As part of WhyHunger’s celebration of Black History Month in the United States, we’ve shared stories of just a few of the important contributions Black Americans have made to our food and agriculture systems and the struggle for food justice. There is so much to celebrate; it could not possibly be contained in one month or year. I’d like to take this moment, in honor of Black History Month, to offer my own reflection and share my perspective.
I believe, as is reflected in WhyHunger’s Theory of Change, that we cannot work on the issues of hunger and poverty without working at the intersection of hunger and race. Through more than 40 years of work, we know that racial injustice and privilege are at the root of economic injustice and that economic injustice is a root cause of hunger. When we define the problem of hunger as one of food distribution, we mask our ability to see the root causes that perpetuate the problem and leave us with this chronic social condition that is in fact solvable.
In my work at WhyHunger and in my everyday life, I am encouraged by the continued awakening that is occurring around the deep inequities, structures and systems that keep people of color oppressed in the U.S. We need to further this spiritual transformation through action and a rallying conviction that building racial equity is our great moral imperative. We need to be bold in the certainty that my freedom is tied directly to the freedom of my Black neighbors and friends. By confronting our history of racism and acknowledging the racism that is still prevalent today, we can take an initial step to heal as a nation and embrace our shared humanity.
I know in my own life that difficult conversations are happening to better understand how racism’s painful roots run deep into the systems and institutions that shape our world today. For example, our agricultural system that puts food on our tables was built on the backs of free human labor in the form of Black slaves ripped from their homeland. And we’ve constructed countless other systems and practices that are wrought with inequities to offer opportunity and privilege to some, while holding others down based on skin color. By talking about that painful truth and holding space for it in our work and lives, we can better understand the struggle for Black freedom and support it in meaningful ways. I have found in my own life it is essential to acknowledge that racism exists and to talk openly about it without fear of judgment. Those conversations need to happen first and foremost with White people and they need to be coupled with action.
As a White mom, executive, friend, advocate and student of history, I know that I have benefited from systems and institutions that offered me privilege and opportunity because of the color of my skin, and yet I am committed to trying to change those systems. I hold a deep conviction about the need for racial unity and equity so that we can fully prosper as a people and as a country. White people need to start talking to other White people without being afraid of feelings of guilt or shame and be cognizant of what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “silence of good people.” By being silent we are complicit in accepting the structures that keep people of color down. This is a blind spot for many of us. But there is no denying the truth when you examine things like the industrial prison system, the prevalence of redlining, and how discrimination in the workplace and hiring practices persist.
I will never know what it is like to be Black in America. I was born with the privilege of being White. I don’t fear being stopped by police. I was taught they were on my side and will help me. I don’t have to worry about being turned down for a job because of the name on my resume. I remember decades ago being in one of my first deep conversations about race in America with several colleagues and being struck by how different the daily experience of walking down the street was for my two Black male co-workers. Their stories conveyed a palpable sense of fear and unease that shook me to the core. The daily struggle for Black Americans is real. Why do they experience life so differently than me? While we may never share the same experiences, we can work together to build a just world. How can I use my power and privilege to truly be an ally? How can WhyHunger be an organization that follows anti-oppression practices and builds racial justice throughout our work both internally and externally? How can I, as a White woman, champion racial justice?
There is not one answer or one quick fix. I know that this work requires continual analysis and growth. That it demands partnerships built on trust and respect with Black leaders and Black communities. That it requires White folks to step back and listen, and to create the space for Black leadership and self-determination. That it requires the courage to talk and act in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. That is what allyship looks like to me and I know we can all do better in working to create a just world where everyone thrives.
To culminate Black History Month we interviewed mother, farmer, activist and scholar-in-training Shakara Tyler and asked her to share her thoughts on the impacts and work that Black people have contributed to our food system. As we continue to fight hunger and poverty, it’s important to recognize the multiple intersections with other struggles within the food justice movement and embrace solutions developed by grassroots leadership. Hope you enjoy and learn something new!
For Black History Month, we want to share important contributions that African Americans have made to our food system/agriculture…what is one of your favorite historical facts or someone whose contribution you wish more people knew about?
