Practical support for historically underserved urban agriculturalists during COVID-19: Reflections from my return to The Academy after a death in the family

by: Hannah Whitley

Since mid-August of 2017, my life has revolved around being a graduate student. My daily schedule is typically dictated by three-hour seminars, meetings with my advisor, research assistantship team, activist and student organizations. During the spring of 2020, I planned to share findings from my recently defended Master’s thesis at several sustainable food and urban agriculture conferences. The participatory action research project I coordinated, The Female Farmer Photovoice Project, was slated for exhibition at four events in three different states. There were even talks of creating “Exhibition 2.0” with several farmers, gardeners, activists, and agricultural educators who took part in the project the prior year. My activist research was gaining momentum, and I felt confident in my identity as a budding scholar of gender and agriculture.

In mid-March of 2020, however, all plans were halted, and my confidence quickly shifted, ironically, not because of the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, my paternal grandmother, Cheryl Whitley, with whom I was very close, was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, given a few weeks to live, and was placed in at-home hospice.

Within two days of learning of my grandma’s diagnosis, I was back at my family’s cattle ranch in my rural southwestern Oregon hometown, a 20-minute drive from the Pacific Ocean. Piles of books needed for my ongoing virtual graduate seminars, upcoming PhD qualifying exam, and research assistantship were strewn about the floor of my childhood bedroom. I tried to make a living in a house with seven family members my “new normal.” In addition to helping care for my niece, Jessa (6 months), and nephew, Josiah (two-and-a-half years), I began to help with my grandma’s end-of-life care. I tried to grieve and keep up with the laundry, dishes, cleaning, and cooking for nine people amid a global pandemic while simultaneously taking three graduate classes in a different time zone. The next four weeks were the most stressful of my life and passed very quickly. My grandma soon died in her sleep on the morning of April 26.

Since mid-March, I have been far removed from academic life, both psychologically and physically, as I chose to stay with my family in Oregon until my graduate coursework begins again in August. As a result, I have become out-of-touch with my academic colleagues and former research participants – many of whom I consider to be good friends. I am slowly bringing myself back to work and have begun positing the practical needs, potential solutions, and policy recommendations wanted by historically underserved urban agriculturalists during this lethal pandemic and historic revolution. My insight comes largely from observations of email listserv exchanges and social media accounts from Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farms, gardens, education coalitions, and service providers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Flower Lady Under the Flower Tree”

COVID-19 has and continues to cause significant impacts across the entirety of the U.S. food and agriculture system, and urban farmers and growers have not been left unaffected. Lack of access to and tenure on land, limited access to and control over capital and resources, restricted knowledge of technical and business skills, and isolation are realities of particular concern for historically underserved urban farmers and growers during the pandemic.

Finding viable production plots, locating scarce financial and natural resources, navigating institutional bureaucracy, accessing culturally appropriate mentors, and connecting with other marginalized urban agriculturalists were challenging endeavors before the novel coronavirus. Access to resources and community was facilitated through systems of neighborhood, philanthropic, non-governmental, governmental, university, and faith community support.  Now, in the wake of slashed budgets, an uncertain economic future, mandatory social distancing, and shelter-in-place measures, urban farmers and growers are faced with short- and long-term disruptions to their farms, gardens, and food systems. Support organizations must continue to offer their education and networking programs in digital form, as access to already scarce resources and human connections are needed during this uncertain time.

Policymakers, philanthropic organizations, and grassroots movements must continue to develop and advocate for policy solutions to include urban agriculture in any pandemic-related emergency legislative packages. The USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program intends to provide $545 million in direct payments to nearly 36,000 farmers and ranchers who have suffered a five percent or greater price decline due to COVID-19. There is a payment limit of $250,000 per applicant, but applicants who are corporations may qualify for more money.

“Resiliency of the Human Spirit”

The USDA must reach out directly to historically underserved farmers and growers to inform them of available funding and offer support in the application process. Moreover, the USDA needs to carve out designations for BIPOC farmers, who have historically been unable to access these funds. The program is being administered through local offices of the Farm Services Agency (FSA), which is the wing of the USDA that handles loans and credits. Many BIPOC farmers and growers distrust their local FSA offices after decades of discriminatory loan practices; some farmers from underserved communities simply do not have a relationship with the FSA office due to language barriers, limited transportation, and other obstacles. The fact that applications for the program go through local FSA offices is a barrier in itself.

