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By Richard McCarthy

Slow Food International Vice President Edward Mukiibi in America

It is always instructive to see home through the eyes of a visitor. This is one of the positive outcomes from the North American tour of five cities on the food security and food sovereignty frontlines: New York City, Detroit, New Orleans and the nearby rural Mississippi community of Petal, and Sacramento.

Our goal is to spark intercultural learning between emerging food leaders of color in the USA with an important Ugandan food leader who works in 40 African countries. How similar are the challenges to deliver safe and affordable food here and there? Are there best practices to learn and share?

{{ image(3879, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “300”, “height”: “194”}) }}Sharing insights and images of the meetings via social media long the way, here is a glimpse of the first leg of the tour in New York City.

First stop on the tour was the Food and Finance High School in midtown Manhattan. Like many new niche public schools in NYC, it shares a large traditional school building with other schools. Mukiibi met with the entire junior class for a wide-ranging conversation that encompassed geography, biodiversity of bananas and the future – and the young students’ responsibility to shape it from the kitchen. Providing both conventional classroom instruction and hands-on contextual learning in the kitchen, the school’s intent is to spark student interest in lifelong careers in the culinary arts.

This was followed by an appearance on Erin Fairbanks’s Farm Report on Heritage Radio; pizza at iconic Bushwick pizzeria, Roberta’s; a quick visit to the Heritage Foods warehouse; a tour and tasting at Kelso Brewery; tap takeover at Berg’n Beer Hall with Kelso; dinner at the Pixie and the Scout with urban agriculture partners, like Just Food, Food Corps and the Black Urban Growers; tour of the Lower East Side Earth School; lunch with Bronx community agriculture leader Karen Washington; a radio interview with Bhavani Jaroff of iEat Green; and finally a lecture at New York University’s Food Studies Program – and to think, all of this in two days!

In these first impressions of the tour, one thing that is striking is the surprising juxtaposition between the benign and the political. Who doesn’t love gardens? Who disputes the compelling narrative of children learning food sources, science and a love for food via gardens? After all, the meteoric return of vegetable gardens in schools is a testament to this fact. And yet, whether exploring the growth and maintenance of community gardens, school gardens and micro-farms in Uganda, Kenya or South Africa or that of Manhattan, the tensions between land tenure, developers, and the forces of monoculture are paramount.

In other words, as Edward Mukiibi puts it: Gardens are political. They may start modest but from gardens grow new leaders who imagine a different world. This sentiment was evident in conversations with leaders, like Karen Washington, who sees a direct link between gardens providing sustenance and a pathway for grassroots leadership to gain a voice and a context for engaging with decision-makers at the top. Similarly, Earth School Principal Abbe Futterman recognizes the compelling power of a garden – in its case, a rooftop garden – to orient young kids to the physical reality around them.

{{ image(3881, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “300”, “height”: “225”}) }}At New York University, Professor Gustavo Setrini hosted a Friday evening event that began with Mukiibi’s presentation about the state of civil society in Uganda and in the 40 countries in which the Slow Food gardens are growing and ended with delicious glasses of Ferrari sparkling wines. And to think, the students opted to finish off the week with more learning, more discussion about food sovereignty, global food policies and food and drink is a testament to the power of global intercultural sharing.


In a city that has experienced the long, painful slowdown from the heyday of the 20th century’s automotive economy, you can visit the Detroit you read about: Once bustling neighborhoods today feel empty of both people and houses. Structures have been stripped, left to rot and now reveal the earthen assets of good soil beneath. It is a strange place. The downtown has many beautiful assets – architectural and institutions, like the Detroit Institue for the Arts (which made the news earlier this year in the municipal bankruptcy). Despite the distress, Detroit also offers remarkable glimpses into what British social theorist Colin Ward asks in his book, Welcome Thinner City: What happens to a place in which remaining residents reimagine land-use, the economy, community and a tax base? By no means have they solved problems; however, visit Detroit, spend time with locals (of whom 85% are African American) and feel buoyed by the verve of the place. After all, the slogans of “Detroit Hustles Harder” and “Detroit versus Everybody” speak to a community that feels left behind by the 21st Century and yet also driven to survive and thrive.

