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Karen Washington, Urban Farmer
Bronx, New York City

Food Voices: The Interviews

Karen Washington, Urban Farmer
Bronx, New York City

Karen Washington is an urban farmer from the Bronx, New York City. She has been farming in the Bronx for over 20 years and was one of the original members of La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition consists of the Garden of Happiness, the Garden of Youth, Fordham Lot Busters, Clinton Avenue and Tremont Community Garden. La Familia Verde started back in 1988 when Mayor Giuliani was trying to auction off gardens.

I grow food.  I feed people, body and mind.  I’ve been growing food for over 20 years.  I have a community garden, the Garden of Happiness, which I helped create.  It stared back in 1988 and I’m also a member of this new urban farm - La Finca del Sur, which was created three years ago in the Bronx. La Famila Verde dealt with garden preservation and then we started to see the health problems and the lack of fresh produce and so at first we had asked Green Markets to help out but they said they didn’t have any farmers or farmers didn’t want to come to the Bronx or they were scared to come to the Bronx and so we decided since we were already growing food, let’s ban together and let’s form our own farmer’s market and so that’s what we’ve done.

Let’s face it, food is political; where it’s distributed, who has the rights in terms of zoning rights, who is able to have loans, it’s all politically tied.  Food is politically tied; who gets the fresh best vegetables and who gets the leftovers is the makeup of community. The area that I live in is one of the poorest districts in the Bronx.  The medium income of a family of four is less than $20,000. We’re surrounded by an epidemic of fast food and fast chain restaurants and there are no healthy food stores.  Many of the produce that you see in our supermarkets travel from far away, are moldy, just bad, not fresh at all.  What’s so appalling is that we have this huge area called the Hunts Point Terminal.  It’s a vast terminal where a lot of produce from all over the country and all over the world comes into this hub at Hunts Point Food Terminal and right next to it is a community of people that are starving and so it’s like a barrier.  You see the trucks, you see the food and you don’t have access to it and that’s a shame.  Where else, what other neighborhood would that happen?  Could that happen in an affluent neighborhood?  Heck, no.  But it’s happening to us.  You know, so food is political.  Those that have affluence and those that have money and connections do much better than those that don’t. Food and housing and education are all tied into one. 

How do we open up the dialogue, open up the doors to make it an equitable food system that transcends color that opens the opportunity for all people, even women farmers, to get into it and to farm?  I’m on this crusade now.  I’m on this crusade of food and social justice and if I make people feel uncomfortable that’s good because then I’m doing my job.  But all I want is just fairness.  All I want is the opportunity for people who have been disenfranchised to be part of this food movement and not to be a statistic or not to be the pawns in people’s projects or when it comes to their fundraising event. For too long I’ve seen outside organizations use the statistics that they find in low income neighborhoods to get their grants, but yet they don’t empower those communities of color to take on those issues themselves. You have organizations that know how to write grants, that know how to do the wording well and they get the money and then they come into the community and they claim they do the work. What happens is that once the project is over, the community is still left poor because you haven’t transcended that project.  You haven’t made the people the stakeholders. They have been the bystanders.  Until we become the stakeholders, I am going to challenge. I’m making people uncomfortable and I don’t care. 

I’m on a journey.  I’m on a ride. I’m just going to go with it.  I’m riding the wave.  Making waves. We’ll see what the future holds and as I continue to grow food and really give thanks to elders, the people that came before us that I will continue to work on connecting people to the land and really empowering people to have a say and have a stand for what they feel is right and just.  End of story.