Leah Penniman: It is nearly impossible to make a living selling vegetables on a small scale. 95% of small farmers are relying on second, third jobs. And so, we have to, as a public figure out how to stop subsidizing the stuff that’s trashing the planet and our health and start “subsidizing” the things that are bringing life.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Welcome to the Doctor’s Farmacy, I’m Dr. Mark Hyman. That’s Farmacy with an F, a place for conversations that matter. If you care about your food, this conversation is going to matter to you because it’s with an extraordinary woman who’s really revolutionizing how we think about food, how we grow it and who we grow it for and addressing issues around food injustice and food apartheid, which not many people are actually talking about on surprisingly because it’s such a big problem.
Dr. Mark Hyman: She is an educator farmer pays on, she’s creole, her family’s from Haiti and she’s an author, an activist from Soul Fire Farm in Grafton in New York. She cofounded the farm in 2010 with the mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to the land. As co-executive director, Leah is part of a team that facilitates powerful food sovereignty programs including farmer training for black and brown people, a subsidized farm distribution program for communities living under food apartheid, and domestic and international organizing toward equity in the food system. Thank God for that.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Leah has been farming since 1996, she has a master’s in education and BA in environmental science from Clark university. Her work has been recognized, the work of Soul Fire Farm by the Soros Racial Justice Fellowship, Fulbright program, Grist 50, the James Beard Award and on and on. And her book, which everybody should get is called Farming While Black, Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, and it’s a love song for land and her people. Thank you for being here Leah.
Leah Penniman: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Of course. So, you’re doing an extraordinary thing which is changing the conversation about food, farming and race and the injustice in our food system. Everybody talks about eating healthy and addressing chronic disease through food. Not many people are talking about food injustice or food oppression or food racism, and you are. How did you figure this out? What was the thing that got you into farming? It was an accident. Talk about how that all got connected.
Leah Penniman: Well, I mean there’s a lot of beginnings to every story, but part of my beginning was growing up in a small rural working class, mostly white town. And to be really frank, the kids at school were not kind to my siblings and I, we were the only brown family in the school and had a hard time making friends, experienced a lot of bullying. And it was the forest, it was the land that was really a solace for me. I considered the trees my closest and best friends, worked hard to defend them from a young age.
Dr. Mark Hyman: They don’t talk back.
Leah Penniman: They do actually talk back.
Dr. Mark Hyman: But they don’t bully you.
Leah Penniman: They don’t, but they offer a lot of support and guidance about right relationship. And so, I think it was my connection to land that drove me to eventually look for a job, a career that was related to land stewardship. And so I found farming as a teenager and I haven’t looked back.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Amazing. You were working at something called the Food Project when you were 16, how did that affect your future and the work you’re doing today?
Leah Penniman: Absolutely. So I spent summers in Boston with my mom. I spent the school years with my dad in rural Ashburnham. The Food Project was generous enough to give me a summer job at 16 planting carrots, hoeing rose, running a farmer’s market. And it was really transformative for me because at a time when the teenage years are tumultuous, there’s lots of questions around identity and belonging and farming is undeniably good.
Leah Penniman: You have the opportunity to put a seed in the ground, harvest, feed the community, and no one can deny that that is a noble contribution to society. And so, that beautiful nexus between environmental care and social care was deeply healing and meaningful for me. And so, I went on to work at several other farms throughout my teenage years.
Dr. Mark Hyman: But, it’s interesting, we’ve had our entire country built on the backs of slavery and the agrarian wisdom of the Africans who were involuntarily brought over here to grow food for Americans and to literally build the US economy. And so, a lot of African-Americans see farming as a reversion of slavery, plantation life. There’s a negative connotation about it, but somehow you’ve really reframed that, and are bringing back the original wisdom that has long been in that culture. Can you talk about that.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, I mean, it’s so true. I think there’s a lot of agricultural practices that we take for granted as a historical or European that actually have African roots. So things like regenerative agriculture, that comes out of the work of Dr. George Washington Carver in the late 1800s at Tuskegee university. Black professor who started extension agencies, started cover cropping and crop rotation in this country. You look all the way back to Cleopatra who came up with composting and-
Dr. Mark Hyman: A lot of concept.
Leah Penniman: Raised beds from the Ovambo people. So, there’s so many technologies and I think that while I certainly don’t blame our people for feeling triggered by the land, the land was the scene of the crime as Chris Bolden Newsome would say, but we can actually reach back beyond that to reclaim a noble and dignified relationship to land. And I’m part of a returning generation that’s excited to do that.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah, I mean, because in a way, part of the solution to poverty and injustice in our food system is bringing everybody back into right relationship with our food and our land and that’s a very novel concept, right?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, absolutely. Fannie Lou Hamer said, if you have 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to do.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I love that. I love that.
Leah Penniman: Which I think is brilliant because if you think about that, if you don’t have anything canned for the winter, you don’t have a farm or anything, if they put chains around that supermarket, you’re going to put down your protest sign, put down your ballot and crawl through the dust to get food for your children.
Leah Penniman: And so fundamentally, whoever controls the food and the land really controls the population. And we’re seeing that now with power outages and grocery stores shuttering, the way that it wreaks havoc in society. So part of our collective survival is to reclaim an agrarian tradition and our relationship to land.
Dr. Mark Hyman: So powerful. Now you were in 2006 long time ago, you were living with your husband in South end of Albany near the Capitol in New York state and you said it was easier to get weapons and drugs than healthy food and that your neighborhood was a place of food apartheid, which is really an interesting term, and I want to get into that. But there were no grocery stores, farmers markets, fast food and bodega’s in every corner, just selling processed junk and alcohol. And it helped you catalyze a lot of what your thinking was and what you’re doing. Why is this whole term food apartheid the right term that we should be using instead of talking about food deserts?
