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Resource: A Christian Perspective on Food – Reverend Darriel Harris

Reverend Darriel Harris presents a Christian perspective on food. This talk was part of a Food & Faith Convening event held in November 2018 at Duke University. The event was developed through a partnership between Duke Divinity School and the Rural Church Program Area of The Duke Endowment, the Duke World Food Policy Center (WFPC).  Convening discussions identified several themes that drive the work of faith communities: moving from charity to justice, food sovereignty, and equitable food-oriented development; moving from charity to justice for the land & environment; the need for bridging and relationship building between practitioners, funders, and the academy; and the need for bridging between faith communities and policy. Additionally, several academic themes for future research were identified focused on cross-faith comparative analysis and the broad impact of faith community-based food systems work.

About Reverend Darriel Harris

Darriel Harris, MA, is a sixth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Health Behavior and Society. His research interests are in faith-based health communications, neighborhood related health factors, social determinants of health, and community-based participatory research. Darriel worked for the Center for a Livable Future as project coordinator for the Baltimore Food and Faith Project before matriculating as a PhD student. He also created a faith-based curriculum for healthy eating that has been used in more than 25 Baltimore churches. Darriel has worked as a health missionary in South Sudan, where he created a Bible-based curriculum to address a range of communicable and non-communicable diseases. Darriel holds a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from Morgan State University, an MA in Organizational Management from The George Washington University, and a Masters of Divinity degree from Duke University. He is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church and currently serves as senior pastor of Newborn Community of Faith Church in Baltimore, Md. Debra Roter, DrPH is his doctoral adviser.


My name is Reverend Darriel Harris, and I am student at Johns Hopkins and also a founding member of the Black Church Food Security Network, and a pastor at church in Baltimore called the Newborn Community of Faith Church.

So I love Baltimore. I was born there. My love for Baltimore is kind of forged, not of the soil but out of joyous memories. And it’s such that I can’t escape it. I spent some time away from Baltimore. I was here in Durham for divinity school. Then I was in Africa, living there, meeting my wife and then I came back to Baltimore and I just wanted to love the city and really I wanted the city to love me.

So I took a job at Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future. I was managing a project called the Baltimore Food and Faith Project. One of the things that the Center for Livable Future does is they map food environments. Here you see three maps. Here you see the food environment map. That map has the deep red speckles on the kind of like the elbows of the city. That’s we call these area, at the time it was the term food deserts. So CLF made this map and that map was it told us all the areas in the city that where healthy food was not available. And these, when we say healthy food not available, we mean blatantly unavailable, right? There’s other places in the city where healthy food is a challenge, But in these areas, it was beyond a challenge, it was unreasonable to expect that anyone who lives in these areas were to ever eat healthy food, regularly at least.

And then I found another map. The one you see in the middle, which is a race map. The dark spaces are the spaces that where black people have the highest concentration. So when the darkest of the spaces black people make up 95% or more of the residents and then in the lighter spaces is close to zero, right? When I look at the food environment map and then I look at the race map then I see the overlay where the places that are the blackest are also the places where there’s inadequate healthy food supply. I’m going to overlay that on top of the life expectancy map, and then I see the places that have the least availability of healthy food, which are also the black places, are also the places where people are dying the youngest, and so in the race map, the places that are the deepest red, you’re dying the youngest. And if it’s the places that are the brightest green you’re living the longest.

I pastor a church that’s in one of those deep red spaces. In that space, the average life expectancy at birth is 20 years younger than the places that are in deep green. This is in the same city. We’re drinking the same water. We have the same Mayor, same City Council, but very different results, very different experiences in terms of the life course. My dear friend, Reverend Dr. Heber Brown, he likes to say as we are talking about food deserts. “That’s not just a food desert over there, man. It’s also an employment desert. It’s a power desert. It’s a life desert.” And that is probably the most right description.

The term food desert is kind of like an antiquated term. No one uses that term anymore, especially not in Baltimore, or anywhere anybody’s working on this food system. Now we use a term called food apartheid, because it most aptly demonstrates the political nature of what is happening and that it falls upon along racial lines. And the fact that it is in fact a created environment. It didn’t happen organically, right?

