Gioielli on Reynolds and Cohen, 'Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City'

Kristin Reynolds, Nevin Cohen
Robert Gioielli

Kristin Reynolds, Nevin Cohen. Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City. Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation Series. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016. 216 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-4950-3; $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-4949-7.

Reviewed by Robert Gioielli (University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Environment (April, 2018)
Commissioned by David T. Benac (Western Michigan University)

Printable Version:

Over the past twenty years a dense network of community gardens, farms, and cooperatives have sprung up in cities across the country. As many activists and scholars have noted, these projects not only serve an important role in urban food systems but also have the potential to foment social change, encouraging residents to organize around broader attempts to make cities, urban land use, and the economy more just and democratic. Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City is an excellent scholarly examination of farms and activists doing this sort of work It serves as a proto-guidebook for future scholars and students interested in research, teaching, and activism in this field.

While working on a interdisciplinary survey of urban agriculture in New York City with a larger team of scholars, Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen noticed that although many people paid lip service to the movement’s social justice benefits, farms and gardens operated by people of color suffered from a variety of forms of inequity, discrimination, and other structural challenges. To explore those issues, they decided to embark on a new project that would result in Beyond the Kale. They studied about fifteen separate urban agricultural projects in the five boroughs, each of which is located in and designed to support the surrounding minority community (black and/or Latino/a). They conducted in-depth interviews with farmers, gardeners, and organizers associated with each project over the course of about two years, and also convened a focus group. In addition to this core research, the book builds on their previous research and deep knowledge and participation in New York City’s community farms and gardens. It is divided into eight chapters that address three broad themes: the structure, orientation, and goals of the social justice-oriented projects, and their relationship to the city’s larger urban agricultural system; structural challenges that the projects face; and steps that future researchers can take to encourage more effective research.

Each chapter is lively, with a focus on using the voices of activists, farmers, and gardeners to tell their own stories. As social scientists, Reynolds and Cohen provide a strong theoretical orientation, but these discussions are primarily in the first chapter and do not overwhelm the rest of the text. The real focus of the book is the organizing strategies, tactics, and goals of the various activists, and the difficulties they face navigating the city’s municipal bureaucracy and robust, but often byzantine and opaque, philanthropic sector. Those looking for a discussion of urban agricultural ecology, general farm and garden marketing techniques, or similar topics should look elsewhere. This is an organization and activist focused book.

Nevertheless, what Reynolds and Cohen have produced is in many ways a work of urban political ecology. They show the challenges that different urban agricultural projects have had in getting land tenure to empty and abandoned lots, the ways that they attempt to forge social change by adopting nonhierarchical governance structures, and their formal and informal policy activism to provide urban agriculture with the type of state and national subsidies that large rural farmers and agribusinesses receive. Some of the most illuminating material is in chapter 6, “Uneven Power and Privilege,” which explores how farms and gardens in minority neighborhoods are often the most in need of resources but lack the social capital and institutional resources to take advantage of city and nonprofit programs. Anyone who has ever filled out a grant application for a private foundation knows how time consuming and arduous the process can be for even a modest amount of funding. The projects profiled here lack the full-time staff to devote to grant writing and broader fundraising. Reynolds and Cohen argue that gardens and farms in more affluent areas have copious amounts of volunteer labor from financially secure, well-educated, white middle-class residents, which makes it easier for them to attract initial funding, and thus be a “safe bet” for funders in the future.

This is just one example of the numerous types of structural inequalities that minority-run, social justice-oriented urban agricultural projects face, and the detailing of those challenges is one of the real strengths of this book. Reynolds and Cohen finish the text by outlining some of the critiques activists have about academic researchers who study their projects, particularly those who “drop-in,” collect some data, and then do not give any real credit to the activists, volunteers, or community. They recommend an “action-research” agenda that looks to forward the social justice goals of various organizations. Researchers should see urban farmers and activists as collaborators, and work with the community and the organization to define research questions that will lead to mutually beneficial scholarship.

This last section of Beyond the Kale is really written for scholars as a directive for future research, but all sorts of readers will find this book useful. It should be required reading for any scholar or graduate student looking to conduct qualitative or quantitative research on urban agriculture, and would be particularly helpful for students in undergraduate courses dealing with environmental justice and activism, and those who have some sort of service learning component. Reynolds and Cohen’s critical analysis will help students understand the complex structural inequalities that shape the nonprofit sector, particularly disadvantaging organizations, like those discussed here, with a social justice focus that serve minority urban communities.

Citation: Robert Gioielli. Review of Reynolds, Kristin; Cohen, Nevin, Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.