It's only two miles from the farmers market at Memorial Park to Bami Farm. Talk about farm to table.
If you buy Bami Produce, your food will likely have never left Johnston. Even so, it’s no surprise if you haven’t heard of Bami.
The farm itself is easy to miss It was established in 2019. There’s a little turnoff from Route 6 into Snake Den State Park, with a welcome sign for the farm, but it’s just around a bend in the road. You only see it when you’ve just about passed the turn.
In addition, the 6-acre plot is long but skinny. From the road you don’t see sweeping fields, just a white farm house — locked up because of asbestos — and a gated dirt road. Look closely and you may see the top of the farm’s high tunnel, which is like a semi-greenhouse, and bunches of daisies tangled throughout the fences, bringing pollinators to the crops.
The Old Ways
You won’t see tractors or complicated machinery, and the farming techniques, which lean on manual knowledge, like combination planting and hand-tilling, look a lot like farms might have looked long ago, throughout Johnston’s long agricultural history. It is a return, in some ways, to tradition. But for Julius Kolawole, founder of the Rhode Island African Alliance, the organization running the farm, the harvest is about looking forward and fighting for the future.
“Food is medicine,” Kolawole often says. “But food has become a weapon.”
Food is something powerful, a power often wielded, according to Kolawole.
For Bami Farm, farmers markets are not just about taste or health — though both of those are important pieces of the puzzle. The broader umbrella that encompasses both of these things — the African Alliance uses food to connect people, to each other, to other communities, to healthy lifestyles and to the land.
“The powers that be have done a number on us” Kolawole says, deliberately, tapping a finger down for emphasis. “We can let big industrial food suppliers do what they do, or we can take ownership.”
The African Alliance was founded in 2009 as a support system for recent immigrants and refugees from a wide range of countries in Africa. The name Bami is from Swahili and Zulu, meaning “mine.”
Kolawole, who immigrated to the United States decades ago for school, described how isolating life as a new arrival is.
“You get your key to your apartment and then you don’t leave,” he said.
Outside ‘The Ethnic Isle’
Ameenah Shabazz, who partners with Bami Farm through Food Solutions New England, gives an example of even minor, day-to-day difficulties an immigrant may face: “I talk to recent immigrants, who are in the supermarket looking for the types of rice they’re used to eating, but they speak limited English and the rice will be in the so-called ethnic aisle.” (“Just put rice with the other rice!” Shabazz added.)
The African Alliance began by establishing a number of community farms around Providence. Many of the refugees and immigrants had agricultural knowledge from either farming or gardening in their home countries, and so the gardens were a natural foothold through which to start working and earning money as they settled into a new place.
As the gardens were built up, each benefit led to a new benefit. First, growing food was employment, which also served to produce hard-to-find vegetables that were fresh, accessible, and not stuck on the back shelf of the “ethnic foods” aisle. Then, the act of growing the food led to connections that, in addition to friendship, facilitated access to essential services beyond just food.
For instance, a grower at Bami Farm will almost certainly meet Archie Johnson, who volunteers his skills as a videographer for the farm, and also sets up both live and recorded music at the farmers markets. Johnson participates in and runs a whole swath of community assistance organizations.
“I get those calls every single day,” Johnson says. “‘I can’t pay the rent, I haven’t eaten.’ So I call this person, that person, put people in touch with people. Folks gathering, caring for one another — that’s what community is.”
Johnson endorses Kolawole’s description of the community garden mission, to get immigrants out of their apartments and into communities — illustrating “food as medicine” and “food as a way to build and heal.”
But as he said earlier, Kolawole also describes food as a weapon. Since 2009, the African Alliance has expanded beyond just serving recent arrivals to the country, because food access can be limited not just by years spent in a new place, but also by zip code.
The USDA maintains a database of food access, and when mapping low-income census tracts where at least 100 households do not have a vehicle and live more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket, much of Providence lights up.
The list includes much of the city south of Route 6 — South Elmwood, Elmwood, Washington Park, much of Upper South Providence, Silver Lake. Meanwhile, on the East Side, residents take their pick of the multiple supermarkets vying for higher-income clientele.
For residents who may have to take multi-leg public transportation trips to access a large supermarket, it’s more affordable — in time and money — to go to a corner store or small market. These food sources are less likely to have fresh produce and non-processed food. Then, because healthy food access is limited, kids are less likely to develop healthy habits or food-origin awareness.
Shabazz teaches kids about just that, and she describes a trip to a school where she held up a tomato and asked where it came from, and the first response was “McDonald's.”
“It’s a conveyor belt to CVS, to the pharmacy, to the doctor’s office,” Kolawole says. “We’ve been sold that this is good for you when we actually have no choice.”
The Green Stuff
There’s a strong awareness from everyone involved with Bami Farm of food as a commodity. “Billion dollar industry” is an oft-repeated phrase.
Kolawole describes recent interactions with government officials, ostensibly there to help, who often still display signs of bias. One official, from the Department of Health, recently asked him, “So you bring produce to unconventional places?”
