Kamal Bell remembers what it's like to grow up in a food desert in Durham. In the nineties, he lived on the northeast side with his parents and older brother, in a mostly black neighborhood near Southern High School. He remembers after-school car rides to Whole Foods, around the corner from Immaculata Catholic School, where he was a student. Bell's father, an herbalist, frequently made the twenty-minute trip from their house for fresh herbs.
Bell, who now lives in East Durham, still treks to the same Whole Foods when he needs groceries. The round trip takes thirty minutes, but he says it's one of the few places with quality produce.
"In Durham, the allocation of resources typically does not accommodate all individuals fairly," Bell says.
A 2011 report by the Durham County Health Department showed that about seventeen percent of Durham—or approximately forty-three thousand people—was food insecure. By the USDA's definition, it means that they don't have access to "nutritionally adequate foods" to lead "active, healthy lives."
Additionally, the same report showed that sixty-three percent of those who live in northeast Durham, where Bell grew up, are affected by food deserts, or "low-income areas where a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store."
Fifteen years later, Bell sees the obvious trajectory in the statistics: the plight of his community hasn't significantly abated.
Last spring Bell started Sankofa Farms, a tuition-free, nine-week summer academy where low-income youths learn the value of food and farming. As an agriculture biotechnology teacher at Lowes Grove Middle School, Bell works to change the reality he experienced firsthand.
Bell acquired twelve acres of land in Cedar Grove, thirty minutes outside of Durham, for the STEM-based program. Through hands-on learning at the farm and additional classroom education at St. Mark AME Zion Church, students parse the existing problems and work toward building solutions. In his first year of operation, Bell focused on showing his "Sankofites"—four male black students ages fourteen and fifteen—how to grow produce like squash and sweet corn and nurture chickens for egg production.
This spring, Bell launched a Kickstarter campaign, and he hopes to broaden the age range of his young charges, take in at least ten more boys, and include girls as well. The current goal of $7,000 would cover the costs of buying a van to transport students from their homes to the farm and the classroom. As of this past Tuesday, more than $5,000 had been met with just over two weeks to go. Bell says the funding would also allow him to run the program year-round on Saturdays.
He envisions Sankofa as both a safety net for at-risk kids and a way for them to reconnect with the land. "I want this program to be something where we can heal from a lot of the experiences that we have had and learn about our history as African people," says Bell.
He notes the decades of racial discrimination that black farmers have faced, culminating in the 1999 class-action lawsuit Pigford v Glickman, in which a black North Carolina farmer, and four-hundred other black farmers, sued the U.S.D.A. for discrimination in allocation of farm loans and assistance. The case, which ended with an award of more than one billion dollars to more than 70,000 farmers, is regarded as the largest civil rights settlement to date.
If all goes well with Sankofa, Bell envisions an automated system that would feed and water the livestock, so students could concentrate on distributing the organic produce to food-scarce areas in the city. He also notes that a program like this enables kids at vulnerable ages to stay involved with the community and stay out of what Bell calls "troublesome situations."
"When I was around the age of thirteen, I was dealing with major anger issues that almost led to me being kicked out of middle school," recalls Bell. He attended counseling sessions at St. Mark that he says kept him out of trouble—and eventually led him to finish high school and earn a master's degree in agricultural education from N.C. A&T.
"Farms can be healing and empowering spaces," says Shorlette Ammons of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. A&T University, whose work is rooted in dismantling racism in the food system. "Having these kinds of spaces helps folks to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma associated with food insecurity and systemic social and economic disparity."
"Black folks have a long and complicated history with the land," Ammons continues. "A history of agrarianism has been exploited and made invisible. This is a great opportunity to renew that innate relationship to the land with these young folks."
She believes organizations like Sankofa that help younger generations sell produce and create income are critical components in the fight against food insecurity. Bell says he's already seen students showing signs of a changed outlook and a newfound passion for farming. His voice cracks as he talks about one student who reminds him a lot of his younger self.
"His grandmother told me one day that he wanted to come to the farm that weekend," Bell says. "It means so much to me that we can take a kid that has everything stacked up against him and they would tell their guardian that they want to go to the farm. Those moments mean the most to me."
This article appeared in print with the headline “Healing Spaces."