Soul Fire Farm, located in Petersburg, New York, is a community farm on a mission to create a more just food system. Through their work, Soul Fire Farm reaches thousands of people each year by providing regular harvest deliveries, educating the next generation of Black and Brown farmers, and building community gardens in areas of the Capital Region of Upstate New York affected by food apartheid.
We had the incredible opportunity to sit down with their food justice coordinator, Brooke Bridges, who initially embraced farming as a means to heal her own relationship with food and improve her mental well-being.
Can you share your story of how you came to work with Soul Fire Farm? How has your personal health journey influenced your work?
“I grew up in Los Angeles and started acting at a young age. I remember that food was used for vanity, not necessarily as fuel or nourishment. When I was in my 20s, something was calling me away from the industry. I actually had the thought, ‘I’m going to work on a farm!’
“And that’s what I did! In 2016, I found a place in Northern California called the Heartwood Institute and worked in their culinary farm-to-table apprenticeship for three months. After that, I moved back to Los Angeles for another year, and my mother, who was living in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, saw how draining Los Angeles life was on me. I was severely underweight, did not view food as a positive thing, and was using food to self-harm. She finally encouraged me to move to the Berkshires in 2017. The slower pace immediately made a difference.
“I learned about Soul Fire Farm because I first heard about the founder, Leah Penniman, and went to a few events and talks she had hosted. I didn’t know anything about food justice and had never looked at food through the lens of access, privilege, and the connection between food justice and race. I was intrigued and wanted to get involved. I ended up applying to an open Soul Fire Farm job at the time, which I didn’t get. But, because I had been a chef in Los Angeles, I ended up cooking for the farm’s immersion programs.
“Over time, my role evolved and became what it is today. We coined the title I have now, food justice coordinator, because of the breadth of work I do, including social media, donor-related work, and farming. I’m very involved in programming, getting my hands in the dirt, and I still cook for immersion programs.”
You’re passionate about mental-health education and providing resources for people to learn how to “move through their fears and their feelings mindfully and intentionally.” How are you doing this through your work with Soul Fire Farm?
“My pursuit of mental health came from my own struggles. Living in Los Angeles was damaging to me personally, but also what was happening in the United States over the last few years was especially challenging. As I moved closer to the land and engaged with food in a more relational and intimate way, it really changed my perspective on mental health.
“At Soul Fire Farm, we remind people about the inherent connection we have to the land and the beautiful relationship we can have with food if we want it. If we treat the land with love and respect, it will benefit us as well. I’ve developed this reverence for land, food, soil, animals – everything we’re stewarding and consuming – and our work at the farm helps others develop their own reverence for the environment. Also, you can’t not feel better mentally after spending quality time with nature.
“When it comes to addressing mental health in our work directly, it’s not necessarily spoken about outright in everything we do. Generational trauma is explicit and implicit because farming land in America is fraught with the pain and suffering of our ancestors, and we do aim to help ourselves and others heal that trauma. The stigma of mental health is also present, and it’s often detached from what we do day to day, but it can be woven into everything we’re doing. If we address symptoms of trauma and anxiety in our work, it can be more directly addressed.”
We say “food changes everything,” which means that your health can radically change when you feed it well. However, this isn’t as simple as telling someone to improve their diet, with many factors from food production to access influencing a person’s or community’s ability to acquire nutritious food. Can you speak to how Soul Fire Farm is working toward resolving inequities in the food system that impact health?
“We know that in low-income communities of color, access to food is a barrier. We offer a no-cost CSA program for 25 families currently, but our Solidarity Shares program has been in operation for a while and previously utilized a sliding-scale CSA structure. We drop off food every Thursday during the season to families in Troy and Albany, New York. This is an amazing program, but while we can provide food, it’s not forever and we unfortunately can’t reach everyone in need.
“Because of this, our main focus is providing education – especially around the business of growing food – which is much more sustainable for the long-term. We have a program called Soul Fire in the City that helps folks get started growing their own food in urban environments. We set up raised garden beds in Albany and Troy so those communities can learn the process of growing their own healthy food. We provide seedlings, training, and all the materials they need to get started. The hope is these learnings will be passed down to each generation.
