Limited access to healthy and affordable food is a major problem for low-income Black communities in Georgia that Nakita Hemingway wants to help solve.
Hemingway, 46, is a fifth-generation farmer and a licensed 20-year veteran Realtor from Savannah who is competing against Republican Sen. Tyler Harper and Libertarian businessman David Raudabaugh to become the state’s next commissioner of agriculture.
If she wins in November, Hemingway will be the first Black person in state history to hold the title of ag commissioner, which has added significance to her because of the contributions Black people have made to Georgia’s agricultural legacy.
“African American history is agricultural history,” Hemingway told Capital B Atlanta. “This is truly a story about us as a people and how we reclaim parts of our birthright and move our people forward.”
Georgia’s ag commissioner is elected every four years to lead the state’s Department of Agriculture, which is primarily responsible for promoting and regulating farming and related consumer interests in the state in addition to ensuring that citizens have a safe and abundant supply of food.
Georgia has the fifth-highest rate of Black farmers in the country. The race is crucial for the future livelihoods of local farmers, and Black voters looking for healthy foods at reasonable prices in their own neighborhoods.
Addressing food insecurity
Metro Atlanta had the eighth-largest share nationally of people living in food deserts last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA defines food deserts as low-income areas where a large percentage of the population has limited access to supermarkets or large grocery stores. That means many Black residents in the metro area have to pay more and travel further to purchase healthy foods — if they’re able to at all.
Roughly 22% of Georgians live in urban areas of the state that are more than a mile from a grocery store or in rural areas that are more than 10 miles away from a grocery store, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
The state also has the fifth-highest rate of residents living in low-income neighborhoods with low access to healthy food.
Roughly 19% of Black Georgians experienced food insecurity in 2020, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit, nationwide network of more than 200 food banks. Only 7% of white Georgians suffered the same fate that year, the organization found.
Food insecurity in Georgia is a problem that Hemingway says Republican ag commissioners — including Gary Black, who has held the position since 2011 — have failed to adequately address. Black is stepping down from his role next year after serving for more than a decade.
“There is just this huge spectrum of needs in this department that it has fallen short on, quite frankly,” Hemingway said. “It’s not a resource issue. It’s a policy and leadership issue, because we’ve got farmers throwing away crops every single year.”
Solutions for Black farmers
Creating programs that specifically address the needs of Black farmers in Georgia presents a challenge that Hemingway suggests may require more universal solutions.
Last year, Congress passed a law that included a multibillion-dollar debt-relief program specifically aimed at Black farmers, whose ranks have dwindled since the early 20th century due, in part, to land theft and USDA loan discrimination.
That debt relief was subsequently blocked by a federal judge after a white farmer, aided by a Libertarian group, filed a lawsuit arguing the program was racially discriminatory.
Hemingway cites this as an example of why race-based policy programs can be difficult to deliver.
“The best way I know how to do this is making sure that this department works efficiently for everybody,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that I can’t prioritize the Black farmers. That doesn’t mean that I can’t send a newsletter out to the Black farmers or set up special courses specifically in their communities where they don’t have to leave their communities.”
One solution Hemingway proposes to help Black farmers is creating a program aimed at helping farmers of all races address heirs’ property disputes.
Heirs’ property is a legal term for land owned by multiple people who usually inherit it from a relative who didn’t have a will. Heirs’ property owners typically aren’t eligible to take advantage of often lucrative federal farm assistance programs, which usually mandate applicants own 100% of their land, also known as having “clear title,” to get approved.
Nationwide, Black farmers are disproportionately impacted by heirs’ property disputes. In the last century, Black farmers lost 4.7 million to 16 million acres of farmland due to heirs property disputes.
“You can sign up for classes, you can sign up for workshops, you can get training on how to complete USDA grants,” she said. “If we have a program to teach you how to fix your title with your land … I’m going to make sure you have access to those resources.”
Hemingway plans to open at least one Department of Agriculture satellite office in every Georgia congressional district, so farmers throughout the state don’t have to travel far from home to take the free classes she plans to offer on issues pertinent to their business, such as how to apply for USDA loans and grants.
Having regional offices, she said, also allows the department to hire people from the local farming community who have a better understanding of their neighbors’ needs.
“When we have members working for that department within their own community, they know they’re getting help, because you have an intimate relationship, you understand the needs of your community, and you’re advocating for that,” she said. “Those are going to be our eyes and ears on the ground to make sure that we are doing our job so that my policies are actually effective and efficient.”
Farmers markets, airport tasting stations, and e-commerce options
If elected, Hemingway said she would help tackle food deserts, in part, by opening farmers markets in communities across the state, which she said would benefit local residents in multiple ways.
“Farmer’s markets are central to the vitality of a community,” Hemingway said. “It’s not just a farmer who benefits from that. … It is the jewelry maker, the soap maker, the ballet school around the corner. All of those benefit from that.”
Hemingway aims to help Georgia farmers market their goods at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport by opening tasting stations there, so travelers can sample local products. She also wants to revamp the Department of Agriculture’s website to make it easier to navigate and be readable in multiple languages. She also wants to add an e-commerce section for farmers to sell their products online.
“It’s not our farmer’s job to learn how to build websites, market their products, get their products out there when their tax dollars are paying for this office,” Hemingway said. “Let me do the marketing. Let me build the resources for you, so all you have to worry about doing is running your business and producing your product.”