Urban Food Resilience and Community Healing
by Callie Janoff
Brooklyn is on an island. When inevitable climate disruption happens, we are at risk of losing access to the millions of tons of food that we import to our corner of New York City every day. That threat is real, but also abstract for us in the relative comfort of our quickly gentrifying neighborhood. Expensive “natural” markets are popping up, and old bodegas are getting face-lifts and restocking with organic processed foods.
Our neighbors who have lived here for 20-50 years—many older Afro-Caribbean folks—are either cashing out if they own their homes, or getting priced out if they don’t. We often feel like helpless perpetrators of social crimes. It can feel like a lose/lose proposition.
My husband, Randy, is a gardener. It is his genetic pre-disposition. When he first saw our weed-choked back yard he saw soil, and soil means food. Over the last twelve years he has developed an oasis of hardy kiwis, passion fruit, raspberries, and countless medicinal plants and herbs. When the tomatoes wouldn’t thrive in our shady north facing patch, he moved to the roof, turning the tar beach into a miniature desert farm with modified hydroponic containers that bear not only tomatoes but peppers, beans, peas, squash, melons, cucumbers, and eggplants. Even the front yard’s rosehips and redbud blossoms are harvested for eating in our kitchen.
Even with this bounty, our gardens are effectively a hobby. For the bulk of our food we turn to a local upstate farmer who partners with a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) cooperative. Our particular CSA also partners with a food justice not-for-profit located in New York City, so that the CSA can offer affordable sliding scale prices to our neighbors in every economic circumstance.
Two years ago this not-for-profit partner reorganized its mission. It threatened to pull funding and staff resources from our little endeavor. Members of the CSA came together to form a core group of volunteers to take the reins. Randy and I had become quite attached to this source of food for our home, and for our neighbors, and stepped in to try to help. We joined this core group of volunteers to help run the distribution—the point of contact between the farmer and our urban community. We quickly learned there was much work to be done. But hurrah! The not-for-profit agreed to continue its subsidy in part because of our demonstrated commitment.
Even with this continued support, we now needed to transition from a group that was organized by an employee into a group that was organized by a core group of volunteers. The one thing we have in common is our commitment to the CSA. Other than that we are as diverse as our neighborhood. These last two years have been a real struggle for this CSA core group, but one that mirrors the struggle of our community. How do we make a home together when our race and class differences pit us against one another in an urban capitalist zero-sum game? Could we model a strategy for feeding ourselves on the premise that each of us contributes what we can and we all succeed?
Our little experiment quickly hit our primary obstacle: interpersonal conflict. One member would feel impatient with another’s way of doing something. Another mistook constructive feedback for personal attacks and became defensive. Another would become exasperated when they felt another was failing to act with cultural competency. Emails were misinterpreted, people felt hurt, disrespected, discouraged, and angry, and we all wanted to avoid dealing with the emotional fall out of our conflict.
All this came to a head over this last summer, just as I was coming to the Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering for the first time. I had signed up for the weeklong conflict transformation workshop, facilitated by members of NYYM’s own Committee on Conflict Transformation. Over the course of the week among Friends I was able to connect the dots between climate crises, cultivating local resiliency, my capacity to tolerate and even meaningfully engage conflict, and my own grounding Quaker practice.
In Pamela Boyce Simms’ plenary message I heard a distinct call. Climate change and climate disruption threatens our life on earth, our very capacity to keep one another fed and safe. Though we may not have a way to reverse this, we can survive. That survival will depend on our local foodshed and our capacity to grow food close to where we live, like we do in our urban hobby farm. But even more critical will be our capacity to work together in groups like our CSA core group.
Growing my capacity to help transform the conflict of our group is an unambiguous step I can take toward healing for my community split by gentrification. This is only possible when I can listen deeply, the way I do when I am with you, my Quaker community.