Most days, Bilal Walker tends one of two small community farms he manages under the banner of Al-Munir Farms in his native Newark.
He is a proud urban farmer who believes his work can heal marginalized communities, like many areas of Brick City where poverty, crime and food insecurity are rampant.
At 29 Grafton Avenue, he and his partner, Breonna Walker, rent a city-owned property surrounded by the structural remains of demolished buildings. Called ‘Jannah on Grafton’, this small farm grows bok choy, kale, peppers, medicinal herbs and a variety of other plants.
“I have always been aware of the need for access to healthy food in low-income communities, and the relationship between food and overall health disparities,” Walker said.
“I figured if there was a way to contribute to the community, feeding people would be a great starting point,” he said.
About 800,000 people, including 192,000 children, lack affordable healthy food options, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Walker said state and local government officials hope to increase opportunities for urban farmers to thrive.
He says the health and safety of his community are two of his top priorities, and decades of racist policies and poverty have increased food insecurity rates in his community. increase.
“I think the vacant land within underserved communities should be used for some kind of green space or community empowerment work,” Walker said. “And by utilizing urban agriculture to promote aquaponics, hydroponics and traditional cultivation, community members will have access to locally grown food. Farmers can wholesale to school districts and other public bodies.”
In January, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Lewis (D-Essex) introduced legislation establishing a statewide Urban Farming Subsidy and Loan Program. Under the bill, applicants would have to enter into agreements with their local school districts to provide school-age youth with healthy food choices.
Senator Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), the bill’s second lead proponent, said food insecurity was an ongoing concern for some legislators.
“Recognizing the fact that just under 900,000[New Jerseyers]are eligible for SNAP is an absolute concern, as it indicates the affordability of food and the availability of healthy foods. , will be a concern for the urban environment,” Pou said.
Lawmakers also introduced legislation directing the USDA to create a pilot program to administer grants of up to $35,000 to three eligible urban horticulture initiatives in low-income areas statewide.
Applicants should, among other things, teach community members how to plant and grow fresh produce.
Neither bill has gone through a committee hearing.
“It was referred to the committee,” Pou said of the grant and loan program she co-sponsored. “I hope the chair will consider the submission.”
Walker, meanwhile, said such initiatives would benefit farmers like him to some extent.
He said many urban farms and community gardens lease land and are at the mercy of their landlords, often requiring capital to own their working space.
His farms, ‘Jannah on Grafton’ and ‘Eden Farms’, both double as libraries and are filled with books by notable black literary figures such as Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston.
Al-Munir Farms regularly hosts community events such as art galleries, youth programming, yoga and meditation sessions, and neighborhood mixers.
Walker said he’s found heroin needles near his farm on several occasions. So he started partnering with local medical facilities to provide free HIV tests and contraceptives on site.
“Many of our community members don’t have access to a car, so they may not want to go to the hospital…some community members are afraid of hospitals,” says Walker. “We are trying to provide services directly to the community.”