Leah Penniman started Soul Fire Farm, a New York–based, Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm committed to uprooting racism in the food system, out of both passion and necessity. Workers and volunteers at Soul Fire Farm harvest and produce fruits, plant medicine, pasture-raised livestock, honey, mushrooms, vegetables, and preserves for community provisioning, with the majority of the harvest provided to people living under food apartheid or impacted by state violence. The farm’s food sovereignty programs, wherein the people growing and producing the food also control the food’s means of distribution, reach over 10,000 people each year, including farmer training for Black and brown growers, reparations and land return initiatives for farmers in the Northeast, food justice workshops for urban youth, and home gardens for city-dwellers living under food apartheid.
At Soul Fire Farm, Penniman has rejected the scarcity mindset that is forced onto so many in the United States by living under capitalism, and has instead tapped into a mentality of abundance modeled by the Earth itself. Despite climate change, which continues to deplete the Earth of much of its resources, the natural world provides food, water, fresh air, and shelter to billions of people every day. Many farmers and environmental activists believe that the lessons the planet teaches us—such as how to create and nurture life, how to organize systems that are prepared for disaster, and how to remain committed to abundance even in times of scarcity—are some of the most important lessons we must learn in order to not only combat climate change, but to organize against capitalism more generally.
In a recent interview in honor of Earth Day, VICE spoke to Penniman about farming, food sovereignty, and abundance—and what people who aren’t farmers can do to expand access to nutritious food.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Soul Fire Farm provides food to the larger South End community in New York. Why did you think it was important to provide food to your neighbors?
LEAH PENNIMAN: When we first moved into the area in 2005, it was a struggle for us to get fresh food for our young children because of the scarcity of farmers’ markets and supermarkets. While attending a community potluck at a corner lot called "Freedom Park" that we had helped establish from a former dumping ground, we built a cob bread oven and cooked so that people could gather and eat. A few neighbors brought up the idea of a community farm there and asked if we could provide fresh vegetables and eggs. This was where the idea for Soul Fire Farm came about. We started with 20 families and have served 110 families at our maximum.
I think it’s important to honor that direct request from our community, but moreover, my hope is that every business owner and every community member would look at what assets, influence, and resources they have, and think about ways to share in that abundance with community members. It’s incumbent on all of us to do our part to address some of the systemic disparities of access to fresh food and other necessities of life.
How can we cultivate traditions grounded in abundance, such as growing and providing food for our neighbors, in the face of a scarcity mindset under capitalism?
I love that you asked the question in the context of capitalism, because I do think we need to question capitalism itself. Clearly, there is not a scarcity of wealth under capitalism—it’s just a concentration of wealth. Capitalism has skewed our ideas of abundance and scarcity and we need to be more aggressive in terms of addressing these issues on a systemic level. We need to call for reparations, which is the return of what’s been stolen from Black and brown people. We need to call for a wealth cap and a wealth tax to make sure that there’s only so rich that folks can get before resources are distributed. If individuals want to get involved in this work, I would recommend that folks check out the reparations map, which lists Black- and brown-led land-based projects that need support.
Even for those of us who don’t have a lot, there are always ways we can share and pitch in. For some people, it might be their time, through volunteering; it might be their influence, through social media platforms; it might be the foods that they grow, or other in-kind services. Doing an inventory of what we have and thinking about what we can share in a way that’s not a detriment to ourselves or our families is a good exercise. People around the world for all time have engaged in practices of generosity when they had much less than we do now.
Beyond growing and providing food, what work do you believe people must engage in to combat the systemic racism that keeps so many people of color malnourished or underfed?
Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by hunger and by diet-related illnesses like kidney failure and heart disease. The biggest reason for that is the system of food apartheid we have in this country, where your zip code is the leading determinant of your life expectancy, and it is highly correlated to race. This is why the wealth gap right now is high and ever-rising, which leads to all of these other injustices such as food insecurity.
We’re not looking at simple tweaks here—we need to reshape our entire economic system. We need to look at housing equality, redistribution of wealth, and an equitable investment in all different neighborhoods so that education and food and other resources are available for everyone.
How can people engage in that process if farming isn’t an option for them?
Find the people of color–led projects that are working on these projects in your area and volunteer with them. If there aren’t any organizations in your area, you can connect with national or global organizations, like The Sunrise Movement. The people most impacted by these issues are the experts on solutions, but are often overlooked or underfunded. So it’s always good to check first if impacted communities need support in your area.
Given that scarcity and a lack of access to fresh and nutritious foods is an enormous issue for many, how can people with a lack of resources and time involve themselves in the redistribution of nutritious and fresh foods?
Due to the pandemic, there were a lot of very powerful mutual aid networks that were established. Rise Up Kingston is one near us where there was everything from folks building gardens for one another to dropping off groceries for elders who didn’t feel safe leaving their homes. These beautiful mutual aid networks popped up in many cities and towns, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find out what’s going on locally and engage that way.
Are there any lessons you learned through farming that you think can be applied to the larger sustainability and environmental justice movements?
Farming has taught me the soil, the plants, and the spirit all work together in a symbiotic collaboration. We can engage in that sacred bio-memory in our own movement spaces, and it will make us much more effective.
Follow Mary Retta on Twitter.