In this video, Karen Washington talks about access to healthful food and shares what inspired her to farm. (Photo credit: Ethan Harrison; video credit: Sue Williams)

In the Bronx, Karen Washington has spent decades promoting urban farming and spreading the message of “food justice” — the concept that healthful, nutritious food is a human right, just like access to water. In the process, she has been named one of Ebony magazine’s “Power 100,” won a James Beard award, and has even met Michelle Obama. 

But this fall, the self-described “agitator” is moving on, at least from New York City. She has sold her city rowhouse, with plans to split her time between Georgia (where her daughter lives) and Orange County, New York, where the co-operative farm Rise & Root Farm, which she co-founded in 2013 with three other women, is located. “It’s bittersweet, yes,” says the 67-year-old, but “I feel the time is right to move on.”

When I ask Washington about her legacy, she demurs. “That’s for outsiders to say,” she says. (And indeed, others have, including the New York Times, which referred to her as “urban farming’s de facto godmother.“) But “what I can say, what I am proud of, is when I see brown and black young men and women wanting to farm. They’re challenging the food system. They want to have access to land. They want to make up for the wrongs and ills and sins of our parents,” she says. “That’s what I focus on.”

An Unlikely Farmer 

Growing up in the projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Washington is perhaps an unusual advocate for farming. She had never gardened or planted vegetables until adulthood, when she moved in the late 1980s to the Bronx, across from a vacant lot filled with trash. Working with neighbors, she turned the eyesore into a community garden, which were just becoming popular thanks to a push by the New York Botanical Garden. The 36-plot lot, rather aptly, is called the Garden of Happiness.

But beyond a respite for the soul, Washington wanted gardens like hers to provide fresh produce for families in her community. She coined the term “food apartheid” for the lack of fresh vegetables in low-income neighborhoods, and the absence of big stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. “Why is it that I can go into white, affluent neighborhood and I can see fresh produce? And when I come into my neighborhood…I see fast food, junk food, processed food,” she says. “Healthy food is based on the color of your skin, how much money you make, and where you live.”

Although she worked as a physical therapist at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, Washington became increasingly dedicated to her community work, which was a unique blend of gardening and activism. By 2008, motivated to learn more about growing food for low-income communities, she asked her employer for a 6-month leave to enroll in University of Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Its apprenticeship program trains emerging leaders on the principles of small-scale farming.   

It was there that Washington, then in her 50s, first looked out on vast agricultural land — and was startled by the feelings it conjured up. Far from soothed, she was filled with fear. “It was very difficult to see that open field and not be reminded of slavery,” she says. “You think it doesn’t affect you. But as an African-American learning about the trauma of slavery, it still resonates.”

She wanted, truthfully, to get back on the plane. But instead, she knelt down “and put both my hands in the soil, and felt that connection of belonging. And when I felt that connection, then I said, I’m okay, I can do this. But I had to face that fear.”

‘Where Are the Black Farmers?’

When she got back, Washington was ready to shake up the food system. “I didn’t see farmers that look like me,” she says.  “And I started to question, where are the black farmers?” (Indeed, in New York, the 2017 census found that of the state’s 58,000 farmers, only 139 are black.) She started Black Urban Growers — the acronym is BUGS — hosting workshops and an annual conference to prompt conversations about food: Where does it come from? Who is providing it? Why don’t we see more black farmers at farmers markets?

After retiring from physical therapy, she co-founded Rise & Root, a 3-acre farm in the Hudson Valley that encourages people from the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities to learn about farming. 

“The idea is that when a community controls its own food sources, the people can control so much more,” she says. The for-profit farm provides vegetables, fruits, herbs and seedlings to farmer’s markets and restaurants.  

And when Washington first put her hands into the black dirt there, it was a “totally different” experience far from the fearfulness she had felt in Santa Cruz. “This time, it was like a calling, a beckoning,” she says. “I felt the ancestors.”

As she gets ready for her next chapter, Washington is seeing some progress. In the Bronx, “we have farmers markets now,” she says. As part of the food stamp program, New York City’s health department now offers “health bucks,” or $2 coupons that can be used to purchase food and vegetables at farmers markets. “It’s happening,” she says. “It needs to happen more, but the conversation is happening.”

