While sauntering through downtown Boston on a lovely Easter Sunday morning, I passed by two men sitting on a bench holding cardboard signs. At first I thought nothing of it, assuming they were simply panhandling, but as I glanced at their signs I noticed one of them read: “need help starting a farm” and the other: “Freedom Farms Foundation on Facebook.” I wasn’t able to snap a picture, but I did write down the name of the Facebook profile.
At first the impression I got from these two men was definitely not an overtly positive one. It looked as if they were just two bums smoking cigarettes who probably didn’t really have any goal in mind of actually starting a farm. As I thought about them in relation to food activism, I thought they were actually doing a disservice to the movements by presenting themselves in such a way that would lead people to have a negative opinion about the types of people who work on farms these days.
Then I got home and looked up Freedom Farms Foundation on Facebook. Turns out they are actually a coalition trying to start a farm with the hopes of giving homeless people alternative options for their lives and livelihoods. So it seems that my impression of the two men as street ‘bums’ may have been correct, but my judgement was sorely misplaced (as most judgements are). They actually represent a lot more of food activism than I originally noted. They see the farm as ‘one way out’–a way to combat the misfortunes that have befallen them, either due to their own actions or to the oppressive realities of our capitalist system. They also offer self-defense classes and other practical tips for people who live the unfortunate circumstances of homelessness.
Additionally, I found the communal aspect of their project the most intriguing. Not only is the Freedom Farms Foundation proposing a communal living and working space once their farm is established, but they are in fact relying on the community to help them get there. Of course, many people have (legitimate) critiques of asking for money on the streets, but I think it can also be used constructively–as in this case. Employing techniques that are generally connected with notions of laziness, lack of self control, etc. for a cause so different from those of most panhandlers gives Freedom Farms an interesting edge. While their members are homeless, they are using their homelessness as a way to engage with the community. Asking for money with the express purpose of starting a farm intrigues the passerby–raising questions of what farming can mean today, who is drawn to the farm today and why, and even helps elevate the hugely problematic issue of homelessness.
In short, this was a learning experience for me. I wish I had taken the time to stop and speak with the two men when I had the chance. I wish I hadn’t judged them–both before I knew the farm connection and after, when I assumed their project was illegitimate and just a front for collecting money. But I hope this isn’t the last time I’ll have the opportunity to engage with such innovative forms of activism.