How the Baltimore Farm Alliance is Fighting Food Apartheid and Building Community Resilience – Episode 111 of Building Local Power

Date: 15 Oct 2020 | posted in: Building Local Power, Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this week’s episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Denzel Mitchell, Deputy Director of the Baltimore Farm Alliance, and Sophia Hosain, leader of ILSR’s composting work in Baltimore. The Baltimore Farm Alliance is a membership organization of urban farms, neighborhood growers, and friends that use connection, resource sharing, and collective advocacy with respect to food, land, and water to expand communities’ self-determination and power. Jess, Denzel, and Sophia discuss: 

  • How the history of redlining and systematic disenfranchisement which destroyed Black wealth and land ownership is contributing to current day food insecurity.
  • The importance of Black agricultural land ownership and land sovereignty in building self-reliant communities, and how the Baltimore Farm Alliance is supporting this vision. 
  • Food apartheid and why the term “food desert” is an inaccurate term that should be retired. 
  • The importance of composting as an act of resistance, and the role that ILSR’s Community Composting Initiative is playing to expand composting in Baltimore. 
  • How composting is bringing communities together, creating new ways to look at our relationship to the Earth, and why we should all be composting.
  • Educational and inspirational reading (and watching) recommendations. Don’t miss Denzel and Sophia’s suggestions in the resources section below!


“We are here. We are the children, we are the descendants of these folks that you moved out, that you did wrong, that you did dirty, and we are taking control of the food system and making ourselves a part of the conversation.”


Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought-provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands.
Jess Del Fiacco: Today I am here with my ILSR colleague, Sophia Hosain, who leads ILSR’s composting work in Baltimore, as well as Denzel Mitchell, who is the deputy director of the Baltimore Farm Alliance. Welcome to the show guys.
Denzel Mitchell: Thanks for having us.
Jess Del Fiacco: Happy to have you here. Thanks for taking the time. Denzel, could you start us off by just giving us a brief overview of the work that you do with the Baltimore Farm Alliance? What’s your mission in the city?
Denzel Mitchell: Our mission is to build a sustainable community of farmers, food workers, and land-based progressive activists through racial equity and land tenure and ownership lens. The organization was founded by Maya Kosok in 2008 through an OSI fellowship. I was one of the founding members, and we’ve been working towards technical services, education and support of urban agriculture, teaching, training, collective marketing, community building, and sustainable agriculture, specifically based around building soils in the city since then. And I’ve been their deputy director since February of this year.
Jess Del Fiacco: Very cool stuff. Sophia, maybe you could talk about ILSR’s connections with the Baltimore Farm Alliance and a little bit more about our work in Baltimore.
Sophia Hosain: Yeah. So ILSR established a few community composting sites in Baltimore this last year through funding with NRGC and the Rockefeller Foundation, and a couple of those sites are from Alliance members. So one of them is Strength to Love Farm, which actually Denzel used to be the farm manager there for many years. And they’re in West Baltimore. And we are also working with a couple other demonstration sites in Park Heights. We’ve got Plantation, which I believe is also a member of the Farm Alliance. And Denzel, is Hidden Harvest a member of Farm Alliance as well?
Denzel Mitchell: Yes. Yup, absolutely. There’s 19 member organizations throughout the city, 16 farms, three community gardens. And yes, the three farms that you named are all members.
Sophia Hosain: Awesome. Yeah, so we’ve been trying to help the farms build capacity to be able to process some of their own organic waste that they’re creating on farm. And so we’ve been working with the three bin system right now, and we’re exploring some other investible options to put in place later this year.
Jess Del Fiacco: So now that I’ve grilled you, I’m going to hand it over to you, Sophia, to ask some questions too.
Sophia Hosain: Okay, cool. Denzel, I want to get a feel for how you got to where you are. I know you have a strong identity as a farmer and as a land worker. And prior to your position with the Farm Alliance, you were the farm manager at Strength to Love Farm. And I know also that actually the Farm Alliance now is working a lot on land ownership and community empowerment through land trust. So I know that black agricultural land ownership has declined drastically from it’s peak in the 1920s, where it was about at 14% to now less than 1% as of 2002. Could you expand on the work that you’re doing with Baltimore Farm Alliance to build land sovereignty and community land trust?