There are not enough word space to fully expound on Black peoples’ contribution to our food system and agriculture. Black people have provided the foundation – in conjunction with other indigenous people across the globe – of our agricultural system through labor, cultural knowledge and emotional and psychological sacrifice. A significant part of this foundation is the forgotten, silenced and ignored lives and work of Black women who I believe to be significant birthmothers of Black agrarian land-based resistance. Like Araminta Ross (Harriet Tubman) and Fannie Lou Hamer, the Freedom Quilting Bee (FQB) was a handicraft cooperative (and a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund) that also used their artistic knowledge to develop land-based resistance strategies in 1966. ). Comprised of 60 sharecropping women from across the Southern Black Belt region, the cooperative was housed in Alberta, Alabama and, the collective centered black land ownership in their handicraft efforts. The women sold quilts to supplement their families’ farm incomes. The seed money for the cooperative came from an initial sale of 100 quilts. In 1968, the cooperative bought 23 acres of land. They sold eight lots to families who had been evicted from their homes for registering to vote.
See Jessica Nembhard’s Book, Collective Courage, for more information.
How are you working to connect the black community even more to agriculture and the importance of taking control of your own food system?
I work with Black farming communities on whatever issues they request help with such as financial capital and marketing access, cooperative development, and community outreach and engagement. My primary focus is exploring the development of Black agrarian pedagogies by co-assessing how Black agrarian communities’ personal, cultural and technical capacities can be employed to transform our lived realities.
It is imperative that we pay special attention to how teaching and learning occurs in Black agrarian spaces. In many Black agrarian educational spaces, participants feel the soil, taste the foods grown in that soil, share stories, transform as individuals in community with one another, which in turn transforms our communities themselves. Often times, the socially constructed dichotomies of urban and rural, youth and elder, global north and global south and capitalist and anti-capitalist create barriers that inhibit our teaching and learning in solidarity with one another. If we are going to fully reap the benefits of the self-determining food economies and land-based resistance measures we continue to embark on to transcend the intertwined systems of oppression, we must work in greater solidarity through the dialogue of our various ways of being and knowing.
What are some challenges facing the black community in agriculture and what do you see as possible opportunities or solutions? How can people get involved?
In addition to the common issues faced by many agricultural communities like racism and sexism, land access, financial capital access, marketing access and product viability, the Black agricultural community is also struggling with the need to engage those who are not already aware and committed to principles of Black agrarianism. When we begin to revalorize labor of the land and become more keen of how to systemically exchange our knowledge of the land with one another, we achieve many of the goals and objectives of Black food justice and food sovereignty.
Folks can get involved by getting their hand dirty because many farms are in dire need of labor assistance. If you cannot get dirty on the farm with us, money and equipment donations are deeply appreciated as well. All in all, what is most necessary is rerouting time, labor, money and other resources towards food justice and food sovereignty projects. Our liberations are bound and cannot be attained without working together.
What do you enjoy most about your work in the food justice movement?
One of the most fulfilling components of working for a community self-determined food system is honoring the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors who fought for food justice and food sovereignty through community land trusts, land and food cooperatives, nature-based spiritualties and more. These blueprints illuminate how our liberation is tied to the land but also extend far beyond the land. By walking the paths of our ancestors, we know we are not alone in this struggle for control over our destinies – our head, hands and hearts have been here before. For this reason, my work with food justice and food sovereignty movements has become a spiritual work of ancestral remembrance and embodied healing.
What’s your favorite traditional meal?
My favorite traditional meal is more of a process than particular cultural dish. I enjoy cooking in community with others with food that was grown with our hands on Black cultivated land. There is no meal more powerful than the one prepared within spaces anointed with Black ancestral knowledge and the unrelenting spirit of Black community self-determination. Black soil, Black land, Black-kept seeds and Black labor prepare the most delicious meals!
#BlackLand, #BlackEcology, #BlackFarmers/Gardeners/Growers, #BlackChefs, #BlackKitchens, #BlackHistory WILL matter!
Shakara is a mother, farmer, activist and scholar. She obtained her B.S. at The Pennsylvania State University in Agricultural Sciences and worked as an urban farm educator for a youth empowerment organization in Philadelphia, PA, and obtained her M.S. at MSU in the Department of Community Sustainability, focusing on Black farmers and civil rights. She is now pursing research in the arenas of food justice and food sovereignty, while working with under-served farmers around land, financial capital, and market accessibility. Regarding our work on Black agrarian pedagogies, she currently employs decolonial theories in her food justice and sovereignty work.
Thank you so much for Shakara for sharing your knowledge with us!
Sneak peek! This is an excerpt from our upcoming publication “Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty.” This story featuring Magha Garcia, Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica and Anne Frederick,Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action(HAPA, is one of many that lift up the voices of women (farmers, farmworkers, food chain workers, etc.) fighting for food sovereignty around the world. Enjoy and look out for the new publication when it is released on March 1st!
