Revolutionary Food Systems

02.23.22
Revolutionary Food Systems

Throughout history, Black leaders have fought to feed people and increase access to nutritious food- and their actions are still impacting the fight for food freedom, even 50 years later. 

This Black history month, I want to share and celebrate the life and legacy of inspiring Black leaders whose contributions forever changed the landscape of American food and agricultural  systems. These leaders paved the way for our communities today, and we still live and learn by their legacies, research, programs, and ideas.

Some names you may recognize and others you will come to appreciate. These courageous, historic leaders helped revolutionize food sovereignty; setting the groundwork for a more equitable and resilient food system for the betterment of their communities but for the benefit of all Americans.

Photo Credit: Stephen Shames

PHOTO CREDIT: STEPHEN SHAMES

The Black Panther Party Breakfast Program: Power Through Food and Community Building

In 1969, it wasn’t unusual for black children to go to school hungry, without any opportunity to eat breakfast. Because there was no breakfast for them - let alone a healthy one.

The Black Panthers, a historic and radical black empowerment group, changed all that. Suddenly, chocolate milk, eggs, meat, cereal, and fresh fruit were available to black children in the mornings before school. For some of them, it would be the first time eating a breakfast like that on a school day, and others found that they could focus, think, read, and pay attention in class for the first time - all thanks to some good, old-fashioned nourishment.

In the 60s, The Sun Reporter said the children thought the Panthers were “groovy” and “very nice” for providing them with a hot meal - and they were! But their intentions ran deeper than just breakfast. The purpose of their free breakfast program was to encourage the survival and equity of black people - to help them leave behind oppression, end police brutality, and to fight for true equality. The public-facing mainstream media vilified the Black Panthers, and there was a lot of confusion about their true message.

Photo Credit: Stephen Shames

The Black Panthers banded together for neighborhood patrol to end police brutality, and they found that social programs were another effective way to enact real change in their communities - in a way that could benefit the most people quickly.

So how did the program work? It was surprisingly simple, and it’s actually the reason most federal free breakfast programs exist today in America. Black Panthers and their volunteers talked to health professionals and nutritionists to decide what kids should be eating for breakfast, then they went to grocery stores to ask for donations. When they got back from shopping, they prepared and served the food to kids, free of charge.

Results reported from the free breakfast program included many teachers claiming that students were more alert, awake, and complained less of stomach pains. They were learning better, feeling better, and doing better.

The program ended eventually due to a national war and FBI conflict against the Black Panthers. Their efforts weren’t for nothing, though. Their breakfast program had gotten them in the public eye, and state leaders were put under pressure to feed kids before school. As a result, the U.S. government expanded its own school food programs.

Thanks to the Black Panthers,kids today are still eating well before school in communities of all types. Their legacy of change made a permanent impact on the availability of food in black communities for one of the most vulnerable populations in America - black children.

Photo Credit: Stephen Shames

Photo Credit: Stephen Shames

Fannie Lou Hamer: Land Justice for Black Farmers 

Fannie Lou Hamer is a name you may recognize: this powerful civil rights icon and women’s rights leader from the 1960s-70s was central in fighting for black women’s rights in a revolutionary era. 

Her voice was one of the most passionate, and impactful forces at the time- particularly for voting rights and economic opportunities for black communities. Here’s what most people don’t know about her work.

She was working behind the scenes to help black farmers. Why? For many reasons - empowering black communities, increasing access to food, and fighting for farming equality. But her personal mission began on a hot summer evening, when she was just 13 years old. 

A white man, a total stranger, snuck onto her family’s farm in Mississippi and poured gallons of poison all over her parents’ crops. The destruction was so significant that their entire farming operation was taken out, and they were left with almost nothing. Fannie Lou Hamer couldn’t believe that a white man could make a move so simple - but her whole family’s livelihood would be ruined from the act. 

From that point on, she was determined to “get back up again,” as she says in her autobiography, and to help other black farmers do the same.