Denzel Mitchell: Wow, there’s a lot.
Sophia Hosain: Real quick.
Denzel Mitchell: All right. Yeah, real quick. So, yes, I do identify correctly as a farmer and a land worker. More specifically, I identify as a black farmer and land worker. Even more specifically, I identify as a black farmer that was born and raised in America’s heartland on land that was stolen from the indigenous folks and then quasi, given back to them in the Dawes Act. So I grew up in Oklahoma on land that, as you all well know, was given, essentially given away to homesteaders and folks that were expanding out West. My family ended up on the Dawes Rolls as black Creek Freedmen.
Denzel Mitchell: And I didn’t realize at the time that that would inform… I didn’t realize throughout my childhood and adolescence and even well into my adulthood, that that would inform a lot of my work until I got to be in an actual grownup who was now thinking about buying land and buying a home and figuring out where to settle and were a place to call home.
Denzel Mitchell: And so that’s been my work that’s been central to my thinking in my work since 2008, 2009, and being in the city and realizing that, A, there isn’t a whole lot of farmland around here, but let’s start farming, let’s start growing food for production. And then that growing and developing into this idea of now trying to own some land in this system of capitalism, the idea of buying, borrowing money from a bank, you guys know all this. And so it was really a achy and painful idea that we weren’t really able to realize in Baltimore and in Baltimore County, because land is so expensive.
Denzel Mitchell: And so my involvement with the Farm Alliance now is really about getting folks access to the land that is here that is available, that is ours. As Zachary Curtis said so eloquently yesterday in the teaching, if it’s public land, it belongs to us because we’re citizens. We are part of the populace. We’re part of the public. So it’s our land. And so my role now, part of my role in the Farm Alliance is to help the folks in the organizations that have established stewardship and control of the land that they are using, that they’ve gotten the opportunity to use to produce food for folks, in their control for as long as we possibly can.
Denzel Mitchell: And so, yes, we are looking at ways to own the land, we are looking at ways to get the land into a trust so that it is controlled and it cannot be taken away by a developer or by the city when now the city decides all of a sudden that this land is worth way more money as a parking lot or a store or a condo than it would be to produce food for folks and food makers in this community and in this economy. And under Mariya Strauss’s leadership in the last three years, the Farm Alliance has shifted its focus that way. And so I came in at a great time.
Denzel Mitchell: So I think that was a roundabout way of answering your question. But yeah, that’s what we’re doing. Each of our farms is looking at their use of land a little differently. And so it’s really unique to what the farm itself, whether it’s privately owned or whether it’s a program as a part of another nonprofit, what they want to do with the land that they’re on. And we’ve got also got folks that are coming into the city or coming back into the city and wanting to create economy on a little piece of land. And so what are the ways that they can do that?
Denzel Mitchell: I think that what Chris [Maddox 00:07:34] is doing is really interesting and intriguing and empowering in terms of working with the private land owners, but then also buying some land and buying a home to turn into a community center. There’s a couple of organizations that are looking at putting the land into trust. There’s also a couple of organizations that have longterm leases with the city. And so really the organization is really just looking to push the envelope and push the understanding of how a city in an urban center really looks at the uses of land.
Jess Del Fiacco: So is a lot of the land right now owned by the city or is it a pretty wide mix of whether it’s city owned, privately owned in some kind of nonprofit ownership model?
Denzel Mitchell: Right, so most of the land that is being utilized by the farms in our network is owned by the city, either one of three departments in the city. And so over the years, that has been the first gateway into getting into farming, finding a vacant piece of property, finding out who owns it. And then generally speaking, if it’s been the city, it’s been fairly easy to set up shop either through an Adopt-a-Lot Agreement, which is now being phased out. But for a lot of people, especially when I was coming up in 2008, 2009, 2010, just having the ability to use the inefficacies or the shortcomings of bureaucracy, we were able to get permission to use a piece of property via an Adopt-a-Lot Agreement and then just roll that out.
Denzel Mitchell: And then I think around 2000, well, Department of Plan’s Office of Sustainability created the Homegrown Baltimore leasing program. And so that was a way to get a lease with the city for five years with a two year right or refusal, and then an opportunity to re-up that agreement. And so I was a part of that process as an individual in the early years. And then I know Real Food Farm/Civic Works got a Homegrown Baltimore lease. And then a now defunct for-profit B corporation farm model called Big City Farms got one of those leases, which then kind of morphed into Strength to Love, i.e, Intersection of Change, taking over that lease. Just so that’s where things are now. So it really just depends. It has not been often that folks with means and resources are being able to come into the city and buy land, but that has also happened a few times.
