Building a Black Food Sovereignty Movement in Baltimore

Black Yield Institute is working toward food sovereignty in Baltimore, Maryland

Based in Baltimore, Maryland, the Black Yield Institute is a Pan-African power institution working toward Black land and food sovereignty. With self-determination as a guiding principle, Black Yield Institute works to bring together Black institutions and Black-owned businesses to define and govern all aspects of their food systems.

“We’re talking about a work that’s about restoring relationships, building power, and ultimately about restoring the human dignity of the people,” Founder and Servant-Director, Eric Jackson, tells Food Tank.

Since 2015, the Black Yield Institute has worked to create a sustainable and equitable food environment. Serving as an action network and an incubator for ideas and projects, Black Yield Institute’s mission is two-fold: combat Baltimore’s food apartheid and organize toward Black-led food sovereignty.

Over sixty-two percent of Baltimore’s residents are Black. But according to Baltimore’s Department of Planning and Johns’ Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, 31 percent of all Black residents live in areas with low access to healthy food items–three and a half times the rate of white residents.

Building community relationships is Black Yield Institute’s dominant focus to achieve their goals. “When I talk about movement, I’m talking about coordination,” Jackson tells Food Tank. “People actually sitting down, deciding how we’re going to work together and figure it out: where the gaps are, where the assets are, [so] that we can build. Then building those things and materializing those networks and the systems that are needed.”

Black Yield Institute hopes to play the role of a convener, Jackson tells Food Tank. By building relationships with other organizations whose strengths support the mission, they are able to create a network of similarly driven groups working together toward a larger goal.

The organization has five main initiatives. Black Yield Institute operates a small urban farm, called People’s Urban Agriculture, and are working toward opening a cooperative grocery store. These two initiatives fall into part one of their mission–addressing food apartheid.

The other three initiative areas are focused on organizing the community. The organization offers a 15-week political education course, supports a community-led participatory action research initiative called Black Food Research and Knowledge Creation, and convenes the Black Land and Food Sovereignty Network, an action network made up of other institutions, groups, and leaders in the area.

These initiatives open up pathways for the Black community to tell their own story, using their own data, Jackson explains. “We should be informing ourselves and impacting scholarship so that we’re able to build,” Jackson tells Food Tank.

”Our work is about building more control and more power in Black communities…it’s critical to know that language is important…those who set the terms and the language are in control,” Jackson tells Food Tank.

Using the term food apartheid may be one way to regain control of the conversation, according to the organization. Instead of the term food desert, which is used widely by government, food institutions, and academia, Jackson suggests food apartheid is a way to convey a deeper meaning of the history of oppression, race, and class in Baltimore’s food environment.

While Black Yield Institute has been working to organize Black community members in and around Baltimore for five years, movement-building is all about timing, says Jackson. This moment may help the movement gain traction on a larger scale. “[It’s about the] right time, right people, right issues. Right now seems to be the time folks are most interested in community control of land and particularly Black infrastructure building.”

“We have more people who are interested in connecting the dots between producers and distributors,” Jackson tells Food Tank, “…there [are] growing conversations…that are connected to other discussions around anti-oppression work or undoing anti-blackness and racism work. I think that is critical.”

Ultimately, Black Yield Institute is focused on the power of the group, building up communities in such a way that self-determination of all aspects of life is possible. “It’s important for us to really build that group behavior and bond,” says Jackson, “[the] ethos of individualism just doesn’t work for anybody, in my opinion, and it definitely doesn’t work for Black and brown people.”

Photo courtesy of the Black Yield Institute

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