In the 60’s, black farmers were routinely denied the necessary loans they’d need to run a farm - loans that white farmers had no problems getting. As a result, black farms often failed or had to move to other regions.

One hundred years ago, 15% of farmers in America were black. That number is now closer to 2% - because of acts like racist loan discrimination that hardworking black farmers faced. Black farmers often had their farms sabotaged, whether it was financial or physical destruction, like Fannie Lou Hamer’s family experienced. 

To combat this open and unabashed oppression of black farmers, Fannie Lou Hamer did something revolutionary: She established the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which made land accessible to black farmers so they could have a food source and employ marginalized communities in the South. The Freedom Farm Cooperative included the Pig Project, which gave pork to families who couldn’t afford other protein sources. 

The Freedom Farm Cooperative eventually expanded to create community gardens, community kitchens, a job training center, and other income-providing resources for marginalized communities. 

Fannie Lou Hamer was an activist that was truly for the people: She fought for women, for black communities, for jobs, for sources of income, and for food. She faced challenges in her mission - as a black woman, she encountered threats of violence, death threats, and more - but she persevered, nonetheless, to “get back up again.”

“When I liberate others, I liberate myself.” - Fannie Lou Hamer

George Washington Carver: Soil Health and Composting

George Washington Carver is often referred to as the “inventor of peanut butter” - and while he was a man of many talents and invented hundreds of products using peanuts, peanut butter was actually NOT one of them!

More than just the Peanut Man, George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist whose research directly impacts environmental practices used today.

One of the things his legacy left behind is a strong push for regenerative agriculture, or a type of farming that puts soil health first to improve long-term viability of many common crops. When soil grows the same thing over and over, year after year, it can become depleted of nutrients.

So why does good soil matter, anyways? Because without good soil, we cannot have good food. 

Good quality soil is the foundation to high-quality and nutritious food. Healthy soil can store and process more water, whereas poor quality, depleted soil doesn’t hold water and kills crops. Fertile soil provides essential nutrition to plants, like vitamins, nutrients, and trace minerals we need to thrive. Essentially, good soil is the building block to everything we consume or grow. Without rich, fertile soil, the quality of our crops, nutrition, and eventually, quality of life will suffer substantially.

George Washington Carver | Photo Credit: Wikipeda

Fannie Lou Hamer | PHOTO CREDIT: Ebony.com

When you eat a fresh vegetable, you count on the fact that it will be full of vitamins and minerals. Don’t you? The thing is, if that veggie was grown in bad soil, it might not contain much nutrition at all.

Soil health even has a direct link to skin health, since our skin cannot thrive without all the vitamins, nutrients, and trace minerals we require. As you know by now, skin health is truly an “inside-out” endeavor, and your insides can only be as healthy as your soil is.

George Washington Carver knew this, so he researched crop rotation extensively to come up with a solution. Growing cotton for years depletes the soil, but growing an alternative crop, like peanuts, soy beans, or sweet potatoes, the soil could be renewed. George Washington Carver taught farmers about ways to increase nutrition in food, like feeding pigs acorns instead of expensive farm feed.

George Washington Carver’s research, findings, and teachings were foundational to the modern agricultural system and regenerative agriculture, which even today is an active movement to rebuild organic soil matter for better crops, better farms, and a healthier planet.

This movement becomes more and more important every year, as scientists predict that in just 50 years, there won’t be enough topsoil to adequately feed the population of the earth. Thanks to George Washington Carver, we have the framework to implement a better solution.

"soil health is skin health."

Although we have a long way to go in the fight for nutritious, affordable food in every single community, these revolutionary leaders helped create the framework so we could take action now.

This Black History Month, take a moment to learn about these black leaders and thank them for their contributions to food accessibility and equality.

Each and every time you bite into a peach, a carrot, or some nutritious leafy greens - think of them. Their actions and dedication to food justice echo throughout history, and their legacy is in healthier communities now and in the future.

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