Sophia Hosain: What role do you see urban farms and gardens playing in combating the racially charged history of redlining and food apartheid in the city?
Denzel Mitchell: There’s so many things, but the first thing, the most impactful thing, probably the thing that I can bet that is most tangible for me is just really just like changing the narrative and changing the relationship to farming, number one, and to food production, to the importance of agriculture, for me personally. This doesn’t really answer your question, but I know for myself and for my family and the folks that are in my community and that have been a part of this process since 2008 have really, really been charged by the notion of being able to produce food for yourself, for your family, for your community, right here next to you, not this like far off, hard to reach dream that is only attainable through a massive amount of resources, a massive amount of mechanization, and then a family that’s owned some land. It’s attainable through creating this identity or accepting this identity for yourself and then using the land that is available to you.
Denzel Mitchell: As we know, there’s thousands of vacant lots all over the city, going through that process and tapping into the knowledge of our elders, the knowledge of our ancestors, the folks that have been in our families that have these tools and resources to be able to do it. So that’s one thing. Just like this new idea that, oh, food grows in the ground. It looks like this. It’s not always pretty. That the land is quite abundant, right? That basic knowledge that we don’t teach the kids at home, we don’t teach it to kids in schools, we don’t talk about it when we sit down to the dinner table, we definitely don’t talk about it when we sit down to most restaurants. So, this is all brand new. So that’s one thing that’s kind of, for me, the biggest thing and that was why we got into it.
Denzel Mitchell: The second piece though, I think is the connection of [inaudible 00:12:24] sovereignty to land control as it relates to the land that I can see, that I’m looking at right now. We talk to a lot of people all the time about black folks having land in the South or black folks having land out in the Midwest and losing it. All these number of ways. Or black folks living in Baltimore City in these beautiful, well-kept concentrated neighborhoods, and then certain things happening. That’s been well documented now in hindsight, and now black folks have left. They’ve moved to the county, they’ve moved over here, they’ve moved over there. And then as a result, the city knocks down four or five blocks of homes that folks’ grandmas and aunties and uncles and daddies and whatever lived in.
Denzel Mitchell: We are now coming back in the arts and the 20 teens and reclaiming some of that land and reestablishing this idea that we are here, right? That we are the children, we’re the descendants of these folks that you’ve moved out, that you did wrong, that you did dirty, and we are taking control of the food system and making ourselves a part of the conversation. Because one of the things that we know that the machine of capital, the machine of government, continues to turn on and the inequities and the disparities and the discrimination that have been baked into these systems are still here, but now we’ve gotten some of the knowledge to address some of that. And we’ve got some of the courage to stand in front of city council members and mayors and planners and say, “This doesn’t work for us. This is not the way things are supposed to be.”
Denzel Mitchell: So it’s been a long time coming and I’ve come to this portion of the party a little late because I’m not from here. So I’ve really relied on folks that are from Baltimore to inform me and relied on the literature to inform me because I’m from Oklahoma where the land was expansive and sweeping down the plain as the song says, and it just seemed like there was plenty. But then my family, we lost ours too. So it’s like even when I wanted to farm, when I got the bug and I got infected with this idea of being a farmer, it’s like I couldn’t go home because my family had lost a land. We had 600 acres in Oklahoma. So we decided to set roots here and do the work here and really understand like this is what’s happening to folks in the city.
Denzel Mitchell: So the monster looks different, but it’s doing the same work. Now we know that the systems that were created are not sustainable, that they’re not working, that they’re not feeding people. So we have to feed ourselves and we have to feed the folks that we love and we have to feed the folks that we’re connected to.
Sophia Hosain: Wow, so powerful. I love hearing you talk about it. And just to do a quick plug, I know that you said that you are not from here, but that you do love to learn from folks in Baltimore. And I recently watched Baltimore’s Strange Fruit, which for our listeners who are not familiar, was a documentary that was created by Eric Jackson of the Black Yield Institute in Baltimore. I believe he’s from Cherry Hill, from South Baltimore.