Furthermore, the challenges the COVID-19 outbreak is posing to BIPOC communities exemplify the need for collective food sovereignty. Leah Pennamin, a Black farmer, food sovereignty advocate, Co-Director and Farm Manager of Soul Fire Farm, writes that “Before, during, and after the outbreak, food apartheid disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities who also face higher vulnerability to COVID-19.” This pandemic is presenting more challenges to food access for vulnerable communities – both rural and urban. Though gender and agriculture researchers face immediate limitations for face-to-face social science research, future scholarship must situate urban agriculture, COVID-19, and the movement for Black lives within contemporary calls for a focus on the intersectional issues which lie at the core of social justice in agriculture.


Pennamin, Leah. (2020). “Love notes – Defending Black life, seeding hope, and decomposing racism.” Retreived June 28, 2020 from

Photo credits:

“Connecting With The Land” (Header Image) © Dana Harris-Yates 2019 | The Female Farmer Photovoice Project, IFAA Member horticulture educator for our children, young adults, and elders.

“Flower Lady Under the Flower Tree” © NaTisha Washington 2019 | The Female Farmer Photovoice Project,  Ms. Savage is a long-term gardener in Homewood and this is her lot’s beautiful Magnolia tree.

“Resiliency of the Human Spirit”  © Celeste Taylor 2019 | The Female Farmer Photovoice Project


Hannah Whitley (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education at Penn State. Her Master’s work explores how socially constructed identities complicate barriers and opportunities for agriculturalists and connect to broader institutional inequities that perpetuate these problems. To learn more about Hannah’s thesis, visit

Gender dynamics, seed systems and COVID-19: there is a grace period, or is there?

by: Esther Njuguna-Mungai

A few of us as gender scientists working in the CGIAR and with National Partners have become the ‘gender dynamics in seed systems’ enthusiasts.  We love the topic, we feel seeds and the dynamics around access, choice, use is the language that connects us with the plant breeders on one hand and the small/medium scale farmers on the other hand.  What farmers  want in a seed is what we endeavor to offer and the challenges that they face in their production environments are the problems we contribute in getting solutions to.  We are in the drylands of Sub Saharan Africa, where rainfall amounts and distribution challenges dictate a lot of what we are able to do.  When rains are not enough, our breeders develop varieties that can give a reasonable yield with little rain (drought tolerant varieties) when the rains are too short, they breed varieties that can give a yield in fewer days (early maturing varieties).  Selected farmers participate in participatory varietal selection (PVS), a highly interactive process, so their opinions and preferences are voiced and integrated in the breeding process.   An important step is the delivery of these varieties from the ‘laboratory-like -farms’ in research centres to farmers in  rural areas through formal or informal seed value chains.  If farmers don’t know, can’t access and can’t use improved varieties, then the hoped for improved nutrition,  incomes and  environments can’t be realized.  One of the most important ways of ‘knowing’ about new types of seed and getting  seeds is through social networks – trusted social and cultural relations in the rural areas – especially for the women.  Close relations that lead to these social networks involve person to person interactions – meetings with women or mixed farmer groups, going to the trading centres in open air markets, funeral gatherings, weddings, church meetings among others.

Sneaky COVID-19 vis-à-vis social distancing.

We are in unprecedented times, since December 2019.  We are facing a global pandemic, COVID-19, that has challenged the norms of social interaction.  Among the recommendations given by health specialists on how to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection include thorough washing of hands, wearing masks and maintaining social distance.  Countries have responded with different graduated measures of effecting social distancing among members of the population – closing of dense population institutions (churches, schools, colleges and universities), imposing curfew hours of when the public can move out of home or not (like in Kenya), restricted movement from regions identified as hotspots to other regions; total lockdowns (like in Uganda, India).  The social distancing recommendation is sure to impact seed sourcing, access and use of high quality seeds in the short and medium term.  But how are farmers responding or working around this?

Since I am working from home in Nairobi in order to effect the social distancing requirement in my country, to answer this question, I made phone calls to a few farmers I know in Kenya, some in the peri-urban areas and some in the rural areas.  I wanted to know how they are adjusting to the social distancing as far as seed access and use is concerned.  I also sent an email request to seed systems specialists and collaborators in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia to share insights from their own experiences.  I was hopeful that this approach would get me reliable insights about what people are experiencing.  Of course, they are not random samples or representative of all populations.

Social distancing in the rural and urban areas is different.

Social distancing in the urban areas means staying in one’s flat, on one’s compound, or in one’s room depending on their circumstances.  This results in reduced interactions with neighbours, friends and colleagues.  It means working from home and depending very much on the internet enabled process of interaction for social and official meetings.  From the phone calls I made though, social distancing in the rural areas means doing the things you do normally – planting, weeding, grazing your cows, taking care of your sheep – and not moving to the neighbours home or to the trading centres.  It also means one can’t attend mass ceremonies like weddings, funerals, church services.  For a while, COVID19 challenge was assumed to be an urban problem.

