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The Leading Voices in Food

E123: Rashid Nuri and a Vision for Urban Agriculture

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
April 6, 2021

The term urban agriculture is becoming more familiar, but relatively few people know how this works on the ground in real world settings, and can fully appreciate the promise it has for the future. Our guest, Rashid Nuri, is the ideal person to explain. In 2006, Nuri founded the Truly Living Well Center in Atlanta to realize a vision for community food, sovereignty, and equity. This urban Ag organization grows tons of chemical-free, nutritious food, provides jobs, and works to educate communities.

K. Rashid Nuri had a powerful “burning bush” revelation while a student at Harvard. The experience set him on a global food odyssey, managing agricultural operations throughout the U.S. and 35 countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Rashid saw, up close, the abuses and inefficiencies of what he calls Big Ag. His vision of community food sovereignty and food equity emerged with full clarity. He brought that vision to Atlanta in 2006, founding Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture (TLW). TLW became Atlanta’s premier urban agricultural organization, growing tons of chemical-free, nutritious food, providing jobs, and educating communities about food, nutrition, and self-sufficiency. Now as the CEO of The Nuri Group, Rashid is working to expand equitable access to the tools for success in urban centers through education, funding, partnerships and appropriate regulations for urban agriculture.

Interview Summary

Now that you’re the CEO of the Nuri Group, an organization that advocates broadly for urban agriculture at the local, regional, and national levels, you’re working to expand equitable access to the tools for success in urban centers through education, and funding partnerships and appropriate regulations for urban agriculture. You’re doing really amazing work. You had what you call a burning bush revelation while you were a student at Harvard University. Can you tell us about that and how you came to work in urban agriculture?

Oh, yes. So I’m a child of the ’60s, and we were talking about nation-building. Black Power nation-building, and I was trying to decide what kind of work that I wanted to do. My studies as an undergraduate was in national development, how you build countries. I studied the men and women who created the post-colonial world. I was sitting in the library at Harvard, was reading a book by Tom Mboya. I’d already had an interest in health and nutrition. In his book, he said, “With all the technology available in the world today, “there’s no reason we could not chemically synthesize “enough food to feed all the people.” And that was a shock to me because it was all those chemicals that are killing folk. It was the word of God in my ear that said, “Learn everything about food from the seed to the table “to do it experientially.” So that’s the work that I am engaged in for all these many years. It’s taken me around the world. I’ve been able to examine local food economies around the world. I’ve worked in 36 countries and all over the United States.

It’s stunning that you’ve worked in so many countries around the world. So how has your experience outside the U.S. informed the work that you’re doing here?

Humankind used to live within walking distance of where their food was produced and this still exists, to a large extent. If you go to Asia and Africa, you will find people can walk to where their food is, but there’s this movement towards the cities. The United States now, over 80%, 82% of the people live in urban areas, metropolitan areas. Worldwide, it’s predicted by 2050 that 65, 70% of the world’s population will be urban. So to see how local food economies actually work the interaction, the sub-text for Truly Living Well was “We grow food, we grow people, we grow community,” and to be able to see how this happens around the world has informed the work that I have done in the United States and specifically in Atlanta.

So can you share with us, please, your sense of what urban agriculture is?

I do make a distinction between urban farming and urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is the rubric, the umbrella that covers all of it. You have to be concerned about food, clothing, and shelter. It’s not just the growing of food it’s not addressing the needs of people in areas where there is food apartheid, is the term that’s being introduced now. The USDA calls it food deserts; it’s much greater than that. We have to be concerned we live in the richest nation in the entire history of the world, but you walk down the streets, you find people who are homeless, people who don’t have medical care, the education system in this country is falling apart. All of these things come under the same rubric and I proffer that urban ag does not solve all these problems but it offers a solution, a solution and approach to addressing many of the problems that we have in the community. Each of the farms that we have built, we’ve provided employment, and twice now I’ve built the largest farm in metropolitan Atlanta. We provide employment, we’ve cleaned up drug and sex trades in the neighborhood, real estate property values go up. We create safe places for people to be able to come and commune with one another, get to know one another. So urban agriculture to me is all those issues that I’ve just described.

So let’s talk a little bit more, if we could, about the farm that you just mentioned in Atlanta. What’s its size? What do you grow there, and who does the food go to?

The first farm I built was six acres and we had to move the farm to a better site and we literally took all of the soil and moved it to the new site in dump trucks. And we also took 125 fruit trees, one at a time, and transplanted them in the new site. We move Paradise and they literally put in a parking lot, literally. You asked what we grow. So we have all kind of fruit trees examples of fruits is many varieties of each, apples, pears, peaches, plums, pomegranates, pawpaw, all the vegetables, seasonal vegetables, greens, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, turnips, beets, carrots, everything, just depends on the season.