Leah Penniman: Sure. So there’s a lot there. I mean, a food desert implies a natural ecosystem, right? It’s the term the USDA uses for a high poverty neighborhood without grocery stores. But there’s nothing natural about a system where certain people have-
Dr. Mark Hyman: Manmade.
Leah Penniman: Yeah. Access to food opulence, and others food scarcity.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I say man on purpose.
Leah Penniman: Right. So it’s apartheid, it’s apartheid. There’s a whole history of red lining and housing discrimination that’s led to neighborhoods that don’t have these resources. I think for me, living with my children who were quite small then, Neshima was two, Emet was a newborn. And as you said, there were no grocery stores, farmers markets, places to have a garden. And so, we ended up joining a CSA program. So like a subscription program that costs more than our rent and had to walk over two miles to get the vegetables, pile them onto the laps of the sleeping children in the stroller, go back down. That was the only way to get vegetables.
Leah Penniman: And so when our neighbors found out that we knew how to farm, there was a clamor for us to create the farm for the people. And that was where the idea for Soul Fire Farm came about.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Wow. And so, food apartheid really is a better way of describing the intentional segregation, the deliberate policies, the red lining, which you described, which maybe you could explain that led to this incredible disparity in access to food and also in the health disparities that result from that. Because we’re seeing this tremendous increase in diseases in African American and Latino populations. It’s not an accident.
Leah Penniman: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, absolutely. So food apartheid is the right term because as you mentioned, if you are black or brown, Latinex, indigenous, you’re much more likely to struggle with diabetes, heart disease and other diet related illnesses. Not to be clear because we don’t know how to make good food choices or know how to cook food or want those foods, it’s really because of access. If you have $3 in your pocket and you live in a food apartheid zip code, you can get some hot Cheetos and blue colored drink, but you cannot get a burrito, a salad or anything like that.
Leah Penniman: And so, it’s really a tragedy that is rooted in institutional racism. Because as I mentioned in the 1930s the federal government commissioned these maps to be made of neighborhoods that ranked them from most desirable to lend down to least desirable. And the communities of color were outlined in red as too risky to lend, too risky to have a mortgage, too risky to own homes. And so the wealth disparity has grown and the property ownership disparity has grown, and with it these neighborhood conditions.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Incredible. I think people don’t realize the magnitude of a health disparity that exists out there. Diabetes, heart disease, chronic illnesses, kidney failure, hypertension that affect black and indigenous people, native Americans, Latinos, far more than whites. If you’re African American, you’re 80% more likely to be diagnosed with type two diabetes. You’re four times as likely to have kidney failure, three and a half times more likely to have amputations from diabetes as whites. And it also somehow connects to how our whole physm is operating. It’s almost like a weapon that is used against these populations. Not necessarily intentionally always, but it has been the unintended result of our food policies, of our ag policies.
Dr. Mark Hyman: The way I think about it is we’re facing an unprecedented proliferation of biological weapons of mass destruction, our processed food, which kills literally 40 to 50 million people a year globally from hypertension. So, how do you see the role of a farmer shifting this systemic violence, these biological weapons of mass destruction as I call them and how do we do that?
Leah Penniman: I mean, what you said is so powerful because food has intentionally been used as a weapon. I mean, you look at the Greenwood Food Blockades that were used to punish civil rights activity, literally cutting off food supplies to black communities in the 1960s for the audacity to try to register to vote. And so, I actually don’t think it’s an accident that our schools, our urban schools, our prisons are filled with these highly processed foods because a population that’s not well is not going to resist. If I’m not feeling well and I’m dealing with diabetes, kidney issues, I’m not going to show up for a town hall and tell my Senator what they should be doing, right?
Leah Penniman: And so, I don’t think it’s entirely an accident, but I do believe it’s not just farmers who are responsible for the solution, it’s obviously everyone in the food system. But farmers do have a unique role to play because we have an opportunity, one, to see where our food’s going and to do what we can to make sure there’s equitable distribution. We have the opportunity to make sure that our farm workers are treated fairly, signing on to programs like the Food Justice Certified.
Leah Penniman: And we have a unique voice where we can really get bi-partisan ear. Farming is considered everybody kind of issue. So we can be telling policymakers about the shifts that need to happen on a systemic level.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Exactly. I think we are seeing a farm system that also has generated out of a series of policies that have led to the overproduction of these highly processed foods, and the poor and minorities are targeted by the food industry with extra marketing for these foods. When SNAP or food stamps come on with your monthly stipend, it’s usually at the beginning of the month and that’s when there’s maximum advertising and all these bodegas and local stores for more soda and more junk foods. So, it’s an intentional process.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And the other thing that is not well understood, I think by most is that your cognitive development depends on your nutrition. So, if you’re growing up in a poor community with lack of access to nutritious food, with lack of vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients and all the things you need to create your healthy brain, these kids are not going to be cognitively where they need to be.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I mean, even the exposure on farms to pesticides, these kids have lost 41 million IQ points in farm and food workers, which are among the most dangerous occupations in this country because of the use of these industrial agricultural chemicals. So, we have both the issue of food justice, but we also have the environmental racism and environmental justice that’s connected to the food system because most of the workers on farms today are brown, mostly Latino workers or migrant workers. They’re not protected by the farm. I mean, the labor, fair labor act, it was in the ’30s but they were excluded mostly because at the time they were mostly African Americans doing the work. And, it’s a big barrier.
Dr. Mark Hyman: So, what are the biggest barriers you see to what you described as decolonizing farming? And can you just take a minute to describe what is the colonization of our food system? Because I think people don’t understand that we have a colonization of our food system.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, absolutely.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Sorry, that was a lot.