{{ image(3953, {“class”: “flol round”, “width”: “300”, “height”: “270”}) }}Edward Mukiibi and I stayed in an urban farm bed and breakfast: You can’t do that anywhere. The neighborhood – Brightmoor – is a center of community development via food: youth farm, biodynamic farms, shared use kitchen, and farmers market. It is a bright spot on the map; however, it is not the only one. During our days there, we visited several inspiring efforts led by local leaders, each driven by unique histories and ambitions: We toured D-Town Farms with on-site composting director Kadiri Sennefar Ra (who also served as a delegate to the Slow Food Youth Network’s global gathering, We Feed the Planet in Milan, Italy in October 2015). Next, we visited the Georgia Street Community Collective whose community center was purchased for $1from the city and sits adjacent to the community garden beds and the farm animals. Founder Mark Covington is a homegrown leader whose interest in chickens has set in motion this remarkable project that serves as a community asset that is not so professional and large scale as to be resting upon the community so much as it is imbedded in the community. He lives across the street from the project. Differing slightly in intent, the Oakland Avenue Farmway is a project of the North End Christian Community Development Corporation. Organizers Jerry Ann and Billy Hebron envision a cluster of urban agri-tourism growing out of the hoop houses, community center, farmers market and property purchases they have made to create a critical mass of growing, canning, food access and commerce.

The value of visiting projects of the scale we encountered in Detroit is that they are within reach of similar efforts Mukiibi supports throughout the 10,000 Gardens in Africa network. Too often, financially secure and large-scale American projects can overwhelm visiting observers and leave them with the impression that they will never attain that level of complexity and impact. This is not to say that all projects in Detroit are small: Consider the agricultural footprint of Detroit’s Office of School Nutrition’s food service director Betti Wiggins. We visited Drew Farms’s 4.5 acre farm and 96 square foot hoop house. Thousands of pounds of root crops, leafy greens and non-GMO corn feed public school students. At one end of the spectrum, the schools are changing food and nutrition policies from the top down. At the other end, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network educates young children who embrace healthy growing and eating as their birthright: The Food Warriors. Mukiibi visited the Food Warriors at Timbuktu Academy and enjoyed their performance of the Food Warriors song with the refrain, “Claim your rights, To the land, With pure hearts, And soiled hands.” While this moment may have been the Detroit highlight, a close second was to address City Council upon receiving the Testimonial Resolution.

New Orleans

{{ image(3954, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “300”, “height”: “204”}) }}The Crescent City delivered warm days, colorful foliage familiar to Mukiibi and a rhythm of life also more familiar to his equatorial ways. During the surprisingly rapid days in a slow city, Mukiibi headlined “A Bountiful Catch and Garden Happy Hour at Café Carmo” with Slow Food New Orleans; conducted interviews on WBOK and WWNO (the second for Poppy Tooker’s Louisiana Eats!); was featured in NOLA.COM; and delivered the Dr. Rudy Joseph Lombard Black Hand in the Pot Lecture at Dillard University on behalf of the Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture. There, he was fortunate to spend time with program director Zella Palmer and also to enjoy a performance by Spy Boy Ace, Queen Reesie, Nkem Big Chief Brian and Pharaoh Andrew of the Mardi Gras Indian Collective and Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society. Mukiibi also made his way to neighborhoods far from the beaten tourist path: He enjoyed Lavazza coffee and conversation with seed savers and gardeners at the Guerilla Garden in the Lower Ninth Ward who are members of the Backyard Gardeners Network; met and toured the Grow Dat Youth Farm with staffer and Terra Madre delegate Jabari Brown and a team of teenage entrepreneurs. Makiibi also toured the Edible School Yard New Orleans (and addressed the fourth-graders about growing in Uganda and across Africa). An evening of African-influenced food served with Abita Beer and Ferrari Italian sparkling wines capped an otherwise frantic full day of touring and talks in New Orleans. Before Mukiibi was invited to ring the opening bell at the region’s flagship Saturday Crescent City Farmers Market, we first traveled on the Friday before to rural Mississippi to view the crops in the fields. En route to Mississippi, we first met up with the visiting University of Gastronomic Studies students from Italy in the inspiring Vietnamese community in New Orleans East to drink strong Vietnamese iced coffee and to tour the Veggi Cooperative – a relatively recent social enterprise that links traditional knowledge of older growers with new economic opportunities to sell greens, tofu and soy milk to new markets in New Orleans. This exciting and visibly well organized venture is one of the new efforts to grow out of the “ask for forgiveness not permission” ethos that drove recovery in this flooded refugee neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina. Lead organizer Khai Nguyen hosted our tour on site of the farm whilst farmers harvested, cleaned and weighed root crops.