Now, I’m very pleased to see that second part of your question was, “Who gets the food?” And that’s the fun part! When it first started, there was one point we were in seven of the Top 12-rated restaurants in Atlanta. And that’s a very good way for young people who are just getting into business and get started. So many of these restaurants have farm to table menus and advertising the fresh food there. And that’s an indicator of the progress that this work I’ve been engaged in has made. But at the end of my tenure, that food was getting into the stomachs of the people who really needed it, and I think that that is a significant thing. We had CSA, consumer-supported agriculture, where people would come out to the farms to pick up the food. When I started, it was hard to find a farmers’ market. Now you can get one just about any day of the week around town. So it became necessary for us to participate in the farmers’ markets.

You mentioned something really fascinating – that you moved the soil from the original location to where the farm is now. Why do that?

All wealth, all health, all life begins and ends with the soil. That’s the most important thing. Too many people, when they engage in agriculture, think they’re trying to grow the plants. What you really need to do is grow the soil. You want to build the soil. And I’d spent 5 1/2 years building that soil down in the old Fourth Ward here in Atlanta and there was no way in the world I was going to leave that. The mantra as, I began my work in Atlanta and teaching, my mantra was compost, compost, compost. Commercial agriculture looks upon the dirt as a receptacle for the roots of the plant rather than as the source of the nutrients. Their scientists think they know more than God does and how to produce this stuff. All my work is an attempt to emulate nature.

When you and I were chatting, you mentioned the links you see between regenerative agriculture and urban agriculture. And I know the people who do regenerative agriculture care deeply about the health of the soil, but could you explain those links?

Everything begins and ends with the soil. Urban agriculture, we’re talking about the location where we grow. The clearest indication of the quality of your soil as well as the first livestock you should have on the farm is earthworm. You don’t see any worms in your soil, that soil is dead. All the mycelium, rolypolies, and millipedes, centipedes, these are the things you want to have in your soil. The work we are doing, the demonstration of this work is pre-industrial and regenerative. That is what we’re trying to do. So there is no contradiction between regenerative agriculture and urban agriculture. You’re really trying to accomplish the same end. And I think that the young people today have picked up this term, when in fact that’s the original way that food was grown. This is my definition of organic; it’s whole and complete. You go back and look at agriculture, all the waste went back into the soil. Animal waste, human waste, all of it went back into the soil to replenish it so they could grow more food.

Let’s talk about the role of urban agriculture in feeding people in cities. So you mentioned when we began about the percentage of people in the world who live in urban areas, so what role do you see for urban agriculture in this area?

Well, substantive. Atlanta is the greenest city in America by virtue of trees and open space. I travel around the country and looking at other areas, there’s plenty of land. We can grow all the fruits and vegetables, not meats and grains, but all the fruits and vegetables. There’s plenty of land to be able to produce that in the metropolitan area, suburban, peri-urban, whatever term you want to put on the name of the area.

What sort of policy changes do you think could be made to help this move along?

Ah, thank you, Professor, that’s a wonderful segue to what it is I’m working on now. America is the greatest agricultural producing country in the entire history of the world. No one’s ever produced more food. It’s gone backwards because we’re putting all these chemicals out here now instead of actually growing food. And the genesis for this leap in ag production came from four bills that were passed within 48 days by Abraham Lincoln, back in 1862. First was the establishment of the Department of Agriculture, he called it the People’s Department, which was the first subject matter department of government. And by subject matter I mean, now we have a department of energy, transportation, housing and urban development, health, we have a labor department, you have all these different departments. Back then, they had the Secretary of State, Treasury, and War. These were the principle departments. The second bill was the Homestead Act. The American people paid for folk to come over to the Midwest to homestead. They gave them free land, gave them subsidies for that land, helped them to pay for the land with just the caveat that they had to stay there and do some production. Then you had the Moral Act. All of these have had many different iterations but the Land Grant College Act provided money, land to build colleges, universities to support the agriculture. This is where the extension agents from, this is where the research is done. Big Ag does no research. When I started in this business, it took 12 to 14 weeks to grow a broiler. Now they get it done in six, and it was not the chicken companies that did the research to get this done. This came out of the university, it was subsidized by the United States’ citizens. So much of our vegetables all over the country are grown in California. California has no water, at all. It’s all imported, which is paid for by the taxpayers. It also promulgated the Railroad Act 1862. There’s a whole lot of scandals that were around it, but the equipment that was made out of steel had to be brought from the East.

Point is, I would like us to see now a new modern version of the Homestead Act to support small farms and urban agriculture. That is the policy change. Now you can get elements of this, things that the NRCS as a department puts up hoop houses in urban areas, they got small farms and beginner ranchers’ grants that you can get loans from the department, but there’s not a comprehensive program to deal with creating an urban infrastructure. Now, Tulsi Gabbard out of Hawaii has just introduced a bill. I think it’s HR 25-66, this is just getting started, to provide some support for urban agriculture, and that’s the horse that I want to hitch my wagon to. We need to come up with an urban, modern Homestead Act.


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