Leah Penniman: That was a lot. Environmental justice, I agree is absolutely a huge issue first of all, because we’re talking about who’s getting environmental benefits and who’s suffering from environmental harms, pesticide exposure, extreme heat, raw farm climate chaos. We’re talking about the affluent from Hog Farms and toxic emissions-
Dr. Mark Hyman: And the rights are abused, sexual abuse and all sorts of … Yeah.
Leah Penniman: Totally. So, I’m glad that you mentioned because those issues are certainly linked. I mean the colonization of the food system is the imposition of European control, power and European norms over our food system. And it’s quite pervasive. I’ll tell a quick story just to illustrate one example of it.
Leah Penniman: You take maize, a 9,000 year old staple crop. It was a gift from sky woman to the indigenous people of Turtle Island of this continent. It was given to prevent starvation in combination with her sister’s, beans and squash to be grown together, right? You all heard of the three sisters?
Dr. Mark Hyman: Of course, inter cropping, right?
Leah Penniman: Yeah. And there’s many, many origin stories, but the condition was that that need to be … The gift of maize needed to be shared freely. So the colonizers got some too, right? As a gift. That’s how they stayed alive. But look what they did with maize, tore her away from the sisters. Monocrop, laden with chemicals, pesticides leading to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, turned into corn syrup pumped into the veins of our children driving the diabetes epidemic, right? And genetically modified BT Terminator seed, all of this. And so you look at-
Dr. Mark Hyman: And we could go on and on I mean.
Leah Penniman: Looking at maize, right? Is just one example of colonization of the food system. You look at the fact that the soil has lost over 50% of its organic matter. 50% of its carbon is burned up into the atmosphere. That was the beginning of climate change was the 1800s opening of the great plains. And so-
Dr. Mark Hyman: We had extractive agriculture that wasn’t regenerative. And that’s led to this massive climate change crisis. And, I think we’ve talked about it in this show, but our food system end to end is the number one cause of climate change.
Leah Penniman: Absolutely.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And people don’t realize that, it’s about 50% whereas fossil fuel is about 30%. And it’s not just the factory farming of cows, it’s everything from deforestation to land destruction to food waste and so forth. So, you just talk about this stuff, you’ve got your hands in the dirt.
Leah Penniman: Absolutely.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And you are not just talking the talk, you’re walking the walk and you’ve created an extraordinary place called Soul Fire Farm, which I read a lot about. I’ve watched movies about it, I’m super impressed with what’s going on there because you’re helping your community and poor communities understand the benefit of the land and becoming farmers and training them to become farmers. And then you’re doing all sorts of collateral good in the community by providing food for ex cons who can’t get food or for immigrants who can’t actually afford food. I mean it’s really amazing. So tell us what you think the role of Soul Fire Farm is in creating a new food system.
Leah Penniman: Wow. Yeah, so-
Dr. Mark Hyman: I’m sorry, I’m putting you on the spot.
Leah Penniman: No, it’s my heart work. So Soul Fire Farm, we are a community farm. There’s eight of us up on the land up in the mountains of Grafton New York.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I’m coming to visit.
Leah Penniman: Please do. Every month we have a community day, everyone can come. But we are dedicated to ending racism in the food system. And we’re doing that in three basic ways, right? The first is to regenerate the 80 acres that we get to steward of Mohican territory. So we’re using all these afro indigenous technologies to heal the land, produce food, and get that to the people who need it most through a doorstep delivery program. That’s the first thing.
Leah Penniman: The second thing is to equip black and brown farmers through our training programs and mentorship, helping people get the knowledge and land and credit they need. And then the final thing is mobilizing public support, trying to change policy, get reparations for farmers, reparations for indigenous people who’ve lost their land and so forth. It’s been really heartening because we actually haven’t had to convince people that this is worth doing. I thought I’d be all alone in the hills, but our waiting lists for our programs are years long because we want to get back to the land as a people.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I mean, most people aren’t aware that Lincoln when he freed the slaves promised 40 acres and a mule, which Andrew Johnson, the president who got impeached right after him revoked. And it’s been estimated that if that was in place that there’d be a land worth $4.6 trillion in the African American community, which has been usurped for them.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And then at the turn of the century, 14% of farms compared to less than 1% of farmers now were African American and they were in the South and they were threatening the existing status quo down there. And the people who were running those farms were lynched. Their homes were burned, their farms destroyed, their land was taken over. And it’s just, it’s a legacy that people just don’t realize that this was injustice has never been talked about that really never been really addressed, and maybe we need to get back that $4.6 trillion of land.
Leah Penniman: We absolutely do, yeah.
Dr. Mark Hyman: As you mentioned reparations and I think that’s what that made me think about it.
Leah Penniman: Yeah. Because 40 acres and a mule was a broken promise. All of the land that black folks got was purchased off their own dime despite the oppressive sharecropping and convict leasing conditions. And it wasn’t just the violent lynching and terrorism that drove people off land. It was the federal government itself. The USDA in the 1962 commission of civil rights report was named as the number one culprit in the decline of the black farmer. Reagan later closed that office. He didn’t like their findings, but that’s why black farmers sued the government. They won a settlement of $2 billion in 1999 the Pigford case, which was the largest civil rights settlement in US history. But by then most of the farmers were in their 90s and 50,000 it’s not going to get you back your land. So, it was really a symbolic victory.
Dr. Mark Hyman: So, you point out that partly as a result of the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule and many other deliberate and political and social injustice that happened, you talk about how there’s been an increase in African American farmers. It used to be 14% now it’s maybe one or 2%.
Leah Penniman: One and half, yeah.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah. So, but you see that changing and I just saw this incredible graph in one of your articles where there was this complete divergence where white farmers are going down, but mostly because they’re aging out of farming and no one’s coming in new and African American farmers are going up.
