Harvesting Harlem’s Food Movement

It’s officially autumn in New York! During this time of year, as the cold steadily sets in and the trees put on their beautiful final show before the winter, the HAF team  buckles down to plan. Currently, we are working on future monthly programs, promoting and supporting arts activities in the community and announcing the release of our 2014 HAF Artist’s Application.

Now that the harvest season has come to a close, this month on the blog we’re focusing on food access. One way that we hope to engage with the Harlem community  moving forward is by promoting partnerships between food activists and the arts.

The Issue

Food activism is a growing movement among communities that have limited access to fresh and non-processed affordable foods. Farmers markets have become a premiere way to buy foods that people can trust, but they are often stationed in areas where access is a non-issue. Therefore, many communities have taken matters into their own hands, committing to long-term self-empowerment, health and wellness through collaborative projects and building community gardens.

In the last ten years, food programs like Healthy Bodegas Initiative and “Veggie Vans” have helped to undermine perceptions that Harlem is completely cut off from fresh and healthy food sources. This perception has fueled both positive and controversial changes in the community when it comes to access.

Assumptions that residents favor unhealthy dietary habits are largely responsible for questions concerning the community’s desire for access to quality produce. According to this logic, increased obesity and diabetes stems from residents’ bad eating habits and limited mobility.  However, this mindset is a myth that promotes racially profiling Harlemites as “bad eaters” and denies the role that socioeconomic status plays in people’s dietary choices.

Food access will undeniably continue to be a central theme in the vision for Harlem’s redevelopment. Thus, given the perception that Harlem is a “food desert”, what role does gentrification play in this perspective? Where do fruit and vegetable vendors and small businesses stand in the face of redevelopment as bigger companies make their way into Harlem? And how can the arts continue to support Harlemites through the growing food movement?

Often  Harlem food deserts are used to justify gentrification. Many believe that quality of life will improve through opening more food franchises and large corporate grocery stores in Harlem. However, the effects on small businesses can be destructive. In addition, the quality of life does not necessarily change for community residents who cannot afford to spend their money at new businesses that cater to newly arrived Harlem residents/gentrifiers.

The arts are particularly important to Harlem. In so many ways, food is itself an art. Food sustains our bodies, nurtures our spirits and helps to enhance the creative mind. Therefore, the arts should have a special place in food activism, where art and food work together to feed community.

Bridging Food, Activism & The Arts

In addition to the amazing artists that participated in our fest this year, several food trucks came out to support. For two days, festival patrons and park goers enjoyed their pick of tasty comfort foods and healthy smoothies and teas.

As a result, we got to thinking about partnerships that bridge food advocacy and the arts.  It’s difficult to find organizations that work with both the arts and participate in campaigns for greater food access.  One would think with increased availability to information via the internet and social media, researching projects that bridge the arts and the food movement would be easy. However, the contrary is true and speaks to the necessity for building connections between these spaces.

Despite the difficulties, we were able to connect-the-dots between arts projects and food advocacy that are doing great work in Harlem. We were pleased to learn that similar collaborations like Artfully Unforgotten (AU) and Harlem Grown use the arts to increase awareness about food and environmental justice.

AU implements arts-based projects through collaborations with other non-profits throughout New York City’s boroughs. DIG IN ART was launched this fall as a series of AU workshops; Harlem Grown, which operates several urban farm and community gardens, gathered with AU, as well as P.S. 175 and United Cerebral Palsy of New York last month for The Art of Raw Foods.

Curriculum-based programs that address hunger, food security and healthy eating like The Children’s Aid Society’s Food Justice Program are also encouraging an artistic approach to food advocacy. East Harlem students from P.S. 50 and East Harlem Center have embarked on a food mapping, promotional video and mural project with a local rapper and artist. A PhotoVoice Project also emerged from this collaboration.

We were also recently inspired by The Fortune Society’s efforts to empower formerly incarcerated young people in Harlem through an organic produce stand. The non-profit organization, staffed predominantly by formerly incarcerated people, supplies the stand through local, sustainable farms and food systems like non-profit Grow NYC’s Greenmarket.

Perhaps understanding the fight for food comes down to how we talk about access, i.e. “food desert” versus “food swamp.” Rather than discussing access alone, we should also focus on the relationships between food security, quality, cost, social value and privilege. Addressing these issues through art can only reinforce the movement’s reasons to gain control of our food systems, and in doing so reveal a deeper and more pressing question: even with access, do we really know what we are eating?

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