Elevating Equity through Food, Faith, and Fellowship

Some of our most cherished sustainable farming practices have roots in African wisdom. Yet, discrimination against African-American farmers has led to their decline from 14 percent of all growers in 1920 to less than 2 percent today, with a corresponding loss of over 14 million acres of land.  Further, Black communities suffer disproportionately from illnesses related to lack of access to fresh food and healthy natural ecosystems.

Marion County possesses no special immunity in this regard. According to United States Department of Agriculture
National Agricultural Statistics Service 96% of farm producers in Marion County are White, residential segregation is still prominent, and several neighborhoods lack access to a nearby grocery store. In response, OSU Extension partnered with a historically Black church to repurpose vacant land for community gardens and in the future, urban farms.  

During a recent Community Planting Day event, neighbors, church leaders, and food advocates were invited to “increase farmland stewardship by people of color” and reduce the harmful effects of food deserts and/or food apartheids.

The project is just one of many led by OSU Extension. Vacant lots, many contaminated, have become a community health issue for cities throughout Ohio.  More than 20 cities with populations over 20,000 have seen significant declines in population over the last 30 years, making them “shrinking” or “legacy” cities.  In 2010, in response to this issue, the Ohio legislature made the formation of county land reutilization corporations (land banks) possible for 44 of Ohio’s most populous counties.  As of 2016, 40 of the 44 have formed land banks and are beginning to acquire, plan for and dispose of vacant lots, including the land bank in Marion. With various community partners, the Marion County Extension office is facilitating  land-based interventions on these properties. A proposal was developed and presented to funders to design models for outdoor community space and develop temporarily living laboratories – this means that users, visitors, and supporting institutions will be surveyed in that period on a regular basis and data will be gathered to assess feasibility of permanent hubs.

Investment efforts can show positive results toward supporting their vibrancy but a comprehensive, achievable collective impact initiative is needed to further advance progress. The community readily acknowledges that revitalization of the area will not occur overnight and is not the responsibility of a single entity. Rather, civic participation – the active engagement of people in the decision-making processes that shape their communities and their lives – is critical to cultivate healthy society. In fact, we only realize the full promise of democracy when people participate; when all segments of a community have fair and equal access to institutions and meaningful opportunities to voice their opinions about important issues driving the public policy or the social sector’s agenda

Land reuse matters because it can direct resources in neighborhoods that have been historically been disinvestment. Farm Loan Programs with the USDA continue to develop innovative loan products and initiatives to improve its ability to serve traditionally underserved farmers and ranchers, such as with the Operating and Farm Ownership Microloan programs and the expansion of the Youth Loan program into urban areas. When developing urban farms or gardens on abandonment lots, lead contamination can be a significant concern. OSU Extension can provide soil and lead testing, an absolute necessity for any urban grower. The other interrelated and equally important recommendation is to develop new groups of community leaders who can work together with other citizens to identify, investigate, and solve problems in their communities and county using available resources. These new leaders are citizens who traditionally have not been part of the public decision making in matters that concern them and their communities. They have often experienced many social, economic, and educational limitations. Contact OSU Extension to learn about Community Voices, an exciting new program, that facilitates a shared group leadership process in which organizations and institutions work with the community to help shape programs and use resources to meet specific needs of community citizens.