Bami Farm’s ethos is that no one and no place should be “unconventional,” in relation to vegetables.
To distribute their produce, Bami and the African Alliance partner with Farm Fresh (which Kolawole calls their “Rolls Royce” signifying how valuable they are to the operation) to reach farmers markets throughout the greater Providence area. The markets fill in the gaps, distributing fresh vegetables even in places where large supermarkets are not as accessible.
It may seem odd to address food access with farmers markets, which are often associated with somewhat-impractical, highbrow food. Bami produce indeed may be a few cents more expensive per pound than a supermarket chain’s. According to a 2020 study, the average price of a pound of potatoes in Rhode Island was $1.80 at small farmers market stalls, $1.33 for organic at Whole Foods, and $0.80 for non-organic Stop and Shop.
A bag of greens will cost about the same, organic from Whole Foods or the farmers markets, and a dollar more than Stop and Shop’s. Onions were $2.50 for farmers markets and $1.33 for organic Whole Foods.
While the differences are significant, Farm Fresh farmers markets provide so-called “bonus bucks” to customers who receive SNAP benefits, which serves to halve the cost, as they receive a dollar of market credit for each real dollar spent. And, of course, buying from Bami stalls means the proceeds are staying within the community.
While money and spatial access are tangible barriers to healthy eating, Bami’s work always comes back to the people.
“We know our roadblocks, we know our needs,” Shabazz says.
Their boots-on-the-ground strategy is about “getting kids in the dirt early,” as Shabazz puts it, and for Kolawole, “getting the young generation to think about what they eat.”
This means providing education about cooking and agriculture, but also just bringing young people out to the farm to see how things work. While some may just volunteer, Bami also currently has six learning plots, which are each about the size of a very large backyard garden.
People like Samuel Dapper, who is in his mid-20’s, can rent them out, even with no prior experience. Farm staff will provide tools and walk them through the full growing process. Dapper, who cleared and tilled the whole plot with a friend, says that when he first became interested in healthy eating, it meant organic, and shopping at Whole Foods.
That approach was “burning a hole in his wallet.”
Now, with cucumbers, squash, and garden eggs all growing strong, he has his own produce to eat. It’s tough with a full-time job, and it might not be strictly cheaper than Whole Foods, all things considered. But, it’s important to him, beyond nutritional facts and price.
“It’s ancestral knowledge,” he said.
Again and again, no one associated with Bami talks about food or health without talking about community. Community is what makes the operation possible, and community is the reason to fight. A healthy meal may be about the ingredients, but also from where you get it and with whom you eat it.
As Shabazz puts it, “food is not just consumption and finding a belly. It connects people to their culture, their language. Food is a remedy of happiness. There’s that release of emotion when you eat.”
When asked for a definition of “community,” the farmers’ answers were always broad.
Just as food access is denied along broad, spatial swaths, the African Alliance is trying to build a network inclusive of everyone included in their area of operation.
“African Americans, Latinos, Africans — all 54 countries — Southeast Asians,” Kolawole says. “I’m not interested in specifics. All of us are here.”
The community is centered around food.
Kolawole points to, as an example, corn: “All of us eat this. We can use this to know each other. That is an opportunity.”
The network is primarily comprised of “ordinary people” working with other “ordinary people.” ‘But it also includes local politicians, like U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who posted photos of himself online in May with his sleeves rolled up, boat shoes in the dirt, planting a seedling at Bami Farm.
While Kolawole works to fill the gaps left by the political system (“Nothing has changed going back to Cianci,” he says), he describes politicians like Reed as “champions” for the farm.
“Langevin came, Whitehouse came, Reed came, the Governor came,” Kolawole recalled (referring to now retired Rep. James Langevin, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Gov. Dan McKee). “They can open doors that we are not allowed into. I think that’s very important.”
Even just a two-photo, one-sentence Tweet, Kolawole says, can be a boon: “Everybody reads what Sen. Reed says. So if there’s a picture of us with him at the farm — the more visibility these politicians can give us — that’s a big plus for us.”
Ocean State politicians have brought Bami and its partners some tangible gains.
Reed, in 2021, delivered $1.6 million in grants to Farm Fresh RI, which helped fund the Bonus Bucks program. Measures like these help develop alternative food networks, but may not address the root causes limiting healthy food access by neighborhood.
Kolawole emphasizes that there are two separate worlds.
“Getting food to the local communities, that’s boots on the ground,” he said. “It’s different — very different – from main street activities.”
Working with “champions” who can deliver funding and visibility helps Bami succeed in its mission, despite the many obstacles.
Growers from Bami Farm will be at Johnston Memorial Park for a farmers market from 9 to 12 a.m. on Aug. 26.
“I live by a saying I learned from my father when he was alive,” Johnson said. “I want for my brother that what I want for myself. I can’t be your neighbor if I live well and you don’t live well. That, for me, is community.”
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