A colleague from Tanzania documented that:  “In rural areas farmers were proceeding with harvesting their groundnut ….Moreover, in villages of Sikonge District each of the household homes were ordered to have a bucket of water with a sanitizer or any liquid soap to minimize or avoid spread of the disease.”

Depending on context specific scenarios, if the crop were planted by the time the social distancing was declared, there will be no effect on the seed types/seed quality of the crop that is already in the field.  In the short term, there is some grace period in which the status of the seed access/seed quality would be as good as it would be without the effects of COVID-19.  What is affected mostly though, is the availability of farm labour – shared community labour events are not practical anymore- while these are especially important for women group members.  Hired daily waged casual laborers are not engaged as much as before – either they are not available or the hiring farmers are cautious not to risk exposing their families to infection.  The production realized by the already planted farmers may-be compromised by the margins that are attributable to overgrown weeds and effects of late weeding.  The losses may be very high.  There is a potential of post-harvest losses where family labour may not be enough for harvesting all that was planted before the start of the next rains.  Would this be an opportunity for small-scale threshers – if the owners can minimize infection?  Where urban members of the household have migrated to the rural areas and are available to contribute to farm labour, these challenges maybe mitigated and the effect minimized.

A young lady demonstrates how they access the inside of a granary

For rural areas where the rains started as the social distancing instructions were rolled out, and the farmers were just starting to plant, they are most likely depending on ‘home saved seeds’ and reducing the amount of land that is planted to certain crops.  In Uganda, given the role women play in ensuring food security in their households, proceeds from trading in grain is often used to facilitate farming activities (purchase seed, hire labour) to produce food crops as the men tend to produce cash crops.  The COVID-19 lockdown has occurred at the beginning of the rainy season when farmers should plan, prepare fields and plant. The women whose livelihoods were affected are having challenges in accessing and purchasing seed from recommended sources and are resorting to home saved seeds or borrowing from relatives, friends and neighbours.  Apart from the quality issues with such seed, one may not be able to borrow enough seed for the desired size of plots, as each farmer now wants to save what they have, they can’t share large quantities.  The consequence is reduced plot sizes of crops grown.  Moreover the uncertainty created by lack of finances also causes these women to reduce plots to manageable sizes which may not be enough to produce sufficient food for the household, thereby increasing the likelihood of food insecurity for such households.

Getting seed merchandise to farmers in this season is challenging for businesses (especially in the drylands where the sales are usually low).  In Kenya for example, when the curfews were declared and the movement of the population restricted for some counties, the government indicated that ‘anyone transporting food, with a special permit would be exempted’.  However, it was not indicated that ‘seed’ , as an essential precursor of the food production chain, would be considered an essential commodity that gets exemptions for transportation to the far flung areas/hotspot areas that are in lockdown.  There are therefore possibilities of dips in operations of seed companies, who ensuring ‘social distancing’ for their own staff, have minimized distribution of improved seeds 

Migration from the urban areas to the rural, closing of schools/colleges: implications for household resource use, access, and control

When parents (in the rural areas, they are the farmers too) paid their first term school fees to schools and colleges, a significant portion of the schools fees would take care of the food needs for their children for a while (especially for the those attending boarding school).  For those attending day schools, parents knew that at least lunch would be taken care of, through a school feeding program, funded in one way or the other.  When a family member also worked in the cities, households did have an alternative source of income (remittance) and access to seed shops in the bigger cities.  When social distancing was declared, the children came home (without fees refunds) and the working relatives lost their wage earning opportunities in the cities and trooped back home – often without any compensatory funds/salaries.  Three things have happened: women’s time is now stretched.  They have to cook for more members of the household and they have to cook more meals per day (breakfast, lunch and supper).  Parents are converted to teachers as they attempt to support their children to keep up with school work and women are putting in a lot more time here.  For those that can access a radio or a TV, there are digital educational programs available to support them.  A lot of digital resources are through radio and TV, assets that are not usually available in women headed households in rural areas, which further stretches the gender-gaps witnessed in the rural areas.

