Food Recovery Journal

Black history & the two century-long fight for food justice

February 9, 2024

It’s officially Black History Month! It’s a time to learn, appreciate, and celebrate the history of Black Americans. There’s no denying that the history of what Black people in the United States have lived through is a long and complicated one. However, amazing stories of perseverance, optimism, and hope arose from years of working to thrive in a culture that was actively oppressive. Stories that need to be shared. 

Food access and food recovery wouldn’t be what it is today without a long line of Black activists who paved the way for food justice within their communities. We thought we’d take a moment to highlight just a few of the people who have been critical to our understanding today of the intersections of food, nutrition, oppression, and liberation.

Karen Washington has received many accolades for her work in food justice. She is the founder of Black Urban Growers,  an organization working to empower people through food sovereignty by supporting growers both in urban and rural settings. She is responsible for coining the term food apartheid, which describes the intentional, systematic separation of people from food access, farmland, and business opportunities within the food industry. 

Dr. George Washington Carver is one of the earliest documented activists for food sovereignty. Although best known for discovering over 300 uses for the peanut, Carver’s research extended far beyond this. While working as a professor at Tuskegee University he taught people about soil revitalization and natural fertilization. He shared his knowledge outside of academia through a mobile classroom where he taught the same lessons directly to farmers. 

Pam Jiner is Denver’s own. She helped bring food to Montbello with Black farmers at Freedom Acres Ranch throughout the pandemic. An award-winning community leader in Denver, Jiner takes a holistic approach to health within the Montbello community, a historically disenfranchised neighborhood. She does this with the organization Montbello Walks, which gets people moving, and helped with food distribution at the peak of food insecurity for the neighborhood. 

Ron Finley is a revolutionary urban gardener based in south central LA known as the “gangsta gardener.” He began growing guerilla gardens on dirt patches within the neighborhood as a means to bring fresh, healthy foods to a neighborhood heavily affected by food apartheid. He was cited by the city for growing without a permit, which started a large community effort to fight antiquated policies preventing people from food access. His mission for over a decade has been “empowerment through growing our own food.” 

Fannie Lou Hammer was an activist and community organizer most known as a leader during the civil rights movement. In the 60s, Fannie formed a Freedom Farm Cooperative to help farmers experiencing food insecurity. This cooperative spanned 640 acres and helped provide locals with space to grow crops in order to promote self-sufficiency, create access to affordable housing, and build entrepreneurship opportunities

Shirley Chisolm was not only the first Black woman to serve in Congress, but she was also massively important to getting food access to those needing it. She was the architect of the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program, which, to this day, is a critical source of nutrition for pregnant people and children. She also helped pass the Agriculture and Consumption Act, the predecessor to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Huey P. Newton & Ericka Huggins, a founder and member, respectively, of the Black Panther Party, an organization responsible for creating the Free Breakfast for School Children Program in Oakland California. At its peak, the Black Panthers were providing breakfast to school-aged children at 45 locations across the country. This program was the first of its kind. The government had no such program, and they wouldn’t create one on a federal level until 1975, nearly a decade after the Panthers’ program. Today, free and reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches are responsible for feeding 14.57 million children across the U.S., which would not have been possible without the influence of Huey and Ericka and the pressure of their wildly successful breakfast program.