Taking Back the Hood for Good

Chanowk and Judith Yisrael of Yisrael Family Urban Farm. Photo by Yarcenia Garcia

Here is a fun fact for you: The USDA reports that there are 23.5 million people in the US right now living in low-income neighborhoods with limited access to quality food and produce. South Sacramento is home to one of those areas.

And for almost 10 years, Judith and Chanowk Yisrael of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm have made it their mission to change that statistic by teaching their community the basics of growing food in the hood.

We recently took a trip to the Yisrael Family Urban Farm to discuss the importance of access to education, diversity, and the power of pursuing a vision.

“I knew exactly what was going to happen,” Chanowk says with a relaxed confidence that made you truly believe he is here for a deeper reason.

And that reason, unbeknownst to Judith, became crystal clear when Chanowk came to Judith with aspirations of creating a farm of their own in back of their Oak Park home after making his first three garden beds of lettuce back in 2008. At the time, both had very minimal experience with agriculture. Judith managed a company while Chanowk was a Systems Engineer for a cellular business.

Photo by Yarcenia Garcia
“There was nobody addressing food from a real organizational level in Sacramento,” says Chanowk. “When you start to look at our communities–especially for black communities and being in the condition that we’re in, there’s all these different ways that people think they can help… but the one piece that was not being addressed was food.”

He goes on to explain how in major cities like Detroit there are specific organizations that are designed and created to deal with African-American food security. He wanted to make an organization here with a similar vision, except with his own methods and touch.

“I think there are a lot of cultures that do grow food in Sacramento. It’s just culturally their way of life,” Judith says with quite a bit of skepticism as she recalls her own views of farming involving rural areas filled with tractors and red barns in the distance. “But, in our community among black and brown people, it’s definitely something that has not been a part of our lives since you know–1865.”

Photo by Yarcenia Garcia

With little knowledge about the rules and regulations that went into making a farm at home, the Yisrael’s began to put the plan of building it into fruition and they did it by any means necessary.

“It was just something that had to be done,” says Chanowk when talking about how they first started to participate in the politics of agriculture. “We didn’t start our farm with the idea of, ‘Oh we’re going to start growing our food and selling it,’ but when we started selling the food, it was like, ‘let’s check and see what we need to have,’ and found out it was illegal.”

Photos by Yarcenia Garcia

It was then that the Yisrael’s decided to to be a part of the solution. Chanowk helped found the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition with the intention to give other local farmers a voice.

As he put it, being part of the solution meant not relying on others to put what he wanted into action. He knew that he needed to put the results, or soil, in his hands for the solutions he wanted.

“That’s when I sat down with Judith and told her, I’m not going to become a politician, but I’m going to have to start dealing with politics,” Chanowk says adamantly.

Since then, the Yisrael’s have hosted community workshops that provide education to community members that are more familiar with fast food because of commercial chains, cost, and lack of food options.

They have also spearheaded a youth based project called: G.O.O.D. (Growing Our Own Destiny). The youth in this project are focused on three main goals: cultivating the land, the community and themselves.

Photo by Yarcenia Garcia
“When you teach people farming, you are not just growing your own food, you’re really growing your own self,” Judith says with a assuring look on her face. “You know the food is only the external thing that happens after you learn about yourself, the consistency, the patience and the management. You start with the end in mind.”

However, it hasn’t always been an easy road in developing their urban farm. On a macro level, African-American farmers in the US make up only 2% of America’s farming population according to a census in 2012.

“When you’re talking to many young people of color about agriculture, you’re either talking about the experience of migrant workers or your talking about the experience of slavery,” Chanowk says. “Because most historical reference only starts there, they don’t really know how people of color actually created the farming methods in the first place such as raising garden beds from South America, the horticultural advances in Egypt and Ethiopia.”

Diversity and representation are significant to the Yisraels. They promote inclusivity, especially through their recollection of their Italian visit to Terra Madre, a network of small-scale food communities who are producing quality food in a responsible, sustainable way.

“It was great to talk to people from different countries about what they were doing in their areas that pertain to food and growing,” Judith describes and mentions how each booth felt like stepping in to another world. “There are just so many different things happening all over the world globally. It’s not only being proud to represent where you come from but being able to blend it with ideas you have learned growing up.”

So, what does one do with such a unique experience? They bring it back to the hood and apply it, of course. As many other areas in the country have proven, food deserts do not disappear overnight. The Yisraels have a deep understanding of this concept, and it’s one that they don’t take ligthly.

“Oh yeah, we’re going to change food deserts. We’re building the infrastructure,” Chanowk says with determination in voice. “This is about a 20 or 30-year process that’s going to take place. It’s not going to happen right away.”

Photo by Yarcenia Garcia
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