Leah Penniman: Well, the USDA actually just got called out for fluffing up its numbers in the 2017 census. So, we’re not exactly sure if black farmers are on the rise according to the USDA account. I will say though that as someone who focuses on training and returning generation of black farmers, that there is a clamor, there is an interest and there are a number of success stories on an anecdotal level. And so, we’re hoping to see some legitimate shifts upward in the coming census.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I work a lot in Cleveland and I go through some of the poorest areas there and see the way people live, the lack of access to food, and it strikes me that they’re in this vicious cycle that they can’t get out of and that thinking about how to bring … I know it’s not your expertise, but how to bring farming and communities agriculture back into these communities.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I was at Ebenezer Baptist church number years ago and they had a two acre plot right near the church and in the middle of Atlanta was a massive farm where the church members were growing the food, they were eating the food they were distributing to the communities that needed it. I was really like, wow, this is a model that could be scaled.
Leah Penniman: Absolutely.
Dr. Mark Hyman: So, how do you see that being part of the solution? Because, it is something I struggle with. It’s like you see the problem is so tough. I mean I’m working in Cleveland working with a group there, really underserved African Americans who are very sick. They have diabetes, they have kidney failure, they have all these issues, and we’re putting them in a group together. We’re using community based solutions, we’re going to them. We’re teaching them how to cook and shop, and they want it so bad, but nobody ever has helped them and they’re losing weight and they’re feeling good.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And it just, it’s amazing, but these are just really neglected communities, and it’s bankrupting our country. We should care about it because a big part of our $22 trillion debt is a cost of healthcare. So, how do you see intervening in these communities as well, because I think, how do you bring people up to say, okay, well farming is not about slavery. It’s not about working on a plantation. It’s actually my salvation. It’s what my ancestors did and brought to America and I should be proud of it, which is what you’re trying to say. But how do you get people’s mindset to change around that?
Leah Penniman: Absolutely. I mean I would say at least half of our graduates from our week long beginning farmer training program go on to start urban farms or work on urban farms. So it’s really part of the same solution and I think it’s a false dichotomy between the rural and urban. I’d want to shout out, if you look at reverend Heber Brown’s Baltimore black church community food security network, he realized that black churches are actually the biggest landholders in the black community.
Leah Penniman: And so, as you saw in Atlanta, putting in gardens, also sourcing from rural black farmers and getting that food to urban black community. And so it’s happening in Chicago. It’s happening to Detroit with a D-Town Farm, [inaudible 00:23:04] work.
Leah Penniman: So, we’re very excited to be collaborating and have found that it’s not so much, again, that we need to convince people. I think the will is there. It’s often the resources that are lacking. So, if we can make sure that folks don’t have to pay a high water bill and that they have the tools and the land and institutional support, website development, whatever the thing is that they need, it emerges. And so, we don’t even have to evangelize.
Dr. Mark Hyman: That’s crazy. I mean, Heber Brown said, pastor in Baltimore said, we’re losing more people to sweets than the streets because he was ministering to his congregation, and seeing how many people are dying from all the food they were eating. So, I think it’s an important solution to empowering people, getting them out of poverty, giving them food sovereignty in ways that there aren’t a lot of solutions that people are offering. And I think this is a powerful one. I think, but it’s still hard for people of color to become farmers. So, how do we overcome those obstacles?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, absolutely. So recently the USDA, again, we looked at their numbers and they’re still giving out a disproportionate amount of their resources to white farmers, large farmers, corporate farmers. And so, we need an overhaul, the civil rights commission in the USDA to address that discrimination because-
Dr. Mark Hyman: Is there a civil rights commission at the USDA?
Leah Penniman: There is, and they have a multi year backlog of complaints that are unaddressed. And so, we’ve been meeting-
Dr. Mark Hyman: And is there 175 year old lady running the whole thing or what?
Leah Penniman: Oh, it is a hot mess. But I will tell you, we’ve been talking to a Senator Sanders, Senator Warren, other politicians for the first time are interested in the plight of the black farmer. And so, hopefully we’ll get those cases addressed of discrimination so people can get their loans and crop allotments and technical assistance.
Leah Penniman: I think also we need massive land reform. 98% of the rural land is owned by white people right now. That’s the highest amount of land concentrate in the hands of European Americans ever in the history of this country. And so, we really need to look at a patchwork of land trust and land link and land transfer to make sure that there is-
Dr. Mark Hyman: 40 acres and a mule.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, exactly, 40 acres and a mule in 2019, 2020, right?
Dr. Mark Hyman: Maybe not a mule, maybe some other tools.
Leah Penniman: 40 acres and a couple of tractors.
Dr. Mark Hyman: What’s really fascinating about this conversation is that if you do the right thing for the land, you do the right thing for humans. You do the right freaking for climate. You do the right thing for bad diversity, you do the right thing for scarce water resources, right? You do the right thing for all of the things that matter. You do the right thing for injustice. You do the right thing for our economy, you do the right thing for health. It seems too good to be true, but is that how you see it?
Leah Penniman: I do think it’s all really connected. Some of my mentors have taught me how to farm in Ghana. They’re called the queen mothers, so these elder women who are just badass in every way. But they said, I mean is it true, Leah, is it true that if you want to plant a seed on your farm in the United States, you don’t pray over it or sing or dance or say thank you to the ground, right? You expect the seed to grow. I admitted that was true. And they said that’s why you all are sick. You all are sick because you treat the earth like a commodity and not like a family member.
Leah Penniman: And so, I do think that the reverence that we have for the earth, by extension, the way we treat the land is going to be mirrored in the way we treat ourselves and our human communities.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I mean, you’re so right about this because when you look at the impact of re regenerative ag to reverse all the wrongs to our earth and to humans, it has so much potential. It’s like, I wouldn’t say it’s the entire solution, but it’s a big solution if we scale this. And I think, and doing all the things I said by producing better quality food where the farmers are happier, they’re healthier, they make more money producing food that’s good for humans.