Magha Garcia is an eco-farmer and environmental activist in Puerto Rico. She is a member of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica , a grassroots group of farmers and allies who advocate for agroecology and are members of the Latin American Chapter (CLOC) of La Via Campesina. Magha also challenges agribusiness with the group Nada Santo Sobre Monsanto, a collective of multiple organizations, representatives of civil society that includes farmers, students, consumers, scientists, professional associations, teachers, and lawyers who have come together to defend the right to healthy food, free of transgenics.
Anne Frederick is the Executive Director of Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action which works to catalyze community empowerment and systemic change towards valuing `āina (environment) and people ahead of corporate profit. She farms on a homestead on Kaua’i. She is also the co-founder of Hester Street Collective in Lower Manhattan, New York, where she worked alongside communities on issues of urban planning and public spaces.
Magha: Due to their tropical climate, Hawaii and Puerto Rico are ideal places for the biotech seed companies like Monsanto. They can get three to four cycles of seed breeding per year. Location, shipment system and infrastructure, educated and well trained workers, and no government oversight are all factors conducive for GMO crop proliferation in the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico we have a long history of all sorts of experimentation since the U.S. invasion in 1898, but more intensively after the 1930s. Our status as a “non-incorporated territory” or colony allows the U.S. government and the corporations it supports, especially the biotechnology industry, to use us as they please. Monsanto first came to the island in 1983 when they bought the AgroSeeds Corporation. Then in 1996, Monsanto officially changed their name to Monsanto Caribe and since have grown tentacles that are woven into our communities, the public and private educational system, academia, the private sector and especially our local government. The two main functions of Monsanto Caribe are agricultural biotechnology and plant breeding experiments. The main crops they are experimenting on are corn, cotton, soy, rice, papaya, tomatoes, tobacco and sunflower. As “territories” Hawaii and Puerto Rico experience more experimentation than any of the other U.S. states.
Anne: Hawaii is particularly appealing to agribusiness because of its 12 month growing season so we have the greatest concentration of test sites, compared to the mainland. In 2014, we had 1,387 field test sites, compared to California which has around 75. Since 1987 Hawaii has hosted more cumulative genetically-engineered (GE) field trials -- 3,243 -- than any other state. In 2014 alone, 178 different GE field tests were conducted on over 1,381 sites in Hawaii. And the seed industry’s footprint here is 24,700 acres, so that gives you a sense of the density. The area planted in seed crops has grown tenfold since 1982 while land growing vegetables and fruits, excluding pineapples, has declined more than 50% since the late 1990s. Often those test fields are directly adjacent to residential communities and we’ve had cases where a school has had to be evacuated because all the kids got sick. The seed companies would claim it was something else. They’d say it was a weed called stinkweed here that made people sick. Multiple EPA scientists have said there’s no way it could’ve been the stinkweed.
Magha: As in most countries worldwide, the main chemical used to control weeds here is Round Up. It is used by companies, municipalities, landscapers and homeowners to "resolve" the constant growing of weeds. Since Monsanto stated that it is "safe" for people, it is used freely and without any concern by most people. Despite an overwhelming amount of contrary evidence, their false propaganda is still working well. Today, we not only have Monsanto in Puerto Rico but also 10 more agricultural biotech companies including Pioneer, Syngenta, and DuPont. Without any government oversight or regulation, it is easy for ecologically criminal corporations to thrive here. In our case, those experiments are in open fields and our government fully supports them, facilitating privileges like free water and tax breaks, while small scale farmers can barely survive. In the last 10 fiscal years the biotech industry received $519.7 million taxpayer dollars from our government. In addition, they received unique tax rates, exemptions, incentives and wage subsidies.
Anne: Hawaii currently imports, anywhere from 80 to 90% of its food, and we’re particularly vulnerable on Kauai because we have one port where all the food comes in and if that port were to shut down, as it has in the past due to a hurricane or a dock worker strike, that’s it. We have a limited amount of food on the shelves. Food security is a real issue here and we have huge swaths of agricultural land that’s been used to test chemicals rather than grow food. There is a major need for increasing our food sovereignty here. There are people who are interested in farming but the industry and the landowners have such a hold on our local government that it’s been really hard for anyone to make headway over on the west side of the island.