“Our immersion programs are also available to teach Black and Brown folks to farm as well as build infrastructure. They’re invited to stay on the farmland for five to six days to learn all about farming. The goal with these programs in particular is to have learners take that knowledge and framework back into their own communities.
“We really want to empower People of Color to start their own programs and make an impact, which can be handed down and shared out with their communities. Many of our alumni of these programs go on to start their own food businesses. In fact, in one year, about 80% went on to do just that, like Christina Bouza of Grow Roots Miami and Josina Calliste of Land in Our Names.”
Why is learning about sustainable agricultural practices important to this work?
“We define sustainable farming as the utilization of ancestral growing techniques that don’t denigrate the soil even more than it has been. Essentially, we don’t want to release excess carbon into the atmosphere as that would continue to contribute to global warming.
“Some sustainable farming practices we implement include:
No-till farming – This means that we don’t use big machines to form beds or prepare them for the growing season. Everything is done by hand, which also helps keep us deeply connected to the land and the food we’re growing.
Mulching – This helps the soil retain moisture and carbon, suppresses weeds, and allows for a slow release of nutrients. A great example of mulching in action is a forest – leaves and twigs fall from trees and act as natural mulch for the forest bed. We’re striving to replicate the forestland as much as possible with compost, hay or straw, and woodchips.
“If there were more small-scale farms engaged in these practices, by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, it could really reverse a lot of damage we’ve done to our environment. Sustainable agriculture practices are important not just for cleaner air and more nutritious food but also to give communities that are often most impacted by the effects of climate change an opportunity to create healthier lives for themselves.”
This April, we’re honoring Earth Month and taking a closer look at how the health of our environment can have an impact on our personal well-being. When we talk about environmental health, many people are familiar with the terms climate change and global warming and the implications on our health, like increased risk of respiratory disease due to heavily polluted air or displacement due to rising sea levels.
Fewer people may be familiar with the term climate justice, which refers to the socioeconomic and public health impacts of climate change and global warming and the actions necessary to address the inequities in how communities experience climate change. What is the connection between Soul Fire Farm’s work in sustainable agriculture and climate justice?
“Our work is connected to creating climate justice in the same way it’s creating food justice because they’re intimately connected. Communities of color not only experience food apartheid, but those areas are also likely to be impacted by climate change directly. In an article by Leah Penniman, the cofounder of Soul Fire Farm, she notes that communities of color all around the world are on the “front lines” of climate change with rising global temperatures contributing to deadly heat waves and natural disasters that can destroy cities and communities that lack proper infrastructure and resources. Further, it’s common for low-income communities of color to be located in parts of cities that are proximal to industries that emit toxins into the air and water supply.
“While we can’t physically move full neighborhoods into better locations, we can empower those communities to have a part in creating healthier physical environments around them, such as building gardens that can contribute to healthier air and nutritious-food access as well as practicing farming methods that sequester carbon from the atmosphere to help reverse damage to our environment and slow climate change.
“We also continue to provide education through virtual events as well as media publications, public speaking, and libraries of manuals and resource guides for BIPOC-led organizations that are also working toward climate justice, food justice, and food sovereignty. We’re only one part of the puzzle, but we’re working to contribute to a healthier planet through work that will impact communities of color directly.”
IIN trains people to become Health Coaches, who help clients reach their health goals with personalized support and accountability. Part of a Health Coach’s role is to understand their client’s health from a holistic perspective, which means taking into account everything in their lives that can impact their health – from spirituality to career to their home environment.
What guidance would you give Health Coaches looking to further support their clients by making their work more equitable?
“I’d recommend always asking about their personal relationships to food, as well as their access to food. It’s easy to homogenize the process, to come up with an approach that you provide many of or all your clients, but many foods might not be culturally relevant for Black and Brown people.
“I would also recommend acknowledging that there’s a lot of oversimplification of health and it’s important to take a step back to ask questions and do your homework. It’s okay not to have all the answers – no one would expect you to. If you have a client with a different background, look into culturally relevant or comparable foods to the ones you’re recommending. This will help you not only meet their physical needs but also their emotional needs by seeing them as the unique individuals they are.
“Understanding the racial inequities that exist in health is key to understanding the overarching climate around injustice, and Health Coaches can play a part in creating a more just food system.”
Learn more about Brooke Bridges here and find out how you can support Soul Fire Farm’s work here.