Dr. Mark Hyman: It’s actually reverses climate change that actually doesn’t deplete our scarce fresh water resources, that increases the biodiversity, protects our pollinators. I mean, does all this downstream benefits, and it’s like a duh, but it’s still this … People, when you say regenerative, they’re like, what’s that? Right?
Leah Penniman: Yeah. I mean regenerative ag. I think we’ve got to give a shout out to Dr. George Washington Carver. People thought he was nuts. I mean this is a generation and a half before Rodale, and so he’s telling farmers literally to let their land rest out of cash crop for a little while. Put some legumes in there because legumes as we know are best friends with bacteria.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And they fix nitrogen.
Leah Penniman: Fix nitrogen.
Dr. Mark Hyman: [crosstalk 00:27:26] fertilizer, right?
Leah Penniman: Exactly. He was getting people to go and muck out swamps to make compost piles. I mean, he literally started quoting Bible verses to get folks convinced that this is what God wanted them to do because it didn’t make any logical sense.
Dr. Mark Hyman: How did he figure it out? Was it from his …
Leah Penniman: It’s from traditional African and indigenous practices bringing them into the university. So he said, God says whatever you do unto the least of these you do on to me. And God’s talking about the earthworms, so come here over here. And his motto was really neat because he would go out to the most decrepit farm in the county, do an extreme farm make-over with regenerative practices and then invite everyone over to see the model and then move to the next county. So that was the beginning of extension agencies in this country.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah, that’s incredible.
Leah Penniman: And we’re building on it now.
Dr. Mark Hyman: It’s so great. I mean it’s so, so great. I remember reading a story about this guy who came up from the city with his Air Jordans and didn’t want to get out of the car.
Leah Penniman: Oh Dijour Carter. Yeah, [crosstalk 00:28:17] story.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Because he didn’t want to get his sneakers dirty and he underwent acquainted transformation. Can you just tell that story because I think it’s so cool.
Leah Penniman: Absolutely. So, hi Dijour. So Dijour Carter is now a grown person, but as a teenager, he did come out of the farm. He was afraid a bear would eat him, so he didn’t want to get out of the van.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And somebody whose never out of the city.
Leah Penniman: Yeah, he had not ever been to a farm before. And so, when we all went on the tour, that was even scarier because we were leaving him alone. We eventually convinced him to get out of the van and in order to protect his sneakers from getting dirty, he took them off and went barefoot. And he had an experience where once his barefoot touched the ground, a memory of his grandmother entered through his foot up to his heart, and she had once gardened with him in the city and put worms in his hand.
Leah Penniman: And so, he softened at that moment and ended up telling the whole group the story in tears about, “Miss, I never thought this place had anything to do with me. But it sure does. It sure does.” And that’s just one of the thousands of stories of the land just calling us home. We don’t even have to do anything, you just touch her and she calls us home.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah, it’s so true. I mean, I came into this in college where I ended up going to this summer program called the Institute for Social Ecology, which was all about understanding the challenges we’re facing environmentally to our land and the women’s rights, various injustices. One of the courses I took was biological agriculture. They didn’t call it regenerative back then, but it was all about inter cropping, cover crops, natural pest control through various plants that you can use like marigolds to repel pest. It was just passing. I learned so much, how to make compost. It was like …
Dr. Mark Hyman: And then I began studying these books like Soil and Health and which was from sir Albert Howard, who was a British guy who helped start the organic agriculture movement, and One-Straw Revolution, and all these books, Wendell Berry’s, the Unsettling of America. That just really shaped my thinking, so as I became a doctor all that was in there, right? It was all the underneath my thinking about how we need to be in relationship to the land.
Dr. Mark Hyman: But what’s really occurred to me now, on the other end of 30 years of that is seeing all these chronically ill patients that are sick from the food they’re eating. And then I realized that I can’t stay in my office treating patients because it’s going to be a never ending stream unless we go upstream and fix the food system and fix farming and everything coming from that.
Dr. Mark Hyman: One of the most exciting thing is you’re not just making compost and building communities for agriculture and training people but you’re politically active. You actually help get, I think it passed, but a provision in the foods and the farm bill, which is a monster bill to get community supported agriculture paid for with farm bill funds. Can you tell us about that?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Mark Hyman: How did you do that?
Leah Penniman: I think I was-
Dr. Mark Hyman: Because nothing is done in Washington.
Leah Penniman: I had the audacious boldness to stand up. Then, the director of the FSA was speaking at a conference I was at.
Dr. Mark Hyman: FSA is?
Leah Penniman: Farm Service Administration and I got in line for the comment period and said something about how it was impossible for farmers to accept SNAP the way that it was set up, which is formerly known as food stamps. And she actually followed up with me and so we ended up getting a petition going, we got some allies who were lobbyists to support us and in the last farm bill got a provision pass that makes it a bit easier for farmers to be able to accept SNAP for their CSA as you can do advanced payments and vouchers and so forth.
Leah Penniman: Again, very, very small drop in the bucket of everything that needs to be changed in the food system. But it did embolden us to create a policy platform and ask for more changes.
Dr. Mark Hyman: So, as someone who’s literally doing this and not just talking about it like me.
Leah Penniman: It sounds like you’re doing a few things.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I mean, I’m working on the doctor stuff, but we’re in communities trying to deal with these issues. What would be the kinds of big changes in policy in around food and agriculture that you think are going to have the biggest impact? Things that we should really focus on?
Leah Penniman: I have so much trouble answering that question because I have about a hundred things that need to change in terms of policy but I’ll-
Dr. Mark Hyman: Okay, start with the first 50. Start with the first 50.