Magha: In the last four years, the main initiative to confront and expose Monsanto or related companies in Puerto Rico is publicly expressed by the annual "Millions Against Monsanto" march. The collective Nada Santo Sobre Monsanto (NSSM), as an umbrella organization, is inviting the public to collaborate on improving effective strategies against Monsanto & Co. This year their efforts led to the rescuing of public land to create gardens. They also showed documentaries to address related topics like transgenic crops, health risks, agroecology, and food sovereignty amongst others.
Anne: The issue area where HAPA has been most active to date is in fair and sustainable food systems -- in particular, advocating for better protections for the people and the environment here on Kauai from the impacts of pesticide use. We do organizing, advocacy and education work -- trying to educate the community about decision making processes, about opportunities to weigh in to effectively advocate. We sent a delegation of communities – spokespeople -- to Switzerland to meet with and speak to the Syngenta shareholders. Gary, our board president, got the organization we work with over there to buy one share of Syngenta stocks so they could get Gary into a shareholders’ meeting. He delivered a very powerful message to the shareholders there about what’s happening and what they’re supporting in Hawaii and specifically on Kauai. We brought over another board member who is a Hawaiian mother living in the homesteads directly adjacent to where Syngenta sprays, whose daughter’s hair has tested positive for 36 different pesticides, including 9 restricted-use pesticides.
We’ve been doing a lot to try to advocate for the governor to mandate and fund data collection and coordination of government agencies on the impact of pesticides. We brought a group of mothers from impacted communities to the governor’s office to meet with him and make a case for implementing the findings in his own report. We continue to provide public education about what’s going on right now with the court cases. We had hearings at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals here in Hawaii. We were able to raise awareness about that and livestream it, continuing to work with our partners to identify other areas where we think we can have some wins. So one of our campaigns is to try and ban chlorpyrifos, which is one of the chemicals the EPA has already said it’s going to ban and is heavily used here.
Magha: There's still a lot to do but there is an increasing number of people who are helping spread the message. Organizations like Boricuà, CLOC, Via Campesina are in a continual educational process, spreading the message. On a personal level, I believe that it is best for people to grow as much of their own food as possible in order to boycott and avoid the GMO industry.
Anne: We are continuing to organize and develop our community leaders who are on the frontlines of impacted communities and find opportunities for them to develop their leadership. That led us to develop another area of our work which we call ‘reclaiming democracy’ because what we found is that the industry has such a hold on our local government and elected officials, that it’s almost impossible to pass any legislation regulating the industry at all. There’s a tremendous need to get fresh blood into our local government and to encourage people who are not part of the status quo to step up and run for local government. So we started a candidate's training program that includes leadership development, campaigning skills, some community organizing skills. So again trying from another angle -- how do we encourage people that want to make a difference in their local community to step up and enter local government and try to run for office? It is a nonpartisan program and we can’t endorse any of the candidates but we can at least provide skills and training.
Magha: Puerto Rico needs allies outside of our island to help us denounce the atrocities, abuses and severe risks of the agro-biotechnology industry. Puerto Rico is in the middle of a complex financial crisis. The current debt is $73 billion. The U.S. Congress and the U.S. Justice Department decided that we have to pay a debt that was created by our government. Since we are a non-incorporated territory we cannot claim bankruptcy. In order to find a solution to this “crisis,” they imposed a Fiscal Board that will govern our country. This board has absolute control over the finances and many other financial and business issues. Their main purpose is to make sure that the investors will get their money back by all means possible. Meanwhile the only ones investing in Puerto Rico are the biotechnology corporations. Last week, Bayer of Puerto Rico announced that they are investing $17 million to remodel their main branch and create a new one. Monsanto is also consolidating and investing more in their facilities located in the South of the island. We have no doubt that the 11 biotechnology corporations will be fully protected by this board.
Anne: The most heavily impacted communities happen to have the highest density of Native Hawaiian residents. A lot of mothers who live in these frontline communities have stepped forward and said “This is not okay for our children to be doused in pesticides; this is unacceptable.” I think they have been some of the most powerful voices, especially Native Hawaiian mothers like Malia Chun on Kauai who’s been a really vocal critic of the industry and a very powerful voice. A lot of companies claim to be these major job providers but actually it’s a pretty small amount. You talk to plenty of Hawaiians over there and they all just say that [the jobs that are created] are not worth the contamination of our land; we have to look more long-term at the future of āina. The seed company has been really successful in using this issue to drive a wedge in our community and there’s this ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality -- “don’t threaten your jobs, don’t make waves.” That’s why voices like Malia and other mothers who are Native Hawaiian are so important in the movement. And stepping up in our small communities is really challenging. I think here is where relationships are so important. People don’t like to jeopardize relationships or talk out against their neighbor, so people are very reluctant to speak out about the industry publicly. The ones who do put themselves out there become exhausted and it takes a toll. Also, there have been cases where people have stepped forward and shared their stories and were not happy with the media’s use of their story.
