By Rick Burnette
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.“ —John Lewis, American Congressman and Civil Rights Leader
Better than anyone, John Lewis understood struggle.
During the 1960s American Civil Rights movement he confronted systemic racism. Along with other nonviolent Freedom Riders who protested the segregationist polices of U.S. Southern states, he suffered beatings and arrests. Later, working in the government and as a congressman, Lewis continued to protest and advocate on behalf of the marginalized.
As a life-long gardener, never once have I been beaten or arrested for my efforts, although someone did threaten to sic a dog on me when I was harvesting mangos. In fact, I gardened for years without considering it an act of struggle or advocacy. Gardening was just something we did, just like millions of other Americans.
According to a National Gardening Association report released earlier this year, over 1 in 3 Households (35%) in the U.S. grow their own food. If you’re not growing food, chances are that you know someone who is. There are several reasons why people garden, including for exercise, mental health and the pure joy that comes from such activity. More recently, the pandemic led to many taking up gardening for the first time, not only as a DYI project but also for food security reasons. That’s what leads us towards the idea of good trouble gardening.
As John Lewis and others engaged in nonviolent, constructive good trouble efforts to address racial injustice and inequity, perhaps we should seriously consider gardening as a positive means to counter food system injustices, inequities, and challenges, including:
- US farm policies and a financial system that favors large-scale farms.
- Discrimination of US agricultural agencies against Black farmers.
- Agriculture’s devastating impact on the climate as agriculture and forestry together are estimated to account for 10.5 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.
- Insufficient food aid for Americans lacking access to enough food to live a healthy life, especially due to the pandemic and monetary inflation.
- American’s industrial food system that produces ultra-processed foods associated with poor diets and higher risk of various chronic diseases.
- Pervasive inequality and injustice associated with the US food system that puts America’s farmworkers and other essential workers in hazardous job conditions while being underpaid, even to the extent of experiencing food insecurity themselves.
These circumstances lead Cultivate Abundance (a CBF Global Missions Engagement Partner), and dozens of Southwest Florida partner gardeners, towards growing and collecting food that directly benefits the Immokalee farmworker community. Since 2018 more than 85,000 lbs. of fresh, nutritious food have been shared, benefiting at least 1,000 per week at Misión Peniel, our main Immokalee-based partner.
We consider these garden-based efforts as good trouble because:
- Growing and sharing nutrient-dense food addresses local food insecurity resulting from an unjust and unequal food system that produces a lot of unhealthy processed food.
- In contrast to unsustainable conventional farming, our practice of conservation gardening incorporates organic matter into garden soils and keeps the soil surface covered with a layer of mulch, helping to reduce climate change-causing carbon emissions.
- Focusing on local mutual food aid, we reduce the miles that food typically travels from farm to fork, which also reduces carbon emissions.
- Despite a limited budget, for over two years we have purchased produce from two local sources to share in Immokalee. One grower is an African American urban gardener, with a small family farm serving as the second source. As small-scale producers are not prioritized in the US food system, our purchases are intended to promote and honor the efforts of these two growers.
We understand that gardening isn’t for everyone. Many simply don’t have the space, time, or energy to devote to growing food. However, others might consider volunteering or providing financial support for those engaged in good trouble gardening. Whether one grows a few pots of tomatoes, tends a one-acre garden, or is involved with a community/church garden, such efforts amount to good trouble when we:
- Demonstrate even a degree of autonomy from a food system that needs reform so that farmworkers, consumers, and the environment will benefit from healthier food production practices and products.
- Share from our abundance to benefit those living on the margins. Through good trouble gardening, I’m not suggesting that our entire food system be dismantled. But rather, as British farmer and writer, James Rebanks states, today’s farmers must “reconcile the need to produce more food than any other generation in history with the necessity to do that sustainably and in ways that allow nature to survive alongside us.
All of this aligns with the concept of food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
From a good trouble approach, it is our duty to be allies with essential workers, migrants, the elderly, and undernourished as well as to be stewards of Creation. This is a means of cultivating beloved community.
Good trouble gardening may not be easily understood or applied. Relatively few will engage in any form of good trouble. That’s why John Lewis reminds us not be lost in a sea of despair. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let’s not become discouraged in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not become weary” (Galatians 6:9)
Rick and Ellen Burnette have served as CBF field personnel for 15 years in Thailand and Florida. Together, Rick and Ellen engage in the community-level food security efforts of Cultivate Abundance, the nonprofit they founded, to benefit of farmworker families in Immokalee, Florida and beyond. Cultivate Abundance works alongside the CBF Rural/Urban team and CBF Florida. You can support their ministry here. They also invite you to follow their journey by subscribing to their email newsletter, The Joy of Sharing.