People have thought these things through. For example, if you live in the dark red area in Baltimore, like the area where my church is, the liquor stored density is twice the city average. It’s almost twice the average of the bar district within the city. The tobacco outlet density is well above the city average. The rat infestation, the calls people are making to 311, the City Council, asking them to come help with rat problems, almost five times a city average, right? The list goes on and on and on. You’re more than twice as more likely to be a victim of a crime if you live in that neighborhood. There’s so many statistics, but the general point is that you’re having a hard life if you live in one of these deep red neighborhoods. And if you live in one of these bright green neighborhoods, life can be dandy. So what did we do about it?

My church, the Newborn Community of Faith Church, under the direction of the previous pastor, Elder CW Harris, created a farm, and it’s called the Strength to Love 2 Farm. And as our problems within our neighborhoods and in our city are manifold, it’s impossible to just focus on one thing, right? So whenever we tackle an issue, it’s always trying to tackle multiple layers. And so we have Strength to Love 2 Farm. And that farm is of course growing food. It’s right in the middle of a very blighted area of Baltimore. The area’s not all bad. There’s some great things happening in the area. But this area has been made famous by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. So this is the neighborhood that Freddie Gray is from.

So back to the 1.5 acre farm. It intentionally hires citizens returning from incarceration or other people would have a hard time finding employment. We do job training, really we allow people to have a job that is dignifying. That pays them and where they are respected and they can contribute back to their neighborhood. We grow this food, we sell it to high end retailers and we also make a portion of the food available to people in the neighborhood so they can eat it and enjoy it and benefit from that.

And then next we have the Black Church Food Security Network. So the Black Church Food Security Network is a project that was really a brainchild of a Reverend Dr. Heber Brown. He came to myself and a lady farmer named Alia Fraser. And we sat down and we talked it over and we said, okay let’s create this network where we’re going to bring produce grown primarily from African American farmers and sell them within African American churches. And this was our first church soil to sanctuary farm stand. It’s happening inside a church that’s on North Avenue, which is one of the infamous streets in Baltimore City during one of their regular gathering times. Alia Fraser is the one that’s pictured there. She’s selling the produce that she grew on her farm that is, at the time it was, she was growing this food on Harriet Tubman’s ancestral land on the Eastern shore of Maryland. This was highly significant for us. And for us, we named this network the Black Church Food Security Network and it had to be the Black Church Food Security Network because the people who are most affected by the problem are black people, frankly. And there’s a lot of black churches in that space.

One of the things that we wanted to see is we wanted the imagination of people who are living in depressed areas to see that they can solve some of their own issues. It doesn’t take a outsider to come in and rescue them. We wanted to broaden that imagination. So we named it the Black Church Food Security Network. We worked intentionally with black farmers and it was led by black pastors. And then we have non non-black allies who partner with us who are willing to get behind the vision and to support the work, and we welcome and are grateful for that.

All right, so the solutions is now love of neighbor. Of course, within Christianity, love of neighbor is the central tenant. And so I’m naming the solution love of neighbor because the two should be hand in hand, right? We have to stop imagining solutions that are not loving. The solutions have to be loving. So the first solution I like to say is the de-clustering of poverty. Most of the people who live in high-density poverty areas did not choose to live there. They were kind of assigned there. And that assignment of people to housing – the housing doesn’t have to be in places where there’s already large amounts of stress. If someone wants to build a low income housing in your neighborhood or adjacent to your neighborhood, don’t fight them. Let them build that complex so that all the problems of the city are not clustered in these areas that are pretty much primarily for black people, right? We just should spread it around.

Okay, and then the second thing you want to do is support local black farmers and food efforts, right? There’s a lot of people in the city that are working on this in cities all across America. Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, DC, Milwaukee, all over the place. There are people who are doing these efforts and we really need to support them, give them the funding, give them the moral support that they need so they can be successful.

And then the last thing that I like to raise up is that we have to address food affordability. So right now to buy, you can buy 10 chicken nuggets from burger king for $1, or I can buy a pound of lettuce for $5-6. The chicken nuggets seem a lot more attractive, right? But the reason why that’s cheap is because of subsidies. And so either we need to tamp down some of the subsidies for meat suppliers or we need to ramp up the subsidies for vegetable growers so that there can be some type of price equity and people can kind of lean towards the thing that is actually beneficial towards them and not lean towards the thing that is destructive. All right, thank you.