In 2015, West Fresno, California native Reverend Floyd D. Harris, Jr., of New Light for New Life Church of God, founded the Freedom School Demonstration Farm to offer training and job skills coaching to some of the at-risk K-12 youth of his congregation. Now having been successful for three years and counting, the urban farming program continues to challenge and inspire African American youth while also providing viable fresh fruits and vegetables to their local community.
The Freedom School was named for and loosely based on the Freedom Schools that began to pop up during the Civil Rights Movement era of the 1960s. As Black students began to boycott their classrooms due to unequal resources and treatment, Black college students began to step up and teach in what they named “Freedom Schools.” In addition to traditional curriculums, these alternative middle and high schools also taught about resistance and protest strategies to encourage youth involvement in forever changing the American school system.
Reverend Harris’ vision for the farming program sought to teach tangible job skills, including landscaping, journalism, janitorial work, and construction skills to youth to supplement their classroom education. As youth would engage in this work, the fruits of their labor would also be of great value to their surrounding community, made up in part by many low-income residents. The Black median income in Fresno has been reported to be $25,895, which is less than half of the reported white median income in the city. Reverend Harris felt the significant need to uplift their community’s low-income residents and saw the Freedom School program as one way to do that.
Program secretary and curriculum coordinator, Maria Else, remarks “Farming has so many parts to it. Agriculture is not just planting. It is engineering and science and so many different aspects.” What started as a summer-only program has moved to a year-round experience, meeting on Saturdays during the school year and then twice a week during the summer.
Participants not only maintain and harvest the garden year-round, they also learn to prepare healthy recipes including stuffed peppers, black-eyed pea hummus, and a watermelon chutney that has won recognition at the annual Big Fresno Fair. Else went on to share, “we talk to them about different diseases and illnesses that affect African-Americans, including high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure.” Armed with tasty and fresh new recipes, program participants then become educators to their families to try the healthier snack and meal options.
“Most Blacks have an impression of farming based on our history in this country,” said Fresno farmer Will Scott in reference to slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow laws. “But we need to get back into it from a new approach. We need to get young people of color back to the farm not just so they can grow their own food but so they can participate in the food system.”