Petal, Mississippi

{{ image(3955, {“class”: “flol round”, “width”: “300”, “height”: “225”}) }}In order to better understand the challenge of black land retention, community cohesion and next generation farming, we traveled 1.5 hours outside of New Orleans to meet and eat with members of the Indian Springs Farmers’ Association. Longtime collaborators with Market Umbrella to establish the Crescent City Farmers Market, we were met by the James Beard award-winning farmer Ben Burkett, daughter Darnella and granddaughter Denver to tour fields of greens, the emblematic and pivotal packing shed, and farmer Penn’s fields: one with goats and the other with high tunnels and wells (provided with important cost-sharing from USDA Rural Development funds). These allow for an extension of seasons. For many Deep South farmers, once the first frost knocks back the autumn crops they retreat until spring. With the growth of new, year-round direct markets and farm-to-school efforts, tools like high tunnels and irrigation enable farmers to extend seasons, thus increase cash flow during the leaner and colder months and minimize some of the risk to grow experimental crops. For instance, the Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans (which incorporates the Edible School Yard New Orleans) could not possibly enter into the fall school semester without Watermelon Day in late September. Watermelons in late September? Yes, thanks to high tunnel innovation together with traditional knowledge, Indian Springs is growing late season watermelons with fewer pests and sweeter melons specifically for the grade school event. Today, they are shifting more of their watermelon production to the autumn when fewer competitors are on the market. After tours, Darnella and her team served up South Mississippi smothered vegetables, roasted goat (from Penn’s farm), fried chicken, and peach cobbler to accompany Lavazza coffee. In many ways, the conversation at lunch – together with Mississippi school garden, sustainable agriculture and policy advocates – got to the heart of the matter: food sovereignty does not come easily. Communities fight for it: Just ask the civil rights era-born members of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives!

Sacramento, California

{{ image(3956, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “300”, “height”: “214”}) }}After days spent in the North East, Mid West and Deep South, Mukiibi completed his American travels on the West Coast on November 18th when he returned to his home in Uganda. Slow Food Sacramento kindly hosted him for a Fall Mixer at Magpie’s Nido Café, school garden tours (at the Grant High School’s GEO Environmental and Design Academy); the original Edible School Yard in Berkeley followed by lunch at Chez Panisse with fellow Slow Food International Vice President Alice Waters and Slow Food California leaders. His final day was devoted to public advocacy and the remarkable work of Slow Food in California to push public policy forward: State Assemblymember Kevin McCarty welcomed Mukiibi to the State House for and then later in the evening with Congresswoman Doris Matsui and State Senator Richard Pan for the Grantland Johnson Community Awards Ceremony (in which Mukiibi addressed the hunger and homelessness event). While I was not present for this last leg of the journey, I am confident that Mukiibi and Slow Food California may be able to fill in with more details soon. One last word on California: Thank you to Slow Food Sacramento’s Chef Brenda Ruiz for her heroics in making Mukiibi’s stay so meaningful.