Leah Penniman: I mean from your end, I really think that taxing “junk” food companies for their health impacts, the way that cigarette companies are taxed and held accountable would be a good step. From the farmer end of things, we need to pass the fairness for farm workers act because we still haven’t updated our labor laws and farm workers don’t have overtime protections, minimum wage, right to a day off [inaudible 00:32:52], right to unionize. Some very, very basic things in this country farm workers do not have.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah, just pause there for a sec because I just want to put it in context. So there was a lot of labor abuses in this country at the early part of the 1900s.
Leah Penniman: That’s right.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And there was a law passed, there was a couple of laws, a fair labor act and another one that they were designed to protect workers, minimum wage, fair working conditions, removing abuse and so forth. But the exclusion within that was, and this was 1938, okay? So then we’re talking, I don’t know how many years. It’s like what? Is that 80 years ago? It has not been addressed that the people who are working on farms and the food system were not protected by those laws.
Leah Penniman: Exactly, because they were black. Because the Southern Democrats would not vote for the bill. It was introduced originally as including everyone, but the Southern Democrats parties were switched then would not vote for it if it included black people. And, we updated social security but we haven’t updated the labor laws to include everybody. And so, that’s important.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And there’s more people in the food and farm system as laborers, as workers, than any other industry in the United States, and they are the poorest, the most at risk for disease, the most likely to be harmed by farming chemicals, the most in need of aid. So we’re actually as taxpayers paying for their Medicare and all the services that they need, and we’re also helping to support the food system as it is by using the tipping system, which was designed also as a part of this whole legacy of racism in the food system, right? So can you talk more about that?
Leah Penniman: Exactly.
Dr. Mark Hyman: You’re probably surprised that a doctor is talking about all this stuff. I can see that look on your face.
Leah Penniman: Well, it’s absolutely all connected. And, it wasn’t until this year, 2019 that the fairness for farm workers act was introduced to actually address some of those things. It’s been mostly addressed to date at the state level. So, California, New York have some labor protections or through corporations. If you look at what the Immokalee workers did or the Milk With Dignity campaign, they essentially tried to hold the corporate buyers accountable. Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Ben&Jerry’s by saying you should pay more for your milk, your tomatoes, and then we’ll make sure that that gets to the farmers as a sub like sub extra on their wages as well as farm worker education. But, it should be a law.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Wait, wait, I’m going to not let that pass. You talked about the Immokalee food workers, which basically were poor migrant farmers who rose up together, created a coalition and demanded that the fast food companies pay more for tomatoes and what?
Leah Penniman: A dollar a bushel.
Dr. Mark Hyman: A dollar a bushel more. And the way they got them to do that was through massive campaigns and protests, embarrassing these companies. And they agreed to do it except for a couple of them. I think that to me is such a hopeful example because it means a bunch of people with no power, with no rights, with no money can change the system.
Leah Penniman: Absolutely.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I thought that was the best. Anyway, sorry to interrupt. So keep going about the food policies.
Leah Penniman: No, that’s fine. I think that’s fine.
Dr. Mark Hyman: We got about 98 to go.
Leah Penniman: Okay. Well, I’ll just mention one more. I briefly touched on this, about how the USDA is responsible for the food system for helping take care of farmers, and there’s all of these programs from land grant universities to credit crop insurance, disaster relief that are supposed to go to farmers. And right now they’re going almost entirely to white farmers and to commodity crop farmers.
Leah Penniman: So, we need to restructure the way all of those subsidies work to make sure it’s equitable that those of us who are growing “healthy” foods like vegetables and fruits aren’t just relegated to this tiny little sliver called specialty crops where it’s like-
Dr. Mark Hyman: What a joke.
Leah Penniman: Corn and soy are getting all the money, and so we have to flip it. Even the fact that to be organic you have to go through a certification process and pay money, but to trash the planet you can just do it. I think it’s a fundamental frame shift on how we think about regulation and subsidies.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah, it’s really putting the true cost of what we’re doing into it, right? True cost of drinking a can of soda isn’t probably a dollar, it’s probably $100 when you count all the effects of how it affected the land, the farm, the corn syrup and the processing and how it affects people’s health. And, it’s all one big story.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I think we have a moment I think in history where things are starting to shift. People like you are giving voice to these issues. There’s traditional white republican farmers in North Dakota who are raising these issues and changing the way they’re doing things. On both sides, I see this awareness about how we start to address this, because if we don’t, we’re literally robbing our future and our children’s future. And I don’t think people understand the urgency of this because it’s like, what do you mean farming, food, whatever. There’s plenty of food, but we’re actually in a massive crisis.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I mean, the way we farm and the fact that we don’t have supports, agricultural supports for transitioning to regenerative agriculture means that we’re penetrating the same system. We’re incentivizing the intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides which are damaging the soil and causing runoff. And like you mentioned, creating dead zones that killed 212,000 metric tons of fish every year in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s just like this whole ripple effect.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And so, unless we start to think about this holistically, we’re not going to solve it. I think I’m hopeful because I’m seeing big companies that are being pushed into this by this consumer activism. Like I just met with the guy who runs the Danone regenerative ag program. Now it maybe all talk, but I think they are serious because they see, one how their supply chain is going to go away. If we have 60 years of soil left, we’re screwed unless we fix this, right?
Leah Penniman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. And there are some countries that are starting to figure it out. Costa Rica pays its farmers for ecosystem services. So if you’re creating pollinator habitat, aquifer recharge services, sequestering carbon in your soil, you actually get paid a monthly stipend according to the measurements and the metrics that they’ve set up. I think we as a nation can learn from that, study that, and figure out how to compensate our farmers for stewarding the public trust.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Okay. You just hit on a massive idea that I don’t think people understand, which is ecosystem services and why they’re important. So, just a little background for people. We use up about $124 trillion a year of ecosystem services, meaning we’re extracting resources from the earth or damaging the earth in ways that costs 124 trillion. That’s more than the economy of the entire world, right?