Denzel Mitchell: Yeah.
Sophia Hosain: And I wanted, maybe it turns out you can talk to me a little bit about your relationship with Eric and to creating Baltimore’s Strange Fruit.
Denzel Mitchell: Right on, right on. Eric Jackson is the homie. He’s God body in the flesh. I was actually introduced to Eric prior to his work with Black Yield by my wife, actually. They were working together at the Health Department. They met as young ’90s hip hop kids who grew up listening to the words of everybody from Chuck D, to Kara Swan, to Minister Louis Farrakhan, to Sister Souljah, to Audre Lorde. My wife came home and is like, “Yo, you have got to meet this dude. You all would love each other.” And I’m like, “Yeah, all right, whatever.” But we started working together and I was like, “Yo, I think I love this thing.” And so fast forward, marriage and kids. We worked together with Mount Pleasant Baptist Church’s Freedom School, and our babies have worked together and played together. And it’s about family and liberation and all the ways that we, as people of African descent need and want to be free and all the ways that we have to free ourselves and all the ways that we need to break the systems that have caged us.
Denzel Mitchell: And so, I’m learning a lot from Eric. Eric is an organizer and an activist. And I did some organizing and activism work in Oklahoma, but here in Baltimore it’s different. The politics are different and the stakes are different. And the stakes are much higher because we’ve grown now. We got bills and we got kids and just got to go to school and got to live in the city. I’m learning a lot from him. I’m not going to sit here and say the nominal organizer or activist in the same ilk. I grow food, I’m a teacher. I spend a lot of my time reading to folks and telling them what to read and then trying to lead by example. That’s really my work.
Denzel Mitchell: But Eric came to me early in the days of Black Yield Institute and said he wants to do this film about his family and his heritage and Baltimore and Cherry Hill and center around food security and food sovereignty. And our stories are very, very similar in terms of being raised by powerful women who understood the importance of family and understood the importance of tradition and understood the importance of food and what you took from that and how that informed your growth and development into fatherhood and into adulthood and into being a community member.
Denzel Mitchell: So my son, my oldest son, who was shameless plug, who is now a film student at NYU, he actually asked Jesse to help out with the filming because he was a gaucho student and Jesse was really just getting into film. And so Eric was like, “Yo, can Jesse help out with this? And by the way, can you say a few words?” So it’s all in the family. So I love Eric, I love his wife, [inaudible 00:19:04], I love the babies, love Black Yield Institute. And so now, I’ve come full circle in that the Farm Alliance and Black Yield Institute are working in concert together in so many ways.
Jess Del Fiacco: We’ll link to the Black Yield Institute’s website and the video from the post for this podcast episode. So if you go to, you can find the post there. And then all the links to what we talked about will be there for you. I think this is a good place to take a quick break.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. In every episode of this show, we bring stories about action taking place in communities across the country. If you enjoy the insight shared by guests like Denzel, I hope you’ll consider heading over to to help support our work. You’re making this podcast possible. Your donation support all of our work at ILSR. You can help us produce the research and resources necessary to push back against concentrated corporate power and build resilient local communities like we’re seeing at Baltimore. Go to Any amount is sincerely appreciated. And now back to my conversation with Sophia Hosain and Denzel Mitchell at the Baltimore Farm Alliance.
Sophia Hosain: I love the way that farming in Baltimore really feels like a family or a deal. And people call it small tomorrow. Like it’s there’s very close connections and you can get from point A to point B in just a couple of minutes. And I like the idea of the way that you talk about farming as a movement of the people to create systems that serve them when there is like this overarching bureaucracy that really doesn’t serve them and that where people fall through the cracks and there is no such thing as food security. Could you talk to me about the term food desert versus food apartheid and why we choose food apartheid?
Denzel Mitchell: Yes, absolutely. But I’m just parroting much greater minds and thinkers than myself. There is no such thing as a food desert. We don’t use that term. We rebuke that as my grandmother would say, because deserts are not manmade. And we know that folks not having enough food, folks being deprived of sound, nutrition, healthcare, clean water is an act of man, not God, not of nature. So this idea that somebody lives in a barren place in the middle of the city with no access to food to feed themselves and their children is not real. It doesn’t work that way, right?
