I established the Black Church Food Security Network in the midst of the Baltimore Uprising which sparked following the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015.
Freddie was a 25-year-old African American man who was aggressively arrested in a West Baltimore neighborhood on April 12, 2015, by Baltimore City police officers. His violent arrest by the officers resulted in severe spinal injuries which caused him to fall into a coma. Freddie died a week later. Massive protests and demonstrations erupted around the city. The Governor ordered the National Guard into Baltimore and the Mayor instituted a curfew which was enforced primarily in the African American parts of town. The Baltimore City Public School System closed for a day forcing many of the 80,000 students and their families who depend on the breakfast and lunch programs to figure it out on their own.
Public transportation also came to a screeching halt around the epicenter of the Uprising, creating severe hardship for the students, workers, and residents who depended on the service. Many of the shops in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—the tourist area of the city—closed early and the Baltimore Orioles played the Chicago White Sox with no fans present as the public was barred from attending the stadium out of safety concerns. Clashes with police were happening in multiple areas around the city, and many stores were firebombed and looted.
African American residents in particular were navigating layers of challenges. On top of experiencing the communal grief of being reminded once more of our secondary status in the body politic, public services had also retreated from the many Black communities while the eruption of righteous indignation flowed like water in the streets.
It was in this moment—when public services provided by city government and nonprofit organizations withdrew from the African American community—that a window of opportunity opened for the church to step forward.
I am grateful to have been a part of that effort. I helped to quickly organize a coalition of grassroots community organizations to help meet needs and channel resources. I launched Operation Safe Harbor after contacting pastors around the city and asking if they would open their doors to youth who needed safe places to learn and play. Approximately 15 congregations opened their doors and our coalition—called Baltimore United for Change—directed resources to them.
In addition, because our church was known in the city for having a vegetable garden for some years, phone calls started coming into our office from residents who were hungry because their local corner stores were closed due to the demonstrations. They were requesting food, and our church helped to coordinate a response. Aleya Fraser, a farmer who grew food on the ancestral land of Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, reached out to me, and we put a food action plan in place. Six months prior, inspired by the respective food sovereignty work of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rev. Vernon Johns, Father Divine, and Rev. Albert Cleage, I brought an idea to her which centered on connecting churches and farmers to create an alternative food system. It seemed like the Baltimore Uprising was demanding that we operationalize that idea. So we did.
Aleya reached out to farmers in her circle who then started sending trucks of produce to Baltimore. I continued contacting churches and had my own church serve as a site for accepting food donations. Members of our congregation would process the donations and help load our church bus. I would then drive around the city, setting up shop on street corners to disseminate the food. This continued for approximately 10 days. The respective components of our emergency food initiative were operating in perfect harmony, and I was thrilled. Abandoned by government and nonprofits and forced to fend for ourselves, we in the African American community organized and created a system to meet our own basic needs. On the heels of that experience, I named our operation the Black Church Food Security Network.
Since 2015, we have better defined our mission and our work. We advance food sovereignty in the Black community by working with churches to establish gardens on their own land through Operation Higher Ground. Through our Soil to Sanctuary Markets we create experiences that bring African American farmers and business owners to church to sell their produce and goods after worship.
We’ve galvanized the strength and resources of the Black Church to help create a systemic response to the systemic problem of food apartheid in our communities. While Baltimore is our place of origin, we’ve blossomed now beyond the city and are working with clusters of congregations, seminaries, farmers, and community organizations from Ohio to North Carolina. Utilizing an asset-based approach, we are organizing the power of local communities to help them transform their own spiritual and material condition.
The Imago Dei should not only be visible in the face of the individuals we encounter, but the face of God should be reflected in the society we live in as well. Our current food system—which is characterized by greed, abuses of power, expediency at any cost, legacies of enslavement, and conscience-less consumption—does not resemble the truest virtues of the Christian faith or the face of the God of my understanding. This corporatized food system is not only inhibiting human flourishing, but it is literally killing humans along with the rest of creation. The Black Church Food Security Network is grateful to be doing our part to show a better way for communities to relate to one another and to food as well.
 Karen Washington, Co-Founder of Black Urban Growers, founded the term “food apartheid”instead of food desert in order to heighten sensitivity to the wide array of systemic obstacles that keep communities at distance from controlling their own food systems.