Farmer and Activist Karen Washington Talks Justice, Food and the Power of Community

By Bethany Ivie

July 28, 2020

A Black woman in a white t-shirt with long, blonde dreadlocks leans over a piece of farm equipment as she works on it.
Karen Washington on Rise and Root Farm. Photo via Rise and Root Farm.

Karen Washington is on a mission to get fresh, healthy food into the hands of those who can’t afford it. A native New Yorker and physical-therapist-turned-farmer, Washington has been preaching the benefits of urban gardens to her fellow city dwellers for decades. Today, Washington is one of the owners of Rise and Root Farm, a working farm founded with the goal of building a strong local food community centered on equity and justice. “We’re trying to provide people with as much fresh food as possible,” said Washington. “One thing we [Rising Root Farm] pride ourselves on is that everyone has a right to our food, no matter what. We never turn away anyone who is hungry.”

During her #HeiferTogether discussion with Heifer USA Director Perry Jones on July 24th, Washington discussed the future of food and the power of community in creating a new food system:

  • Though the pandemic has brought the issue of food security to a wider audience, it’s not a new issue for many New Yorkers in communities of color. “We’ve always had difficulty finding fresh, local produce,” Washington said. “We’re surrounded by fast food, junk food and processed food.”
  • Today, we have a unique opportunity to examine how we do things and how our food system operates. “We can’t go back,” Washington said. “This is a moment in time where racial and economic inequities are at the forefront. How do we move forward as a society to make sure that people understand that water and food are human rights for everyone?” 
  • To move forward, we have to ask ourselves hard questions and address some hard truths. “There’s been a hidden pass for some time when it comes to labor, how our food is harvested and the inhumane conditions of some of the farmworkers,” said Washington. In order to create a just and equitable food system, the people who grow, harvest and process our food must be paid a living wage, must be treated humanely and must have access to healthcare. “At the end of the day, let’s make sure we talk about the human aspect of food,” said Washington.
  • To change the food system, we also need to learn its history and have hard conversations about modern-day racism. “This food system was built on the backs of Indigenous people and Black people. Plain and simple,” Washington said. To create a more just system we need to understand how racism is still affecting Black growers and consumers today.
  • We must support Black, indigenous and farmers. “Looking at the 2017 census, in New York State, out of 57,000 farmers only 139 are Black,” Washington said. “The average income for white farmers is $47,000 a year. The average income of Black farmers is negative $906.” To make matters worse, there’s little to no money or resources helping Black farmers. To help fill this need, Washington is the co-founder of the Black Farmer Fund.
  • An activist and former community organizer, Karen Washington is keenly aware of the power of the collective. “One problem we had was an individualist mindset. Now, people are starting to come together,” Washington said. “If there is anything positive coming out of this pandemic it is how communities are coming together, and I think food is at the forefront. At the end of the day … what brings us together is food, and that’s what you’re seeing now.”

The conversation with Karen Washington is a part of a speaker series, #HeiferTogether, which is about the state of farmers around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the live, 20-minute virtual conversations, Pierre Ferrari and other hosts talk to experts about the present and future of our global food and farming systems, small farming in the United States, tech in agriculture, farming as it relates to the environment, and more.

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The next webinar will be a conversation with Leah Penniman, author, activist, and founder of Soul Fire Farm, on Wednesday, July 29th. Register here!