Xavier Brown formed a partnership with Boe Luther and Wallace Kirby, two gardeners from Ward 7 who started Hustlaz 2 Harvesters to offer people released from incarceration ways out of poverty into urban agriculture careers and other social enterprises. Brown, a certified master composter for the city, helped Luther and Kirby transform an empty lot into the Dix Street community garden as part of an urban agricultural initiative called Soilful City.
Only 1 in 10 Americans eats the daily recommendation of fruits and vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and people living in poverty have especially low rates of consumption of fresh produce. Access to healthy produce is difficult in low-income communities like Clay Terrace, because major chain supermarkets are reluctant to locate their stores there.
Yet Brown, Luther, and Kirby believe the community can grow its way out of food scarcity through the Dix Street garden and similar projects. They say crops that were staples of their African ancestors’ diets hold an essential key to restoring the community’s health.
“It’s not just about vegetables—we’re building a new way to rebuild neighborhoods,” Brown says. “Black people need to return to being growers, builders, and producers, so when we’re consuming, we’re also feeding one another, and we’re feeding our liberation,” he says.
For instance, to transform the food landscape in Washington, D.C., Brown, Kirby, and Luther helped a neighbor grow bodi, a long string bean indigenous to central Africa. The bean provides many nutrients that are routinely missing from most Americans’ diets, including fiber and vitamins. In Washington, it’s helping reconnect the local population to their cultural heritage.
At the same time, the work of planting and harvesting helps build an environment and community that can facilitate healing from the traumatic legacy of land-based oppression—from slavery to more modern practices of racist covenants and housing redlining—that Black people in the United States have endured.
Kirby says the neighborhood used to be filled with garden beds and chickens, because most of the families had come from the rural South and brought their way of life with them. A lot of that rural character was then lost, especially after the 1968 riots that tore through the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Brown hopes to mend that rift by looking to African roots. He has adopted a practice called Afro-ecology, a theory and practice created by fellow urban farmer Blain Snipstal to describe how Black people in the U.S. can reconnect with their African or Afro-indigenous past through traditional planting and harvesting techniques.
Using food and farming to overcome the trauma resulting from a history of land oppression and racism is work Leah Penniman knows well. She is a farmer and food justice organizer in upstate New York at Soul Fire Farm, where hundreds of new Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian growers come to participate in agricultural training workshops that focus on healing people as well as the land.
Penniman sees delving deeply into the history of food injustice—effectively naming racism as the problem—as the first step in search of better solutions to structural realities of food injustice.
Similarly, Soilful City’s project connects recently released inmates and other community members of Clay Terrace to planting and harvesting methods rooted in the African diaspora, and their collective work authors a new story of self-determination and healthy food access for the neighborhood. At the same time, the farm is helping people develop work skills and producing needed revenue in the community, while also providing other urban agriculture businesses, like the legal marijuana industry, with composting and high-yield soil.
If the rates of obesity, diabetes, and lower life expectancy in the neighborhood are reduced as a result, that will be just one more sign of the success the project is having in the community in repairing the broken relationship between the urban population and the land.