How Food Connects to Conservation

Photo: Amirio Freeman

Heed Amirio Freeman’s tips to start your outdoor advocacy journey from your own backyard.

In today’s globalized world, pretty much everything we do has some kind of impact on our surroundings. But according to Amirio Freeman (he/they), a gardener and Advocacy Manager for Feeding America, that interconnectedness is especially true of food systems. 

“Every choice you make about what you eat, when you eat, how you eat, and who you’re purchasing food from has really direct consequences” Freeman says. “Not only for yourself and your community, but for the planet as a whole—eating is political.” 

That lesson learned about the power in our day-to-day dining choices is one that Freeman learned early in life, from the sun-soaked soil of South Carolina. That’s where Freeman recalls warm memories of summers driving down to visit both sides of the family—in particular, his maternal grandfather. The son of a farmer, ‘Grandaddy William’ has now been maintaining his own garden for decades. By the time Freeman was a teenager, that plot of land had become a place of healing for both of them. 

“As a Black, Queer child, I had so much weirdness to my own relationship with masculinity and gender,” says Freeman, noting his acute interest in botanical life and plants and drawing flowers, which “felt like such a direct counter to how I should be as a Black man.” In that regard, seeing his grandfather engage with agricultural work was healing, and therapeutic enough that Freeman began to carry on its legacy by starting a personal home garden of his own. 

Then, in 2015, Freeman started the platform @beinggreenwhilebeingblack to help elevate the stories of Black people engaging with the natural world. Now primarily an Instagram account, the platform has more than 5,000 followers. Freeman’s work since with Feeding America is also squarely at the intersection of food and policy. Here, Freeman sat down with Public Lands to discuss the deeper questions behind what we eat and how food systems connect to climate, conservation and equity—and what you can do to “find your angle,” and enact change to make a difference.

PUBLIC LANDS: Why did you start the platform Being Green While Being Black?

AMIRIO FREEMAN: It started as a personal diary and an archive. At that time, I was an undergrad at the College of William & Mary, and I was in the beginning stages of working on my undergraduate thesis, looking for examples of ways that Black folks are in relationship with landscapes and waterscapes, and in a way that’s rooted in a sense of healing and justice. I wanted to do something to go against this overarching narrative that healing in nature is a white endeavor.

What did you learn about that narrative—that [false but pervasive] idea that nature is only for white people?

As I was doing this research, I kept coming across all these really devastating narratives giving credence to the fact that a lot of Black people feel this huge disconnect to farming and agriculture, or swimming or being in the ocean. When my dad was growing up in South Carolina, for example, there was a period of time when someone was basically kidnapping young Black kids. There was this fear of being outside as a young child because of this manifestation of anti-Blackness showing up in these spaces. And then you have all these slave narratives of people trying to escape bondage. For some Black folks, this has created this sense of, ‘OK, I want to remove myself from these traumas and from this history, so I’m not going to consider these waterscapes or landscapes as healing, therapeutic milieus.’ For so many, the outdoors has become the stage upon which the theater of white supremacy has played out.

A photo of Amirio Freeman in a plant store Photo: Amirio Freeman

What does connecting with nature mean for you these days?

I have to be careful with that idea, because I think, ‘When are we never not connected to the land?’ I’ve had to reorient around those kinds of questions, especially as I engage with the writing of people living with disabilities. In my studies, I’ve learned that folks who are disabled or bedridden often find nature in their homes—and that’s completely collapsed any idea I once had that there are times when I’m engaged with nature or not engaged with nature. Right now, for instance, I’m engaging with my houseplants, and I have my dog with me. I’m constantly hosting spiders and ants in my home. I feel like I’m always engaging with nature in some way.

But aside from that, gardening has been huge for me. I love to hike. I love to be here in D.C. and learn about the local agricultural scene and going to local farms. I love connecting with friends and new friends about what food they’re growing and how they’re growing it.

What’s the connection between those farms and the natural environment—or, more broadly, between our nation’s food systems and climate change?

Say you have an apple. That apple had to be grown, marketed, sold, bought, eaten, and then either thrown away or composted. At every point in that lifecycle there’s some sort of impact on the more-than-human world. What was the energy input it took to grow that apple? How much water? Whose land was it grown on? What kind of fuel was being used to transport it? How was it packaged? Did you use every part of the apple, or are you eating it in a way that’s contributing to food waste?

The simple act of being an eater envelopes you in a web of all these different interactions with the more-than-human world, and it has so many consequences for climate change.

A lot of your work has to do with healing our planet via healing our food system. What would some of those solutions look like?

Some of this gets complex to talk about because food systems are so localized. It’s hard to have a one-size-fits-all approach. But what I’d love to see is more investments in local communities. What would it look like for a community to receive funding to do seed banking? Or for another community to be given funding to support new BIPOC [Black Indigenous and People of Color] growers? I think it’s so much more helpful to give folks autonomy to determine what they actually need—and then figure out how we can give them the resources and funding and infrastructure and capacity to make that happen. 

Why do we need more BIPOC farmers?

Oh, so many reasons. Right now, across the board, our nation’s farmers are getting older. They lean more male and more white and more straight and more cis. When it comes to who’s growing our food, we’re facing a crisis—we’re reaching this cliff where so much wisdom and guidance is going to be lost. As an anti-hunger person, that’s devastating. If the know-how is lost, what does that mean for the future when we already have tens of millions of people going hungry every day? That makes it really vital to not only invest in our farmers but to diversify who is a farmer and what farming looks like and ensure that those folks have access to the resources they need to engage in this industry. 

I’m also thinking about the knowledge that’s within our community. I’m thinking about someone like George Washington Carver, who was an incredible thinker in terms of finding ways for our agricultural community to help mitigate environmental degradation. I’m thinking about the CSA [community-supported agriculture] model, which was developed by a Black man, Booker T. Whatley. I’m thinking about all the untapped brilliance and wisdom that needs to be passed down and developed. So many Indigenous folks have captured that knowledge, and so many Black folks have, as well. 

Then, of course, we have to think about the reality of the racial wealth gap. So much of what has contributed to that has been the theft of land from Indigenous and Black folks. At one point, there were hundreds of thousands of Black farmers who were contributing to our food systems and were able to access a sense of wealth and livelihood, and there are so many instances of those farmers being driven off the land by the KKK or by land-hungry people using legal loopholes. There’s a huge debt that has to be paid.

If someone wants to get involved with climate, conservation, or food system advocacy, what can they do to get started from their own backyards?

A lot of the work I do is rooted in my sense of identity as a Black person and as a Queer person. I think so much of what’s missing from our environmental or social or political movements is that we often don’t spend enough time getting rooted in that human, emotional element. When we miss that step, we end up doing work that doesn’t always resonate with everyone or mobilize them. 

Instead, start by asking what issues affect someone who looks like you or loves like you or moves like you or doesn’t move like you. Then figure out what you can do to learn more. Is there a book you can read or a documentary you can watch? Start small. Be micro, be specific, and start in a place that is really heart-centered. Then allow yourself to ease into the macro.

I think the macro comes from finding folks in the local community who care about these same issues. Figure out how they’re being activated and are mobilizing. Ask, ‘What are my unique gifts and roles I can play to be a part of what they’re doing?’

​​So: First find out how you fit within the bigger picture. Then find folks with whom you can actually mobilize to contribute to these larger movements. Real change only happens when we have folks in every single pocket coming together to work on an issue from every angle. So find your angle—that’s the first step. 

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