Farmer, cultural anthropologist, and community organizer Gail Myers is working to change the food system as we know it. Through her nonprofit, documentary work, and anthropological studies, Myers advocates for space for Black farmers to grow their own sustainable food and teach the next generation of farmers of color.   

More than a third of our food supply is never eaten in the United States. Yet, approximately 38.3 million Americans face food insecurity, or the lack of access to reliable, nutritious food. Food insecurity disproportionately hurts Black and Indigenous households — 24% of Black households and 25% of Native American households experienced food insecurity in the U.S. in 2020.

Currently, the food insecure rely on food banks, pantries, and nonprofits to meet their needs. But these institutions and programs tend to act as a temporary balm. They do not solve the larger problems in the national food system, like racism and lack of access to healthcare, that are contributing to food insecurity. Myers’s work is focused on providing resources to those most affected by food insecurity to work towards food justice, starting by helping underserved farmers.

“When it comes to exercising real food justice and making sure that there's food access,” Myers said, “the table must look like the people that are part of the country."

The United States has a history of racial discrimination towards Black farmers, from giving white farmers more subsidies to depriving land ownership for farmers of color. As co-founder of nonprofit Farms to Grow based in Oakland, California, Myers has dedicated her work to supporting Black and underserved farmers in the U.S. and promoting sustainable agroecology practices.

Courtesy of Gail Myers.

Farms To Grow works in the Oakland area to primarily provide assistance to Black farmers to make space for people of color in sustainable agriculture and ensure that farming is a viable career for future generations. Also, the nonprofit offers cooking/gardening classes for kids and helps distribute crops through farmers markets. In all these efforts, sustainability and bettering the community is the end goal.

“We don't always need a government program to do [things] for ourselves and for our communities.” Myers said. “It just takes ingenuity and the willingness to step out and do something that we know is right.”

Spoon University spoke with Myers about food apartheid, current food movements, and how the younger generation can contribute to change the food system.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the difference between food deserts and food apartheid? 

Well, one clearly insinuates an intention. Food desert makes it sound like it's some natural occurrence — it just evolved to be that way. Apartheid is something that is contrived by redlining and the power of local politics. It insinuates that the community is a victim, [that] these things are more imposed upon them.

With food, those in power are not making the decisions about urban development and food policies historically have not been the communities where people have been affected. And so it gives a look at the power dynamic.

How would you say food apartheid affects people today and in generations back? 

Food has historically been controlled by who has the land. Without increasing access or with decreasing access to people, they have less of an opportunity to grow their own food. They're now having to shop for food on the market, the grocery store, or the local market.

The historical food apartheid has been who has the power to control what people produce on their land. People's mobility is based on the economic access that they have. Now, it's also about land and labor — who's controlling the land, who has access to the food, and who controls the labor.

What role do corporations and monoculture play in food apartheid?

Corporations control the pricing; they control the land. Those folks that are controlling what is a part of the local food system, [farmers], are people who are not people with power. It is important that the real piece of this is WHO has control over, or access, to grow their own food and [their own] land.

In your opinion, what role do the next generation of farmers and eaters play in battling our current food system?

My hope is that the next generation of farmers are not only the producers, but they're also at the table around policy. The very early agricultural laws helped develop this [current] agribusiness approach — because the folks that were at the table were not farmers— were made by corporations and politicians. When it comes to exercising real food justice and making sure that there's food access, the table must look like the people that are part of the country. Everybody's represented in the diversity: more small farmers, more women farmers, more farmers of diverse ethnicities.

We can hear those voices and they are the ones that are managing the Farm Bill. We have to fight for the United States Department of Agriculture to appropriate funds. More and more, these small nonprofits or national nonprofits get together and try to exercise our power. But those that really make the decisions aren't the folks that are growing the food. I hope that future farmers are also part of the decision making.

So in recent years, I feel like there's been a noticeable change in the attitudes people have towards food. There's more of a desire to know about food origins and to be more environmentally conscious consumers and eaters. And so I want to know if you think there's a reason behind this and how this change in attitude could possibly help the movement? 

I think a lot of things have happened. People are more health conscious. And this has come about from a lot of food scares: things [have] come up in the food market have been poisonous or have left contaminated trails. People have become more aware of the soil, the quality of the growing environment, and how that impacts their health. Some of it has happened because people are developing more food allergies.

You see the environmental justice movement colliding with the food justice movement as people are seeing the inequities within the food system. This has created a need for people to have a greater awareness of their food and its origins. Is it child labor? is it exploiting farmers? Is it fair trade?

There's an emotional void, this physical void, that people are not relating to their food and their farmers in a way that they feel connected to local communities. When you know where your food came from, when you know your farmer, when you have a sense of the local place and you know the local food in that place, it gives you a feeling of assurance that you're in a safe and healthy environment. Especially if there's a cultural mismatch between where you are — I work with Black farmers and a lot of our indigenous food like okra, purple hull peas, sweet potatoes — you can't get that fresh unless it's grown by farmers of color. Without farmers of color, you're missing food that connects you to your cultural identity. The more people demand to know where their food comes from, the more the demands are for local, healthy food.

How can we, as college students, try to make small scale changes or take small actions to help combat food apartheid? 

College students have a lot of power. You have a cafeteria where meals are served. You can demand from the food service provider that they get food locally as a priority, [demand] a certain percentage. Find out what percentage of food from the cafeteria is purchased from local farmers and then set as a target every year that they increase their purchase from local farmers and BIPOC farmers. College students also have a lot of purchasing power on an open market, in grocery stores: voting with your feet, so to speak. You know, where you shop, what you purchase.

One of the things I love about the generation of students who are in college is the use of social media and marketing. Share your voices and your power. If you're not voicing support for this particular aspect of the Farm Bill or this particular aspect of a local policy, then that is being enacted upon you and all other college students. Every college is located in a city that has a local government. Find organizations to volunteer around food and farming and advocate for letter writing [to local government].

The thing that impacts farmers and food communities most are the leaders. Get ready to be local politicians. There's work to be done locally, nationally, and globally as students. We need everybody. There are no voices that can be left out. Everybody is needed to be a part of changing the destructive policies that prevent people from keeping their land, prevent healthy food from being grown and prevent the destruction of the environment. We need policies that understand that if we don't deal with climate change, we won't have 10 more years to have a discussion about it. The future is now.