Most gratifying, Washington is seeing a new generation of young people — at community organizations like Soul Fire Farm, Female Farmer Project and Woke Foods, some of whom call her Mama K — rising up to become stewards of the land and fight for food justice. “There will be new voices, and I’m excited about that. That’s what leadership is all about,” she says. “I feel very comfortable that I’m leaving New York City and the Bronx in good hands.” 

Read Full Transcript

Karen: Black, poor neighborhoods have crappy food. Everybody knows that. How do we get healthy, affordable food into neighborhoods that need it the most? Why is it that I can go into white, affluent neighborhood and I can see fresh produce? And when I come into my neighborhood, and I don't see it.

TEXT: Karen Washington – Co-founder of Rise & Root Farm/Garden of Happiness – Bronx, New York

Karen: My goal is to provide access to healthy food for all people. When I started there were so many social issues that were happening in the garden. People were talking about diabetes and hypertension, the inability to have affordable health care, affordable housing, police brutality. You just could not just grow food without also addressing those social issues.

TEXT: Karen was born and raised in New York City.

TEXT: In 1981 she began a long career as a physical therapist working for major city hospitals.

TEXT: In 1985 Karen bought a row house in the Bronx, opposite a vacant lot.

Karen: From 1985 to 1988, I would look out my window, and I would see an empty lot filled with garbage, abandoned cars. And you had so much in terms of illegal activity going on with prostitution and drug use.

TEXT: Karen and a neighbor wanted to build a garden in the lot.

TEXT: They connected with New York City programs that provided fencing and soil, seeds and plants.

TEXT: The lot became The Garden of Happiness and a haven for the neighborhood.

TEXT: People had their own small plots to grow fruit, flowers and vegetables.

TEXT: For Karen, eating the first tomato she grew was life-changing experience.

Karen: It was my aha moment that really propelled me to want to grow everything. I'm saying, “Well, I can grow tomato. I can grow oranges. I can grow bananas.” But then I found out I couldn't do those things because they're tropical. But I still had the zest to grow whatever I could.

TEXT: Working with community groups and neighbors, Karen helped form the NYC Community Garden Association to build gardens throughout the Bronx.

Karen: As I was working as a physical therapist, I was also learning about about gardening and social issues. And I would go into my patients’ house because they had a lot of diet-related diseases. I would say, “I need to go into the kitchen.” I said, “Because I’m a physical therapist and I can't treat you properly if you're not eating properly.”

TEXT: In 2004, Karen co-founded La Familia Verde, the first farmers’ market in the Bronx.

TEXT: In 2008 Karen took a leave of absence to study sustainable farming at UC Santa Cruz.

TEXT: Students learn to farm small plots, orchards and a large field.

Karen: I remember seeing the field for the first time. And I was fearful. Something, a trauma, set in because I looked at the field and all of the things around farming came to the surface. Like, what are you doing here? This is slave work. And so what I had to do was to go to the field and put my hands in the soil to feel that connection of belonging. And when I felt that connection, then I said, “I'm okay, I can do this.”

TEXT: The experience turned Karen into a committed activist promoting Black farmers and racial justice.

TEXT: By 2014, the Bronx had 18 community gardens and 32 farmers’ markets.

TEXT: That year Karen finally retired from her physical therapy job.

TEXT: In 2018 Karen and 3 friends leased 3 acres of land to farm in upstate New York.

Sue SOT: When you went to look at the land for Rise & Root farm, you saw the fields, what did you feel?

Karen: This time, it was right. And I just felt the ancestors with the blessings and looking at this field as a gift. This time, it was like a calling, a beckoning.

Karen: We need to start having those conversations on why, in the greatest country in the world, we have these problems. We need to have those hard conversations on how this country was built. We haven't. We've neglected the reality on the fact that this country was built on the backs of enslaved and indigenous people. Hopefully, this new generation of young people who are mixed, more diverse, things will change. So the conversation is there. It's happening. It needs to happen more, but the conversation is happening.