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Getting to the Root

February 28, 2023 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPurposeReinvestment

With a 25% poverty rate, Philadelphia is home to several food deserts or areas where residents have difficulty accessing nutritious and affordable food. Agriculture is not exactly the first solution you might think of – but that could soon change.

Christa Barfield owns and operates FarmerJawn, which she defines as “earth-friendly born brands” to bring agriculture back into the lifestyles of urban residents. FarmerJawn began with a 24-square-foot hobby greenhouse in Barfield’s own backyard in Germantown, focusing on regenerative farming practices such as soil health and improving access to organic food for marginalized communities. This mission was inspired in part by Barfield’s own experiences as a Germantown resident.

In 2020, after walking through her neighborhood, Barfield recognized the inequities her community faced.

“There are three main communities on Germantown Avenue,” Barfield explains, “one is Germantown, the other is Mount Airy, and the other is Chestnut Hill. As you walk up that block, you can see the food system, the food situation in those communities, is changing drastically. Germantown for a long time has been predominantly Black and underserved, with many people living on the margins of society. As you move toward Mount Airy, the population becomes a little more mixed, there’s an east side and a west side. So there are people who live in a million-dollar house, and people who have a $20,000 house on the other side. And then if you keep walking, you get to the most affluent section of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill, [where] you have all types of food options. Just walking up my street told me that there is systemic racism embedded in the way cities are built and planned. Regardless of socioeconomic status, we have to figure out a plan that ensures people’s health is not affected by how much money they are able to bring in.”

To combat this disparity, FarmerJawn’s mission is to provide the community with access to and awareness of food insecurity and healthy food options, regardless of socioeconomic status. This mission has led Barfield to train Black and brown community members to feel empowered and return to their roots through agriculture.

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Barfield tells us, “There is so much truth that has been taken from us. It’s instilling in our community something that has been lost. I always want to give honor to the indigenous peoples of our region – the Lenni-Lenape people who lived here and unfortunately suffered from European colonization that resulted in blacks being brought here as labor. Today, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is owned by Black people. We have to get our mindsets back to the understanding that we deserve. As a Black person, it’s part of my skill set. As an African descendant, it’s part of what we are blessed to know how to do, so we are going to do it, and we are going to be profitable and successful and have generational intergenerational wealth for centuries to come. So we focus on decolonizing the outdoors as a whole, and just by our very existence, just by being present, and flourishing outside, we are a representation that says to other people, look [at] another person that looks like me: I can do this, and I belong here.”

Image of Christa Barfield (courtesy image | photo credit: Mike Prince)

​While Barfield was able to quickly expand FarmerJawn into a 3,000-square-foot organic community garden in Roxborough, a 40,000-square-foot greenhouse and a 5-acre farm, she’s not alone in recognizing the need for local agriculture and decolonizing land in our communities. In the fall of 2019, Soil Generation and Interface Studios were commissioned by the city’s first Director of Urban Agriculture and Department of Parks and Recreation to develop an  agricultural plan for Philadelphia. There was a clear need to support and promote the city’s more than 450 urban farms, especially when there is a large majority that exist in high poverty neighborhoods, at a time when food insecurity is on the rise. The plan, which needed to overcome the anti-Blackness within the project and a growing threat to existing farms, was submitted in December 2022 and awaits final approvals and implementation.

While access to healthy food is needed, several organizations are working on empowering communities through careers and livelihoods. FarmerJawn has begun training adults to become farmers who can run their own businesses, and also offers school programs that provide hands-on activities and education about agriculture as an industry. Under the new partnership with Westtown School, Barfield will farm 123 acres and run an incubator program that provides educational opportunities and a “pathway to entrepreneurship” through farmers market sales and CSAs that include organically prepared foods and other locally grown and sourced products.

In addition to the FarmerJawn incubator cohort, the National Institute for Inclusive Competitiveness (NIIC) and Childress Business Consulting with the support of urban agriculture expert Dr. Jaime Green and Think and Grow Farm  launched urban agriculture program “Learn to Start to Your Agri-Business” at PHA’s VAUX Community Center. Through a three-month program that teaches the various aspects of agriculture, program participants can learn how to start their own agri-business and what career opportunities are available in the industry.

Beyond empowerment, to directly combat food deserts, FarmerJawn is also working to establish corner stores that sell fresh organic produce grown on the farm. The first will be in Germantown and the second in Kensington, two of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods with lowest health rankings and a lack of nutritious and affordable food. They are scheduled to open in the fall of 2023.

John Childress, of Childress Business Consulting, believes solutions like these “offer something we can do now in the city – giving people access, opportunities, and pathways in their own communities to succeed and overcome insecurities they face.”

As this story focuses on reinvesting in communities via farming and decolonizing land to support Black and brown people, we must honor and acknowledge that Philadelphia was originally home to and cared for by the Lenni-Lenape People of Lenapehoking and the Poutaxat (Delaware Bay).  

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What can the city do now to better support and invest in our communities? Share your thoughts here!

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