Leah Penniman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Mark Hyman: And so, I’ve never heard this idea before. I mean, I thought of how can we do it? I never heard that Costa Rica is actually doing it. So, here we have a model for redressing the injustices that we’re doing to nature by actually paying for restoration of all the things you mentioned, right? How can we push that more?
Leah Penniman: I mean I think we need to get political will behind it and develop those proposals. But, there really is no other way, because right now, farmers are aging out. It is nearly impossible to make a living selling vegetables on a small scale. 95% of small farmers are relying on second, third jobs. And so, we have to, as a public figure, how to stop subsidizing the stuff that’s trashing the planet and our health and start “subsidizing” the things that are bringing life.
Leah Penniman: And so if you could get, $200 an acre a year for increasing your organic matter by 1% or $200 an acre for bringing back a pollinator species. And we have a peer audit system, that becomes an income stream that’s actually incentivizing the behaviors that we want to have on our land.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah, I mean if you add 1% organic matter to your soil, you add 25,000 gallons of water per acre.
Leah Penniman: 54,000 pounds of carbon per acre.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Well, some people say, I think we can draw down carbon in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels if we scale this up. I was talking before about this farmer from North Dakota, Gay Browne that I was chatting with this morning and I said, listen, people love the idea of regenerative ag but they also criticize it as just not scalable that we need it to feed the world. We need [inaudible 00:41:03]. And he’s like on the contrary, I produce far more food with far more side effects that are beneficial instead of harmful and I make 20 times as much money. So it sounds like a win, win, win for everybody.
Leah Penniman: Wow, that’s powerful. I had seen a statistic that if you grow corn, beans and squash together in a meal by three sisters, you get 40% higher yield than if you grow things side by side because you have these synergistic effects between the nitrogen fixing legume supporting the nitrogen hungry maize and so forth. And so there is some data to back that up.
Dr. Mark Hyman: So exciting. So, I want to ask you a hard question. You may not have the answer to it, but it’s something I struggle with because I think in the poor communities, in African American Latino communities, there’s a level of internalized racism that I don’t think people are aware of. For example, I have a friend who’s an African American guy and he went to visit his family in the South, he says, “Why are you eating that white people’s food? Why are you eating healthy food?”
Dr. Mark Hyman: I gave a talk in this community in Cleveland, this woman’s said … I said, you shouldn’t drink sugar sweetened beverages. It’s the biggest driver of weight gain. And she’s like, “Well, what else I’m I going to drink? What is there to drink?” And I’m like, water. And I was just like, there was really a lack of awareness that this is being done to them.
Dr. Mark Hyman: I mean, people understand through Black Lives Matter that the police and the judicial system targets African Americans. There are more African Americans in prisons today than there were slaves in America. So, but they don’t get this food injustice, racism, food, oppression idea. What do you think about that? Am I off? Talk about it.
Leah Penniman: No, that’s a really good question. I mean, internalized racism for maybe folks who don’t know is when the ideological white supremacy, the idea that white folks are inherently more worthy, deserving of life, smarter, capable, is actually internalized by people of color to believe those messages, to believe that we’re not worthy of life, that we’re not intelligent, that we’re not … Sort of, why bother, right? Because there can be a fatalism around what’s possible in our own lives.
Leah Penniman: And so, I do think that that is a tragedy that we in our communities need to heal from really saying, we believe that we will have tomorrow that we will have grandchildren. And so, let’s think longterm instead of thinking about survival day to day. But fundamentally, we can’t blame folks when you’re literally living paycheck to paycheck, if you even get a paycheck, it’s hard to think longterm.
Leah Penniman: I do think as far as what foods we eat and white people food, there is a challenge in the “good” food movement around evangelizing certain types of food in a way that’s not culturally sensitive.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Kale.
Leah Penniman: Like we do not need kale salad, greens are actually the foundation of a traditional African diet, but it might be different greens and they might be cooked with a turkey neck and it’s amaranth or callaloo or whatnot. And so, I think that, I want to shout out the old ways folks in the African heritage food pyramid and some of the work that they’re doing around reclaiming our traditional diets that are culturally relevant as opposed to thinking that you have to adopt someone else’s ways of eating.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah. I was on a rafting trip to address the tar sands mining that was going to destroy the Green river in Utah, and the headwaters of the Colorado river. And Robert of Kenny was there with Waterkeepers Alliance and there were a number of native Americans there, there was a Hopi chief and his wife who were extremely overweight and diabetic and really unhealthy. I mean, he was throwing up just walking down to the boat because he was just so sick. And I’m like, “Hey, you can fix this.” And he says, “Yeah, what do I have to do?” I said, “Well you have to give up a lot of starch and sugar because that’s what’s causing this problem.”
Dr. Mark Hyman: And I said, “No, that’s going to be very hard.” I’m like, why? He said, “Because we won’t have our traditional ceremonial Hopi foods during our ceremonies.” And I’m like, “What are those?” He was like, “Cake, cookies and pie.” And I’m like, I don’t think those were your traditional foods. And even though he was a Hopi elder, even though he was a Hopi chief and living in Arabi, which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States, it was like, it was news to him and I was like, wow, that level of … They call it Indian fry bread. It’s just basically-
Leah Penniman: It’s commodity foods.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Commodities.
Leah Penniman: It’s the government dumping all of this crap food on communities and then supplanting our traditional ways. There is a really powerful movement right now the I-Collective, the Indigenous Collective is part of it. Chef Sean Sherman is part of it, of really reclaiming indigenous diets, localized foraged game rich diets. And it’s been powerful. I remember there was a documentary that just came out, I’ll find you the title later, but.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah, no, I see it. I mean I met this guy once I was visiting my daughter who lives in Utah and we went canyoneering and there was this native American guy on our little group and we literally, there was instant flood. There was a flash rain and all of a sudden you went from these dry canyons to waterfalls as you’re repelling down. And we got stranded and we were stuck sitting there talking in this cliff somewhere.
