A Conversation with Qiana Mickie of Just Food
Enabling more indigenous, black, and Latino people to take advantage of opportunities in Federal Farm Bill Programs is both an opportunity and challenge.
The role of economically marginalized communities as the leaders and innovators of urban ag needs to be better recognized by policymakers and funders currently enamored of the Urban Ag Tech sector.
Local food access is not just about narrowly addressing food security; it’s also about supporting enterprise and small businesses in urban communities.
Contributor: Lisa Held
Qiana Mickie joined Just Food as its executive director in April 2017 and under her leadership the organization is prioritizing equity as its primary mission. She speaks here about what’s most relevant in the Federal Farm Bill to Just Food, her skepticism about urban ag-tech, and her concern about the precarious plight of urban gardens on city-owned land.
What are Just Food’s priorities for engaging around food policy and legislation?
Food policy issues are local to global, and it's important for Just Food to try to figure out what we can do on the grassroots level to connect folks as activists, as leaders, as advocates, or even just eaters and growers...and air breathers. How do we advocate so laws are as equitable as possible?
What Federal Farm Bill programs directly impact the local food system in and around New York City?
The Federal Farm Bill is one of those big critical policies that intersect from farm to fork. If you're a grower, if you're an eater, it's a bill that really impacts us all. It changes and influences how food is grown, how food is traded, across our state lines, and across international lines.
A lot of our work in the food justice space is about trying to get folks of color on land—buying land, stewarding land, growing on land, harvesting on land, producing on land. The Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (the 2501 Program) is something that we have actively advocated for.
How do we connect more folks in our region—in particular indigenous folks, black folks, Latino folks—to programs like the 2501 that were created to address some of the purposeful racism and inequities of past policy? And then how do we connect folks to SNAP-Ed information and resources? How do we encourage our farmers and community-based groups to become SNAP retailers?
This year Just Food has been able to access and begin to receive money from New York State Ag & Markets to offer education and training to increase awareness about SNAP. With these federal grant dollars channeled through the state we are building training programs to help community-based groups learn what SNAP is, how to make it a model that's accessible and comfortable for folks to engage in in their neighborhood. A lot of times folks see these markets or CSAs and don't feel like there's an entry point for them. We are also using that grant to get folks certified as SNAP retailers.
Part of why the redemption rate of SNAP for CSAs or food boxes or farm shares has been so low is that there wasn't a group like Just Food that had those community-based connections that it could leverage close to the ground—that could talk to folks, increase their awareness of what SNAP is, how to access it, and how to use it.
I think what we realize in our work is that it has to be a multi-pronged approach. You're not going to address inequity in just one way. Just Food is addressing local food access not just in terms of local food security; we are also addressing enterprise and supporting small businesses in our communities. How do we help support farmers to become SNAP retailers? When you have that lens and you have those relationships, those grant dollars can actually be used further on the ground.
So the retailers that you're getting certified—that could be a farmer, a CSA, a farmer's market—they all are able to get certified to accept SNAP and you're helping them figure out how?
Exactly. You need an incorporated entity in order to be eligible to qualify as a retailer; you can be a for-profit or a nonprofit. So farmers are able to do it.
We’ve been talking about existing laws and programs. Is there anything at either the federal or state level that you're working to get passed or to bring to the attention of lawmakers?
On the city level we're continuing to engage with City Councilmember Rafael Espinal and the land use committee on the Urban Agriculture Plan.
We've done workshops so folks are able to understand the implications of an urban ag bill and how it may show up in our neighborhoods. Because what we have been finding is that yet again, economically marginalized communities are not seen as the leaders and innovators of urban ag, and that's just simply not true. We have generations of neighborhoods growing food when other businesses divested from those neighborhoods. We have an actual practice that has experience and knowledge that should be informing research grants. We have folks that have experience in land tenure and how to grow sustainably and organically on hyper local land.
Why is Just Food concerned about the growth of interest in Urban Ag Tech?
We are seeing there's this lean towards ag tech in urban ag policy, or supporting what seems new. For us it's been not just advocating for food justice but also trying to understand, where is the funding going? Are people in certain groups automatically going to become ineligible because policy is being drafted to support—intentionally or unintentionally—for profit, high-investment businesses as opposed to grassroots work, soil-based work? (There's soilless work that's still community grown as well.) We need to make sure that the land stewards of our spaces are involved in how policy is created so that they are able to access resources and capital.
These indoor farms are untested. They are highly intensive models that are saying that they're the future and that they're resilient, but how resilient can you be if you need electricity? Or it takes $5 million to start up? And no one's going to survive in Brownsville on five servings of micro wasabi arugula at twelve dollars a quarter pound. So it’s not just about advocating for food justice in the urban ag space. Part of this is equity work: how do we unpack the inequity?
Just Food is also expressing concern about the impacts of the push for rezoning to accommodate urban agriculture.
In New York City, we've found through learning with the Department of Planning that the existing zoning already accommodates for a breadth of urban agriculture. You don't need to change it, but many of these ag tech folks are encouraging zoning changes. Well, when you start changing the zones of neighborhoods, then they're no longer neighborhoods. Take a walk to Harlem, take a walk to Bed-Stuy, take a walk to Red Hook, take a walk to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and you start to see that when you start flipping zones how fast gentrification happens.
If the zones currently already allow for the breadth of urban ag, then you don't need to change it, and when you don’t change it you're not impacting folks that may not have that same power to own land. That speaks to land tenure. That to me is part of food justice and a part of urban agriculture, too.