Denzel Mitchell: And so we know the history of Jim Crow and how that affected our folks. We know the history of redlining in these cities and cutting people off from access. We know the history of planning and its ability to restrict folks’ movements, and we know the history of development and its ability to take essential structures, brick and mortar businesses away from families. And we know the history of this extractive, predatory capitalism that removes working Taylorism from these communities.
Denzel Mitchell: And so food apartheid is, there’s a system in which that’s been created to separate, right? That’s what the word apartheid means is separate folks from good sound nutrition, separate babies from good sound nutrition. And we see it seep into these neighborhoods that are largely populated by black and brown working poor folks. And the grocery stores that have been removed, the food that they’re feeding to folks in hospice and hospitals and nursing and in the schools is by design, right? And the design is cyclical to keep us sick and destitute and dependent upon a system that is not designed to help us thrive.
Denzel Mitchell: And so I can’t take credit for that thinking at all because there was time that I was like, I was talking about food deserts too. So it was Karen Washington, a powerful sister mama actually, out of Brooklyn, New York, who used the term food apartheid and explained it incredibly well in a article from Gorilla Magazine that I can send to you guys later that you should put the link up to. It was paradigm shifting. And I was like, “You know what? She’s right. That’s absolutely right.” And the reason why we did what we did was because of it. When we moved to Baltimore, 2006, we moved to Belair-Edison neighborhood. I didn’t know nothing about Baltimore outside of The Wire and Orioles. And I never sold drugs and I never played any sports.
Denzel Mitchell: So we moved to Baltimore because of what was happening in DC. We were living in DC, we wanted to buy a house and it was 2006. And so the housing prices in DC were astronomical. They were ridiculous. I was teaching, I had three young kids. So we’re like, “Oh, let’s move to Baltimore.” So we moved to Baltimore and we moved to a neighborhood that didn’t have a grocery store. The grocery store was a ways away. And at the time, I didn’t think nothing of it, but I was also thinking about the fact that like, oh, I want a garden again. I want my kids to learn how to ferment and make kimchi and hippie stuff like that. And make pickles. And we want to have bees and we want to have chickens.
Denzel Mitchell: It was really kind of universal marriage of hymen space and connection that really brought us here, but I think about how challenging it was just for us to get to the grocery store back then. That’s what food apartheid is. It’s like it’s folks’ inability to have access to the things that they need. We all need to eat. That’s why we farm, right? This is why we are so concerned about soil. This is why we are so concerned about small businesses thriving, because we know that’s what families need in order to do well and get all the things that they want and the children to get what they need and what they want. Everybody, they just wanted to be happy. And if you open the fridge and ain’t nothing in there, then you’re not happy. That’s what it was for us, and didn’t fully understand that until we really started to travel around Baltimore and see how devastating it was.
Sophia Hosain: The work that we’re doing, that you’re doing with urban farms now really does serve to be a movement of the people in revolt of this very intentional, systematic oppression of black people in a city that has been black for its entire history.
Denzel Mitchell: Right.
Sophia Hosain: Yeah, it’s so very intentional. And I love, there’s a Malcolm X quote that I love and it’s that land is the basis of all revolution. And I feel like there’s more to it than that, but that’s the part that rings in my head over and over again. And I love that by reclaiming this art that is ancestral and that has been in practice for decades and eons, we can create a sense of security for ourselves, even though the system is designed for us to not survive and to not thrive and be well.
Sophia Hosain: So farming as revolution is such a powerful concept. And it’s so amazing to see that in a city like Baltimore, where food apartheid prevails, that there are these little pockets of green space where you see people growing and cultivating and creating community and creating these connections to their ancestral roots. I would almost prefer that to a grocery store. It creates so much more community.
Sophia Hosain: So to tie it a little bit more closely to the work that we’ve done together in the past, as we’ve talked about, about a quarter of the population of Baltimore is food insecure. And as a farmer, I’m sure you know that the soil is key to growing nutritious food. What role do you see compost playing in seeding sovereignty in our food systems?
Denzel Mitchell: Right. So soil is the foundation, right? If you talk to a farmer who’s really about their life, as I say, that’s where it starts is with the soil. And you talk to a black farmer that the basis of our understanding is the knowledge and wisdom of George Washington Carver, who told us that it starts with the soil because you can’t get anything that you need, unless if the soil isn’t right. And we know the contributions that George Washington Carver made to modern, sustainable agriculture across this nation. But those of us who identify and connect with the heritage of African Americans, understanding that George Washington Carver is the founder of that and the soil is where our work starts. That’s the first thing that I learned.
