism,” says Harvard obesity medicine physician Fatima Stanford. “Racism is chronic: It's not usually something that happens to a Black person once and then it's done. It’s a lifetime thing.” Stanford and other researchers have shown that high obesity rates among Black people are a consequence of systemic racism, which includes, among a multitude of experiences, poor access to health care, inequitable housing policies, discrimination at work and in public, and harassment by the police.
Still, for people with low access to healthy, affordable food, distributors and growers like Corbin Hill and the Black Yard Farm can be a lifeline. To achieve food sovereignty, more people of color need to participate in the food system, whether through distribution, land ownership, or farming itself. Farm School NYC, an organization that offers urban agriculture training, teaches students not only to grow food but also to do so in a way that uplifts Black and brown communities.
Opened in 2011, the school grew out of a collective of urban farmers and food activists in New York City who wanted to put their community’s wealth of agricultural knowledge—many of them grew up on farms—to good use. Today it teaches up to 25 courses per year (including “Growing Soils,” “Crop Management,” and “Food Justice”), and most of the students are people of color, says Onika Abraham, the school’s director.
All courses are taught from the perspective of using farming to “build power in the communities that are most impacted by health and wealth disparities,” she says. Rivera was among the first batch of farmers to graduate from Farm School NYC.
But simply teaching people how to grow food, Abraham points out, is not enough. “It’s not going to change access to land or land tenure, and the convoluted reasons why there’s such a dramatic Black land loss for agriculturalists in this country,” she says. Land ownership by Black farmers peaked in the 1910s, when they owned 16 million acres; today, they own fewer than 4.6 million acres. Only about 1 percent of farmers in the United States are Black, and most, lacking the capital and generational wealth to buy property, must farm on leased land.
That’s why, over a decade ago, Derryck and six business partners bought 95 acres of land—the land Williams and Rivera are now cultivating—on behalf of Corbin Hill, using money they had raised privately. “What we agreed to from the very first was that this farm was going to be owned by the community,” he says. Now, they’re in the process of turning over ownership of the land to Black Yard Farm, says Derryck. “This is something that will be permanent.”
Rivera and Williams are, for their part, planning to construct more buildings on the property and convert their barn into animal paddocks for overwintering. Though it's only their first year on the Corbin Hill property, they've already erected a greenhouse and brought a handful of goats and sheep to the farm. There's even talk of getting a guard llama.
And they’re already thinking long-term about educational programming and directly supplying the markets in their communities back in the city. “It’s better that we be out here and represented than continuing to defer to white America, and them feeling bad for the Black and brown folks, writing grants and proposals to feed us,” says Rivera. “We need to feed ourselves.”
This series is supported by Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. VICE News retains complete editorial autonomy.