By Amara Ifeji
The ever-encompassing tree in the yard of a modest D.C. home was no stranger to a young Amarachukwu Ifeji. There, a climate justice activist was born. Her most formative experience tied culture to her forthcoming environmental passion in a most formative way. Today, she offers up her story to you all in the hopes that these lived experiences help to contextualize the most pressing issues society currently faces.
I watched as my grandfather prepared the soil for planting in his garden. The melting of the winter’s snow was his signal for this annual ritual. A plot of land no greater than 10 by 5 served as the canvas he used to produce the most beautiful rainbow I constantly marveled at as a young child. Red were the Roma tomatoes, orange the bell peppers, yellow the sweet corn, green the beans, and purple the onions. At the end of each growing season, these colors came together so beautifully, prepared in my most favorite Nigerian dishes.
As I sat under the shaded tree in awe of the canvas my grandfather diligently painted, the question I always had each year as I watched him illustrate the earth soon emerged. Unlike previous years, where I simply continued to look on bewildered, this was the year I had finally mustered up the courage to inquire about what was on my mind. I got up from where I sat and neared my grandfather. Tugging on his shirt, I asked, “Papo why do you spend all your time planting this food? Did you know the store sells everything we eat?” My grandfather looked at me and let out his very hearty laugh. He followed with “Amarachukwu, nni bu ndu. Food is life.”
To my 7-year-old brain, this phrase was quite puzzling. Looking back now, I better understand what my grandfather meant by this. Of course, his work could have been minimized by driving the 10 minutes to the grocery store to purchase all that he had spent hours planting and months waiting to harvest. However, he did not do so for a reason. That reason: his inseparable ties to the land.
Living in Nigeria in the late ‘60s and ‘70s during its devastating civil war, he knew firsthand how important food and the land it grew on was to countless lives. He and millions of others faced famine during war time. With incredibly scarce resources at his disposal, farming and making friends with the Earth was the only thing that was able to sustain him and nearly his entire village. Moving to the United States, he paid homage to the soils which sustained him through the cultivation of earth, which he still practices today so that he may never forget the life that it gave him.
Grateful I was for the work my grandfather put in to ensure his ties to the land were something he kept central to his life. Looking back on my childhood, the familial ties to the Earth I now know sustained me in more ways than I could possibly recognize at such a tender age. When WIC and food stamps funds failed to feed the 14 mouths that inhabited my home, the land made amends on what could not be bought. When hours had been futilely spent in search of our native “ogiri” and “okporoko,” the land provided the basics, which freed up some funds to have these items shipped from Nigeria. When the produce of grocery stores in my lower income community did not arrive for days on end, the land offered up her colors so that my family and I were not lacking in nutrients. My gratitude to the Earth can never be expressed in its fullest form. If not for the sustenance it provided me, I believe I would have been robbed of certain parts of my childhood if I ever came to recognize the food insecurity my family and I faced. I am grateful to the land for retaining my innocence and shielding me from an early understanding of the societal issues I would soon come to know.
I realize now that many other lower income youth of color are not so lucky as I was. At an early age, the food injustices that plague their communities become glaring to them. For many, the ties to land that shielded my innocence is not possible for them and their families because systemic challenges to land acquisition in communities of color makes it difficult for one to gain ownership of even the smallest plot of earth. Additionally, although certain programs exist, such as food banks and government assistance to aid families, what is seldom spoken about is how this food is often not culturally appropriate and the reluctance that exists within BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities to seek such programs, which stems from the desire to make it on one’s own. Additionally, higher rates of poverty, prevalence of food deserts within these communities, discrimination in employment and a lack of generational wealth leave communities of color with disproportionate rates of food insecurity twice as high as white folks. Therefore, Black and Brown youth are forced to grow up quickly as they face these and other injustices daily.
The disproportionate impacts on communities of color are characteristic to another issue which runs parallel to food insecurity: the climate crisis. I was the statistic, one of the 70% of Black people living within miles of an environmentally exploitative site. This proximity led to my susceptibility to develop asthma, like many Black children who do so at rate of 40% higher than white children.
However, this is just one example of environmental racism. The destruction of our climate is a symptom of the core systemic issues society is based on. Therefore, communities already facing social injustices typically are placed on the frontlines of environmental destruction. This year alone, we witnessed the devasting effects of the climate crisis: cities submerged under water, hurricanes destroying communities, fires raging across the country. Recent polls which outline the greatest concerns of the American people list the climate crisis as the front runner amongst many communities of color.
Food justice is climate justice. Thus, food injustice is climate injustice. Food insecurity is but one of the many consequences of the climate crisis. Climate-induced drought from extreme heat leads to a decrease in the availability of arable land that can be used to grow food. As a result of the heat waves faced this summer, the ground temperature in parts of the Pacific Northwest hit upwards of 145 degrees, hot enough to kill the essential bacteria and fungi that aid plant growth. These climate impacts are also evidenced in the state of Maine where 68% of the state, mainly the western and inland areas, continue to face prolonged dryness and varying drought conditions.
The capitalist consumer culture embodied by society today is evident in our food systems wherein destructive practices have led to the large-scale agricultural sector contributing to upwards of 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions. As the newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report outlines, there is a need for bold and swift action or else we escalate to a point of no return.
I go back to sitting beneath the tree on the spring day in D.C. all those years ago, my grandfather’s response to my childish question still on my mind. “Nni bu ndu. Food is life.” He knew firsthand the value of the land as what sustained him. Therefore, he gave back to the Earth and the Earth continued to give back to him. This is the relationship that must be adopted when it comes to us and this one home we have. We need to shift away from the prevalent, extractive mindset where the only thing we care about is what the land has to offer to us. Instead, if we are ever going to mitigate food injustice and climate concerns, we need to begin thinking about what we can offer the land through ecologically sound farming practices that regard the Earth as a friend and nurture it rightfully as what sustains us all.
Food justice is climate justice. When we begin to center the Earth and adopt practices of appreciation, the climate crisis, food insecurity and all other issues tethered to them can be addressed, and there will be sustained hope for a most just, equitable and resilient future.
Amara Ifeji is a 19-year-old systems thinker and climate justice activist committed to advancing equitable access to the outdoors for all youth. Through her role with the Maine Environmental Education Association, she strives to empower a network of over 400 youth environmental activists in the Maine Environmental Changemakers and JustME for a JustUS networks. This essay is excerpted from her keynote speech at the 2021 Common Ground Country Fair. You can watch her keynote in its entirety here.