Men and women in North and Eastern Uganda are traders of grains of legumes and cereals. Specifically, women are mostly involved in rural weekly markets where they purchase these grains and supply grain livestock farmers in urban centers who are mostly men.  To control and manage spread of COVID-19 in the country, most trading centres were temporarily closed down affecting especially women whose major source of income was trading in legumes and cereals grains at the rural weekly markets.  The implication is a loss of livelihood that is worsened by the fact that most of these women operated on small business loans.  On the other hand, the livestock farmers who are mostly men are not so hard hit at the initial stages of the lock down as they have some stock that they sell to urban buyers or traders who in response to the scarcity created by the closed supply end hiked prices to increase their gains.

The food reserves needed for sustaining families are much higher than families planned for and the options of raising money are shrunk.  What this means is that home saved seed reserves may actually be converted to immediate food needs, as families struggle to deal with basic essentials.  Dietary diversity may fall for households while the food portions may shrink.  The first persons to sacrifice a percentage of their portions would be the women as they serve the households.  As household resources shrink, and the daily needs of the household increase, tensions are heightened in negotiating for resources; cases of domestic violence and abuse start to emerge.  Husbands are back home, assuming some roles and taking charge, where women were in charge.  While income in women’s hands has a higher probability of being utilized in the family, in the men’s hands that probability shrinks to less than half sometimes.  Its documented that there is increased crime reported in Nigeria mainly perpetrated by young men due to increasing lack of jobs during the COVID 19 period.  There is a spike on mental health tensions (not seen a study disaggregating by gender) as rural communities deal with stresses from all fronts.  The demand for contraception has gone up by 122% in Kenya and there is a chance we may see baby booms by the end of the year 2020 beginning of 2021 which may stretch household resources more.

Is there hope?

Yes! Agricultural communities are resilient.  Health scientists are working hard to ensure a vaccine is found for COVID-19 and humanity can get to a level of control.  Hospital staff are working hard to ensure the sick are taken care of.  We celebrate them in a big way.  In the agricultural sector, we also celebrate those in the frontline that can’t work from home, despite the social distancing recommendations but go out as technicians, as breeders, as seed traders, as farmers and stand in the gap to ensure that when things get close to a new normal, we still have high quality seeds and farms planted that will help us bounce food provision upwards.

Photo credits: Ruth W.Njuguna, CBCC, Kenya and Feysal Anthony Nair, CBCC, Kenya

Special thanks for contributions from gender and seed systems partners in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia including Dr Emmanuel Monyo, Mr Romanus Mwakimata, Ms Hellen Opie, Dr Brenda Boonabaana, Ms Katindi Sivi-Njonjo, Dr Shambel Getachew, Ms Rachel Gitundu, Dr Essegbemon Akpo and Dr Chris Ojiewo and selected farmers in peri urban and rural Kenya.

Esther Njuguna-Mungai is a social scientist, currently working as the Gender Specialist in the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals that is led by the International Centre for Research in Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).  She is coordinating a portfolio of research that seeks to understand Gender dynamics in Seed systems, Gender Yield Gap in legume production, Women participation in agricultural capacity building; interface between gender research, women and crop breeding processes and capacity enhancement for gender research implementation in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia. She has been working with male and female smallholder farmers since 1996.  She is a graduate of Wageningen University and Research Centre (Agricultural Development – Msc) and University of Nairobi-(Agricultural Development and Economics) – PhD.


by: Robin Becker

While we were not looking, they increased

the number of Birds per Minute (BPM)

at the poultry processing plant. When line 


speeds increase, accidents increase, two

feet apart isn’t six, the USDA

goes along, squeezing workers together


as the National Chicken Council dictates.

The underlying condition of poultry

workers is murder by design. Ask the woman—


blue, cold— handling eviscerated carcasses

 on the refrigeration side.



I’m Robin Becker, a poet and retired professor, spending month #5 of the international covid-19 epidemic in a rustic cabin in New Hampshire. I’m working on a series of poems called “Underlying Conditions.” My most recent collection of poems, THE BLACK BEAR INSIDE ME, came out in 2018 with the University of Pittsburgh Press. For twenty-five years, I taught creative writing at the Pennsylvania State University.


Photo source: National Chicken Council

Fast-Food Corporation Allegiance or Worker Solidarity?

by: Whitney Shervey

Painted Symbol of the Power Fist, 2007, photograph courtesy of Keith Tyler.


As a white cisgender queer woman who has worked in the food industry for 20 years, I have experienced first-hand inequities at the intersection of gender and class and witnessed and been complicit to systemic racism.  My complicity in white supremacy stems from whiteness and without being constantly challenged will further systemic racism.  I encourage other white folks in the restaurant industry and beyond to learn how their whiteness makes them complicit in a system that is killing people.