Denzel Mitchell: And so it started very simply with keep making sure that you got worms and looking to make sure if you got worms, you got good soil. That’s what my grandparents used to say. But then as we get more intellectual and academic and we read a little bit more and we get more access to information, we understand that it’s about creating an ecosystem below the ground that we walk on that is going to give us life back. And so you have to give life to get life.
Denzel Mitchell: At the same time, we also know that this society has been designed to have a ton of waste. And how much of that waste can we capture and turn it into something life-giving, right? That is the challenge amongst folks who have been inflicted with so much trauma. That’s the long work, right? We are challenged and stay challenged with that. To get back to your question, I think that that’s pivotal. We know that access to good soil, especially access to good soil here in the city, cities typically have very, very poorly managed soil because it gets walked on, it gets compacted, it has all types of things on it. The histories of cities and industry and industry being in cities has polluted much of our soil. And so there’s a ton of work to do to bring the soil back in one of those practices that’s so pivotal is capturing all the waste that we are creating here in the place that we are and turning that back into fertility, turning that back into life. And so composting is important.
Denzel Mitchell: And we’ve been composting at home. I’ve taught my kids to compost since they were little itty bitty. This is just part of what we do. And I try to make sure that that’s a spouse in schools and other folks’ homes anytime I’m working with kids around food, that like we’re saving our food scraps. Why are we saving our food scraps? To build soil. We’re saving our food scraps to feed the worms. Yeah, I think it’s a long-term educational process. I think the advantage that we have is that there are farms in the city that are employing practices and have had the opportunity to get a composting system or a bin system to be able to recycle some of that waste and then turn it into black gold, to use the words of Marvin Hagler, or to use the words of sister [inaudible 00:31:18]. So that’s super important.
Denzel Mitchell: So I think that even having a three bin compost system in a neighborhood like Sandtown-Winchester, and then opening up that three bin system to the residence, to Sandtown-Winchester, and reminding them that they could bring their potato fields, they could bring their banana fields, they can bring their carrot scraps and turn it into soil. And this is what it looks like at the end. You got this blackness here on the soil and it’s growing, this is growing food for folks in this neighborhood. And so I really feel like we’re at the very, very, very beginning of this work, the very beginning, right? This is all a brand new dissolve. All this is new conversation for us who are 45 and younger.
Sophia Hosain: For our listeners who are maybe not as familiar with Baltimore’s waste stream, let’s go over the landscape of waste. Baltimore sends all of its waste to the BRESCO incinerator and then also to a landfill. Incinerators these days have been rebranded as clean energy sources, which they’re not, let’s be real. BRESCO is responsible for $50 million worth of health impact a year. And in 2016, I believe one of the ZIP codes in South Baltimore was the most polluted ZIP code in the country. South Baltimore is home to the incinerator, BRESCO incinerator, but also to a medical waste incinerator that accepts medical waste from all over the country. It gets mailed to this incinerator and is burned there.
Sophia Hosain: And so that brings me to what are we sending to this incinerator? 50%, about 49%, technically, of the waste that’s going to our incinerators and to our landfill can absolutely be diverted as organic matter. About 25% is food scrap, 6% is yard waste, and 18% is other compostable matter. So when we talk about composting in West Baltimore and composting in South Baltimore, we really bring it back to this idea of like composting as an act of resistance, because the systems that are in place would have you send it to an incinerator that’ll kill you if you live close to it. And I think that, Denzel, you’re right, like we are at the very beginning of this journey and it takes so much education to unlearn what we consider to be trash is actually an incredibly valuable organic resource that we can give back to the earth that feeds us. And to quote Marvin Hayes, Marvin always says, “Feed the soil that feeds you.” Right?
Denzel Mitchell: Yes.
Sophia Hosain: We expect the earth to give us this fertility, to give us this sustenance, to give us the nutritious food that keeps us well and keeps us healthy without really giving back to it. And so I love the idea of feeding the soil and giving back to the earth. And as Leah Penniman would say, to treat the earth like a relative rather than a commodity.
Denzel Mitchell: Yes, yes, yes.