Dr. Mark Hyman: And we started chatting and he’s like, “I was really overweight, I was diabetic, I was so unhealthy.” He’s an obstetrician, he’s working in a remote area in Vancouver, I mean in British Columbia off on an Island. And he’s like, “Well, I started thinking about what did my grandfather’s eat and what were they doing? And I started eating that way and I lost all the weight and my diabetes went away and I feel great.”
Dr. Mark Hyman: He was a fairly educated guy, but for the average African American or Latino or native American, it’s just, there’s no awareness of this is as far as I can see in this level of internalized racism. How do we break that? How do you approach these communities effectively to have that conversation?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, I mean, I think that-
Dr. Mark Hyman: I know it’s a big question.
Leah Penniman: It is a huge question and it’s really important and I fundamentally think internalized racism cannot be addressed from the outside. It’s addressed within the community. So if you look at the work that I mentioned of I-Collective or Sean Sherman or Brian Terry in the black community, a lot of this work is under-resourced, underfunded, and there are black leaders and indigenous leaders who are trying to do that work of uprooting internalized racism and promoting traditional diets who don’t even have a staff, right? They don’t have a social media person. And so finding ways to support what they’re doing rather than thinking that folks who aren’t from those communities need to go change things for them.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think, I had this fantasy of … I was speaking on Tuesday to a group of community pastors in Cleveland and I have a fantasy saying, hey, this is the next civil rights issue. I said, I would love for every pastor in America to get up and say, how about we all boycott the people who are hurting us and killing our communities and stop drinking sugar sweetened beverages and soda? I don’t know if that’s a dumb fantasy, but I just feel like if …
Dr. Mark Hyman: I think it was because I went and I talked to Bernice King and she’s like, yeah, nonviolence also means nonviolence to yourself. But the sad thing is that these communities are often corrupted by big food, the NAACP and Hispanic Federation oppose soda taxes. Why? Because they’re funded by these companies, Coca-Cola provide two and a half million dollars or $2.1 million to the NAACP.
Leah Penniman: Because it punishes the wrong person. The soda tax punishes the consumer who doesn’t have access, and doesn’t actually punish the soda company. And so, really…
Dr. Mark Hyman: Right, exactly. So, it’s very regressive.
Leah Penniman: It’s a regressive tax, exactly. And so, really thinking about, well, if we do want to address the harm, how do we tax that company for its harm and use those dollars to support these community based initiatives?
Dr. Mark Hyman: Absolutely. I think incentives work better too. So actually providing, instead of your SNAP dollars, being a dollar equal for vegetables, you maybe make it a $1.50 or $2 for every dollar you spend on vegetables, but maybe only it’s worth 50 cents when you buy a soda. Does that make sense?
Leah Penniman: Yeah. I mean, I think that it’s really important to make sure that communities who are struggling with poverty because of institutional racism are not subject to lack of choice. Because then what you have is you have a situation where people who have wealth get to choose whatever they want to do, including self-harm and then people who are poor, not because it’s their fault, right? But because of history of institutional racism are regulated and constricted in their choice. And so I really think that it’s about holding the corporations accountable rather than focusing so much on consumer behavior.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Damn. Okay. So, on your book Farming While Black, you had a photo in your book, and the caption read, to free ourselves, we must feed ourselves. So why is this such an important thing? Why is the land so important for liberation of oppressed peoples?
Leah Penniman: Yeah, I mean we’ve talked a lot today about the role of the land in providing food and sustenance. Something I didn’t know until maybe five years ago is the role of land in all civil rights. If you look at the civil rights movement, it was black farmers who were really the backbone. They provided all of the land for meetings, for people gathering to live and stay while they were doing voter registration campaigns. They provided the arm protection, they leveraged Atlanta’s collateral for bail money to get people out of jail when they were locked up.
Leah Penniman: And so quite literally, it’s not like you could rent the Sheraton for your NAACP convention in Mississippi. So the black farmers were the ones who provided the material sustenance for that movement as one of my elders, Baba Halfkenny would say without black farmers there would be no civil rights movement. And so I think about owning your own land or own businesses is really the basis, not just for material health, but also our capacity to resist and our capacity to make ourselves free.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Well, you are an inspiration. You are extraordinary woman who’s doing extraordinary things. I think lessons that you have learned and the things that you’re sharing about how we got here and how we can get out of here are just amazing. So, thank you for being the on Doctor’s Farmacy.
Leah Penniman: Thanks for having me, and thanks for the great questions.
Dr. Mark Hyman: All right. You’ve been listening to the Doctor’s Farmacy. I encourage you to get Leah’s book Farming While Black. It’s an extraordinary testament to what she’s doing and the story of how we can get out of where we are. And if you really loved it, please leave a comment, share with your friends and family, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and we’ll see you next time on the Doctor’s Farmacy.
Leah Penniman: Thank you.
Dr. Mark Hyman: Hi everyone. It’s Dr. Mark Hyman. So two quick things. Number one, thanks so much for listening to this week’s podcast, it really means a lot to me. If you loved the podcast, I would really appreciate you sharing with your friends and family. Second, I want to tell you about a brand new newsletter I started called Mark’s picks. Every week I’m going to send out a list of a few things that I’ve been using to take my own health to the next level. This could be books, podcasts, research that I found, supplement recommendations, recipes, or even gadgets. And I use a few of those.
Dr. Mark Hyman: If you’d like to get access to this free weekly list, all you have to do is visit drhyman.com/picks. That’s drhyman.com/picks. I’ll only email you once a week, I promise, and I’ll never send you anything else besides my own recommendations. So, just go to drhyman.com/picks. That’s P-I-C-K-S to sign up free today.