Restaurant Industry and COVID-19

The restaurant industry has been hit hard by COVID-19 and the people who have been impacted the most severely are the workers.  Across the US, restaurants have been forced to close their doors, lay off workers, and pivot their operations to abide by rules and regulations to limit the spread of COVID-19, yet fast-food restaurants have remained steadily open.

Systemic Racism and Fast-Food

The current Black Lives Matter uprising that is sweeping across the country and around the world is not only a call to abolish the police, but is also a call to address the systemic racism that has forever plagued America.  Systemic racism is why so many people of color work in fast food with the lowest of the low wages, little job mobility, and little to no benefits.  Systemic racism and COVID-19 are plaguing workers of color in an industry that is already known for its egregious labor violations.

Women of Color Fast-Food Workers

The fast-food sector of the restaurant industry is the lowest paying and even before COVID-19 had a low standard of safety protection for its workers.  Women of color are disproportionately represented in low-wage work like fast-food and are often segregated into the lowest paying positions.  This leaves women of color that work in fast-food no choice but to risk their lives to feed their own families.  This is systemic racism at play and leaves me to wonder what, if anything at all, fast food corporations are doing about it?

Fast-Food Corporations

Burgerville Allies for Change Sign, 2020, photograph courtesy of Whitney Shervey.

Following the days after George Floyd’s death, fast food corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and the Pacific Northwest Burgerville fast-food chain made statements on how they are committed to addressing racism.  All of these corporations have been challenged by their workers to address the inequities of systemic racism by worker-led direct action in the past and for the most part, have failed.

Holding Corporations Accountable

Fast-food workers know their struggle and have been fighting to challenge fast-food corporations through worker-led movements like Fight for $15 and attempts to unionize for years.  Knowing their anti-worker history, fast-food corporations announcing their support for the current uprising is concerning.  If fast food corporations do not support those who are leading movements within their own companies to address the inequities they are experiencing, how can we trust that their commitments to addressing inequity will be met?  Who will hold them accountable?

Building and Supporting Worker Power

In response to corporations making these claims but not responding to the needs of essential fast-food workers, fast-food work stoppages across the nation are taking place in support for the Strike For Black Lives.  Since the historical unionizing of fast-food workers at Burgerville in my hometown of Portland, Oregon in 2018, other food workers have been organizing and unionizing.  This precedent has given restaurant workers actionable ways to address inequities in the workplace by using their worker power.  During the pandemic, workers are using their power to challenge inadequate responses to address COVID-19 by their employers.  Unionized fast-food workers have the leverage to challenge workplace safety during COVID-19, yet their ability to hold their employers accountable when they are making sweeping claims to address systemic racism needs the support of their customer base.

Black Lives Matter

Chicago McDonald’s Workers on Strike, 2020, photograph courtesy of Joe Brusky via Fight For $15

While recently attending a Black Lives Matter protest that was being held outside of a McDonald’s in the neighborhood that I grew up in, I reflected on the importance of customer input when viewing the never-ending line in the drive-through.  In the wake of COVID-19, more than ever convenience has become a priority for American eaters.  This convenience is made possible by systemic racism that disproportionately impacts women of color.  Whether you are relying on fast-food workers to keep you fed or are protesting in their parking lots I urge to look beyond the statements coming from the top and find solidarity in worker-led movements

Who do you Support?

Fast-food chains already have a platform and do not need their voices amplified.  So, the next time you see them making claims on their social media platforms think twice before pressing the like.  My task is to ask all of you to take it upon yourself to know what workers are already doing to address inequity in their workplace.  I ask you to trust the experiences of the workers and hold corporations accountable when they are making sweeping claims of how they plan to address racism.

What is Solidarity?

I also ask you to reflect on what solidarity means to you.  To me, solidarity means showing up knowing that the struggle of the folks you are showing up for is your struggle.  It is the role of white people to figure out how your struggle intersects with Black Lives Matter and to show up. It is the role of fast-food eaters to figure out how your struggle intersects with fast-food workers and show up.

Please, show up!


Brusky, Joe. (Artist) (2020). Chicago McDonald’s Workers on Strike. Retrieved July 24, 2020, from

Tyler, Keith. (Artist) (2007). Painted Symbol of the Power Fist. Retrieved June 17, 2020, from


Whitney Shervey is a professional cook from Portland, OR where she has worked in food work for 20 years. She is a recent graduate of the M.S. in Food Systems and Society program at OHSU where she focused her research on the role unions and worker centers play in restaurant industry equality. After years of working in the restaurant industry, she is committed to using labor organizing to transform the food industry to be more equitable.