Black Farmers Bring Produce to Low-Income Blacks
By the Associated Press
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
By JULIANA BARBASSA
Associated Press Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ Leroy Musgraves moves fast, arranging the crisp greens he picked before dawn onto his produce stand at Mandela Farmers' Market.
The market, where black farmers sell to mostly low-income black families, already has a line of customers waiting for the bunches of dandelion greens, broccoli rabe and Russian kale.
``When I first brought these out here, nobody bought them because they didn't know what they were,'' said Musgraves, holding up a lavender-stemmed sprig of kale.
Every Saturday, Musgraves drives 120 miles to the market from his five-acre farm in the San Joaquin Valley. He sees his mission as part nutrition counselor, part purveyor of organic produce that's hard to come by in an area with only one grocery store and fast-food restaurants galore.
``I've seen the African-American people's health declining,'' said Musgraves, 58. ``It's not having access to healthy food, to a good lifestyle.''
The market also helps Musgraves. He works his land by hand, without help or a tractor, and knows the pressures small farmers _ especially black farmers _ face from industrial agriculture and a global market.
In California, where farming generates $27.8 billion a year, there are 84,000 farms, but fewer than 380 black farmers.
Blacks have historically been pushed out of farming and off their land by being denied financing and access to markets, explained Will Scott Jr., president of the African American Farmers of California.
Five years ago, the U.S. Agriculture Department settled a lawsuit with tens of thousands of black farmers who claimed they were discriminated against when they tried to get loans. The claim has been renewed by a national coalition of black farmers who went to Congress Monday seeking compensation.
``Coming to the market helps me, since I can sell my produce,'' Scott said. ``But also, there's a need here. If we didn't do this, they'd be relegated to fast food.''
Nearly two out of five homes in the area don't have access to a car, which makes it difficult to shop at the one supermarket that serves the area's 25,000 residents.
Few produce outlets and a shortage of parks and other places to exercise hurts the community. Residents have extremely high rates of preventable diseases, said Dr. Sarah Samuels, a public health researcher in Oakland.
Almost a third of the students in the Oakland School District either have diabetes or are at risk; the disease could be prevented with a healthy diet and exercise, Samuels said.
``It's become the fabric of the community,'' Samuels said. ``Everybody talks about it _ about how their brother, their uncle, their cousin has it. There's diabetes in every family.''
Strolling from stall to stall, shoppers can see _ and taste _ the results of programs that aim to provide fresh produce. One stand sells greens from Oakland's urban gardens. Elementary school children stir fry vegetables they helped grow in the gardens.
``They're learning to eat healthy, rather than just junk food,'' said Adetola Williams, who works with the children through the Oakland Butterfly and Urban Gardens program.
The West Oakland Food Collaborative, which coordinates the market, is working to make fresh food available on other days and in other places as well. The Yemen Merchants Association, which represents 380 neighborhood stores in the Bay Area, struck a deal with the collaborative to sell its produce.
Just a couple of blocks away, Neighbors' market used to offer the usual corner store fare _ packaged cookies, chips, soda, liquor.
Two years ago, owner Saleh Algabri worked with the collaborative to stock a cooler with tomatoes, bell peppers, oranges and cabbage from farmers like Musgraves. Customers started seeking his produce.
``We try to help people to eat a nice meal,'' Algabri said. ``This neighborhood needs it.''
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