Every Saturday, shoppers gather at the Oakland Freedom Farmers’ Market to buy fresh produce and specialty food items from local farmers and vendors. This market provides more than access to healthy food to the community—the Freedom Farmers’ Market uses food to celebrate African American history, cuisine, and culture. Its mission is “to bring traditional legacy foods from black farmers and other sustainable farmers into Oakland” and “engage a community vibe of self-reliance, cooperative community development, and healthy sustainable environments for all.” Okra, crowder peas, and collard greens are among the many traditional foods offered, while events including watermelon-eating contests, pea-shelling competitions, and blues, gospel, and jazz music provide the community with an opportunity for cultural expression and celebration.
Dr. Gail Myers and Gordon Reed, co-founders of Farms to Grow, Inc., the nonprofit behind Freedom Farmers’ Market, are working to address the inequalities in the food system by starting a market of their own, dedicated to supporting black and minority farmers. By creating a safe space to bring black residents together with black farmers, Myers and Reed hope to help the urban community to reconnect with African American culture and take control of their local food system.
“The market embraces food and food issues that used to create pain for black people,” says Myers. “Take the watermelon eating contest—given its post-emancipation depiction, watermelon become something very derogatory and brought shame to African Americans. Here, we celebrate it and talk about it. Through this process, we reclaim and embrace the healthy aspects of our food.”
In providing a safe and inviting space, the market also uses food as a foundation to stimulate community economic development. Farmers and vendors who sell traditionally African-American foods, such as purple hull peas, chow chow, and jellies, might not have been successful in other markets but have found their niche audience at Freedom Farmer’s Market, says Myers. She adds that many of the shoppers who are attracted by the culturally specific offerings are first-time farmers’ market visitors who wouldn’t ordinarily have visited other existing markets. Markets are more likely to be successful when they offer products that cater to the specific foods needs of a community, finds Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit focused on community development, in its 2013 publication, “Farmers Markets as a Strategy to Improve Access to Healthy Food for Low-Income Families and Communities.” At Freedom Farmers’ Market, shoppers have the opportunity to use their spending power to strengthen the local food economy, access fresh, culturally appropriate foods, and explore a farmers’ market in a comfortable environment. Myers and Reed hope that both vendors and shoppers alike will be inspired to explore other markets and further engage in creating a self-reliant, healthy community.
The market comes into place at a time when numbers of black farmers, albeit small, are growing around the country, thanks in part to policy changes at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to Civil Eats. After decades of racially discriminatory policies, the USDA settled a lawsuit with black farmers in 1999, marking a turning point in the formerly antagonistic relationship. Since then, the department has partnered with the National Black Farmers Association, created venues for more minority voices, and established a new microloan program for small farmers. According to the USDA’s latest agricultural census, there are more than 44,000 black farmers in the United States, an increase of 12 percent from 2007.
At the heart of the Freedom Farmers’ Market is the desire to drive change from within traditionally marginalized communities. Myers says, “At a time when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, African Americans need a safe space, a space to let their hair down…The market is about more than food, it is about wellness and wholeness.” By creating a comfortable environment for the entire community, the market provides opportunities for diverse voices to be heard and their needs addressed. Freedom Farmers’ Market plans expand to two more locations in East and West Oakland. Myers is also currently working on a documentary, “Rhythms of the Land,” that tells the history of black farmers in America.