Though switching careers from therapy to agriculture was quite odd, Karen Washington’s decision to chart this path was driven by her passion to protect the lands in her neighborhood in Washington. This inspired her to start a campaign in 1988 with a small parcel of land across the street from her apartment.
With time, that passion blossomed into an organization, which led to the co-establishment of the Garden of Happiness. In her pursuit to protect lands, she found an even bigger purpose in her passion to protect the health of others.
She soon discovered that many of her patients were suffering from food-related health conditions; they often visited her facility with cases of hypertension, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. This caused her to develop a great concern about the problems that were claiming lives, with almost no awareness of the subject in the community.
She later traced the problem to junk foods that were often found in the kitchen of many African Americans, and longed for the days when communities ate fresh foods harvested from their farms – those generations were healthier and less prone to food-related illnesses. Over time, access to healthy food had been overtaken by a culture of eating fast food.
With the help of her Puerto Rican and southern black neighbors, she nurtured the love to grow food in her backyard and frequented the library to learn how to create one’s own garden as she began growing her journey of purpose. The feeling of eating produce from her garden excited her, according to the guardian.
Today, Karen is recognized as one of the 100 most influential African Americans and is credited for the term “food apartheid,” which highlights the systemic racial gap in America’s food system. She believes the inequalities in the food chain is as a result of a bigger systemic default to the disadvantage of African Americans in getting the opportunity to nutritious food, farmlands, and access to a ready market.
For over three decades, she has advocated equality in the distribution of farmland and access to affordable food in her white food justice movement. The goal is to bring political pressure to bear on policymakers to trigger a change to help indigenous black farmers.
To her, eating as a family many years ago was the chord that bound families together. As a young girl, Karen visited her grandmother to share such family moments, and there was always fresh food, which caused her to get accustomed to eating organic food. Her father worked at the supermarket and always brought home fresh foodstuffs, while her mum was one of the best cooks she has known.
This memory has reshaped her course and what she wants to achieve now. She is part of the pioneers of La Familia Verde Garden, a community of urban food growers who set up a coalition out of the reality that there are only 139 black crop growers out of 57,000 farmers in New York State, and the alarming income disparity in the racial gap. While white farmers’ income is pegged at $48,000 a year, black farmers bag a paltry $910 a year, a fact that has become a norm.
This blatant injustice has become the source of Karen’s advocacy now, and about $1 million has been raised for the black farmer fund. A campaign was started in 2019 to help farmers get ready access to funds to support their businesses, as the current structure makes it cumbersome to access loans to support their work.