July 24, 2019

Food as a Foundation for Creativity

Katie Starr

I came to the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) as part of the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship, a year-long program whose mission is to eliminate hunger, poverty, and social inequality in our country. Thus, when assigned at HAC to engage with Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD), my instant reaction was: where is the connection? CIRD’s goal is to enhance the quality of life and economic viability of rural America through planning, design, and creative placemaking. The National Endowment for the Arts selected HAC as its partner for the initiative, tapping our five decades of rural housing and community development expertise and relationships. Quickly, the links between food security, equity, and both CIRD’s and HAC’s broader goals became clear. Across the country, innovative work is happening at the intersection of creative placemaking and community food systems transformation. Examples of these organizations and on-the-ground work inspired me to dig deeper.

ArtPlace’s recent report Cultivating Creativity: Exploring Art and Culture in Community Food Systems Transformation gave me a strong foundational understanding of this link. The report offered a working definition of “Equitable Food Oriented Development.” The term was defined as:

“A justice-first development strategy that uses food and agriculture to create economic opportunities, healthy neighborhoods, and explicitly seeks to build community assets, pride, and power by and for historically marginalized communities.”

Rooted in equity, the approach centers the voices of those most impacted by social injustices in all decision-making processes. It treats food and agriculture as a platform for community wealth building.

I loved this definition, but wearing my CIRD hat, I sought to better understand the role of design in this framework. A conversation with colleagues from ArtPlace America and DAISA Enterprises, LLC did the trick. During our discussion, my thoughts around “design” were challenged. I asked how design plays a role in arts and culture, thinking that design strictly correlated to the physical outcome of a project. Our talk opened my eyes to see that this “design component” includes the critical design process. We talked about how design is a form of art that leads to a community led process for visionaries and creatives to catalyze conversation about imagination, about outcomes that may be different than what a community is used to seeing. My colleagues explained that having this community led process result in an aesthetically beautiful space is remarkable, especially for historically marginalized communities, because it provides a sense of power, place, and ownership. Equipped with this new knowledge, I was propelled to continue learning how design, arts, and culture were being incorporated into the food and agricultural movements in rural America.

My colleagues at ArtPlace America and DAISA Enterprises, LLC taught me about the design process and also gave me additional examples of rural organizations embarking on this work. Gaining perspective from the ground is critical for understanding the landscape. After all, the power, knowledge, and solutions are within the communities themselves. My perch overlooking K St in Washington, DC doesn’t include binoculars, so I was grateful that the following organizations were generous with their time as they described the lessons learned. Therefore, I conducted outreach and engaged in thought provoking phone conversations with the following organizations.

Black Soil

The organization Black Soil shows the resiliency of black farmers and reconnect black Kentuckians to their land and history. Only 1.4% of the primary farm operators in Kentucky are black, and the organization is bringing reinvestment and revitalization tools for black farmers, producers, and growers. Black Soil bridges the rural-urban divide and exposes urban families to rural and urban black farmers. These interactions introduce opportunities for cooperative economics and opportunities for increased social cohesion. The co-founder commented that, “I see farmers forming relationships that didn’t know others existed; nothing is forced.

Photo: Black Soil

Through Farm Tours, Farm to Table Dinners, and off-season workshops, food and art bring people together to have difficult conversations but also to express themselves. Artwork on the farm tells the story of working in the fields, the local family church—that these places were for relationships. The design of the farm’s environment can further peoples’ connection to the land. The co-founder added that “through creative placemaking and design, I was able to find myself and invest back.” After our conversation, it was evident she had invested so much in her community and engages with such intentionality and love.

Zuni Pueblo

In New Mexico, the Zuni pueblo is a remote village rich in cultural tradition, yet their community, especially the youth, face challenges: poverty, diabetes, and a lack of opportunity to capitalize on their heritage. Through the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, the youth are empowered to reach their full potential. Community gardening is one of the programs using arts and culture to promote healthy eating and connect kids with local traditions. The co-director of the program explains that “art is a strong social fabric of the Zuni community; it allows us to elevate important things to our community, including agriculture.” Gardening lessons weave in traditional stories of Zuni traditions and expose kids to growing nutritious food. The initiative supports good health within the community but has also allowed community members “to teach the next generation about the resiliency of the Zuni community that has spanned many generations.”

Sipp Culture

Crafting together - Photo: Sipp Culture

Storytelling allows residents in Utica, Mississippi to weave together agriculture and culture to honor their history and build their future. The Mississippi Center for Cultural Production (Sipp Culture) includes a Main Street Cultural Center, an Artist’s Residency, 17 acres of greenspace, spaces that hold cultural events and agricultural trainings. When talking with the director and lead artist, he explained the power of storytelling at their organization, whether that be through music, photography, or theater. Participants are not only taught how to produce food, but they are also equipped with technical skills to produce stories. The director emphasized how important this was, because it is the community members themselves framing and telling stories core to the Utica history. Through this unique medium, Sipp Culture’s work connects people to the land, to their culture, and to each other.

Food systems and creative placemaking work is improving health, promoting economic opportunity, and creating stronger social cohesion. My conversations highlighted strength in partnerships and residents as leaders of local development. Cultural food and farming traditions are helping to address things like historical traumas caused by displacement, land loss, and oppression. CIRD certainly presents a special opportunity: we can learn about the resiliency, withstanding partnerships, and unique culture that exists within individual communities. There is power when learning from others and there is power when activating creative placemaking for community transformation.

Group picture - Photo: Black Soil