Sophia Hosain: So beyond just reducing food waste and beyond feeding the soil, and which is huge in and of itself, how does community composting and farming contribute to community resilience?
Denzel Mitchell: I think it helps folks to unlearn some really bad practices that have been normalized in our societies and in our community. That’s the first thing is like, it means like composting should be second nature. How do we reduce the amount of waste instead of this idea of like digging a big hole and filling it up and then capping the hole off and walking away and acting like there’s nothing under there or burning it all and creating this massive suit that covers these cities. It’s like that should have never even been an idea, but that’s what’s been normalized. So now we’ve got to go back and relearn how to do things.
Denzel Mitchell: But then I think it also brings communities together based on this like new set of ideas and like a new way to look at your relationship to the earth and a new way to look at your relationship to your environment and a new way to look at your relationship to atmosphere.
Sophia Hosain: I do want to build on what you were just saying, Denzel, in that not only does compost create an alternate composting or building that into our food systems create a circular system where now all of the waste that we’re creating can go right back into creating new food for us. It also on the largest scale, works for a community. Composting can sustain two to four times as many jobs as landfilling. And not only that, but by applying compost to our city soils, which you mentioned are super nutrient deficient, or have lost all of their structure, we can give back that carbon sequestration ability and try to curb some of the global warming that happens in cities, and also return the nutrients… If the nutrients aren’t in our soil, they’re not in our food. So we’re creating stronger people, like physically stronger communities by feeding them out of soil that has been amended with compost. And not only that, by creating more jobs in the composting sector, we can also create dollars in our community and maintain dollars in our community and keep that system circular and sustainable and flowing.
Denzel Mitchell: Yeah, the thing is like you were saying, community resilience is about utilizing what you have in your community. And we all know that each community is creating waste or what is seen as waste, right? Like I’m not going to eat the peel of this onion, but then what can that be turned into? Right? And then if you know that like three blocks down the road, there’s a community garden, there’s a farm, and you support that farm in whatever way you support that farm, even if you’re just glad about the fact that this is not a trash covered empty lot that folks are dumping in the back of just like they’ve turned it into something. So use the resources that we have to build the entire community. All of it. It’s like not everybody needs to be a farmer, but we all need to understand why farming is so important. We all need to understand why composting is so important. And we all should be composting and stop using stuff that we can’t get rid of.
Jess Del Fiacco: Okay, so to wrap up this conversation, let’s do one last very quick question. So like one answer from each of you, do you have a reading or media in general recommendation for listeners? Could be related to this conversation, could not be. It’s up to you. Just one.
Denzel Mitchell: Just one?
Jess Del Fiacco: Just one.
Denzel Mitchell: Oh, no, so much pressure. Not in My Neighborhood. The author’s escaped my mind right now. So I don’t remember. I’m looking on my bookshelf. But anyway, that’s something I would say everybody should read about the history of redlining and discrimination in Baltimore. I don’t know why I can’t think of the author’s name right now, but that’s the title of the book is Not in My Neighborhood.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you.
Denzel Mitchell: And you should be watching Lovecraft Country.
Jess Del Fiacco: I am watching it. It’s very good.
Denzel Mitchell: It is. It’s very good.
Sophia Hosain: If I had to pick, I know you said one, but I’m actually going to do two. There’s a book called Dispossession by Pete Daniel that talks about the historical laws and regulations that have led to this place where black people have had their land stolen from them. My other recommendation that has been grounding me is Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown. And it’s just wonderful.
Denzel Mitchell: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Hmm, I need to read that. Thank you. Thank you. Yup.
Sophia Hosain: [inaudible 00:39:23] very heavily influenced by Octavia Butler, who was like the first sci-fi Afrofuturism author, who I also highly recommend. I know there’s only one recommendation, but there’s three.
Jess Del Fiacco: All right. Well, thank you both so much for your time.
Denzel Mitchell: I had a great time. Thank you very much.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today and even more reading recommendations from Sophia and Denzel by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and put us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website.
Jess Del Fiacco: Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco, and edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco, and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Brenda Platt 

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Jordan Ashby

Jordan Ashby is the Advocacy and Communications Lead for the Composting for Community Initiative, where she applies her passion for education, equity, and sustainable futures to assist with the development and execution of the communications strategy.