On the north shore of Kauai, we have a lot of organic farms and generative farming practices and then the west side is literally like a food desert. So there are folks on the west side -- like one of our board members, Josh Morre, and some of his partners who are trying to start a youth farming initiative. Similarly there’s an organization on Oahu called Mao Farms which has a similar mission of youth leadership development, growing the next generation of farmers, and trying to create pathways in local agriculture. There’s definitely work happening; it’s just hard because those projects tend to be relatively small and we don’t have the political will to incentivize them or to get them on state land. So even though there’s discussion at our county and state level of increasing food production, it seems like the policy has to catch up to our goals of increasing food production. Meanwhile, there are a lot of people just kind of doing it -- just trying to create the solutions outside of working with government. I think we could be doing a lot more to incentivize that here. For instance, last year we hosted a food justice summit, with the help of the Pesticide Action Network, where we brought together four women working on food sovereignty projects and battling the impacts of the agrochemical industry in their home countries to speak about their struggles and lessons learned and to share and exchange with Hawaiians and with the local food movement here. That was really powerful. I think that it’s helpful to share what’s happening in Hawaii because people think of Hawaii as this tropical paradise where you come for your honeymoon. Yet we are ground zero for pesticide testing. Pesticides are actually going into the water here, this pristine beauty that we think is Hawaii is actually not the case; our ecosystems are in distress and sharing that message is really important.
After 42 years of working in the U.S. and around the world to end hunger and build social justice for all, we know firsthand that the just, plentiful world we are working to build has no room for oppressive or discriminatory rhetoric, threats or actions. With federal policies and practices that threaten those values unfolding at a rapid pace, WhyHunger will continue to stand up for and with our community-based partners and work together to build a just, hunger free world.
We will remain vigilant defenders of human rights, at home and abroad, and protectors of the earth that provides for us all. We will organize across sectors from the environment to food to immigration to gender and race – standing in solidarity with our partners, allies and supporters on the front lines of the struggle to ensure that all people have the right and opportunity to live a dignified life free from hunger and oppression.
We will reject pending federal policy and budget decisions that threaten to pull apart the fabric of our democracy, to destroy the vital safety net – from health care to SNAP - that is keeping millions from falling deeper into hunger and poverty, and to deport and criminalize immigrant communities on whose backs our exploitive food system is built.
Now is the time to take action!
•Call your elected officials – locally, statewide and federally – to share your vision for a just world, free from hunger. Ask them to invest in policies that protect the environment and support the rights of all people to have nutritious food and a dignified life that free from oppression, fear and discrimination.
•Recommit your time, energy and funds to supporting community-based organizations and social movements that are driving local innovation and fueling progress.
•Take the time to engage in political analysis and dialogue around the deeper issues of hunger at the intersection of economic inequality, racism, health and the environment.
Join WhyHunger in continually asking the WHY questions in the face of injustice, oppression and hunger and interrogating the effectiveness, equity and consequences behind each and every proposed solution. Together we can strengthen and grow the movement for social justice and realize the just, hunger free world we’ve imagined and set out to build.
Interested in what we do? WhyHunger is working to build and strengthen a grassroots-led movement for food justice and food sovereignty worldwide. We are happy to share a recap of our 2016 impacts ranging from supporting social movements, strengthening social justice efforts and protecting the right to nutritious food, while increasing community access to food around the world. Thank you for your support!
Building Grassroots Movements
In 2016, a total of 102 grassroots partners benefited from WhyHunger directly sharing resources and granting funds for specific projects and travel in the amount of $485,000 to help communities develop their own solutions to hunger and poverty and build their capacity to engage in long-term change.
WhyHunger’s International Solidarity Fund invested $305,699 in strengthening existing and emergent social movements for food justice and food sovereignty by supporting 25 community-based projects in 13 countries to end hunger among peasant, fishing, and indigenous communities worldwide. Additionally, we secured a donation of $500,000 to support and grow the fund in 2017. By investing in local community-led activities like agroecological training, leadership development for women and youth and capacity building projects, tens of thousands of families are benefitting from immediate access to nutritious food and education while the food sovereignty of entire communities is strengthened.
WhyHunger organized and accompanied key social movement and grassroots partners from the Global South through five strategic site visits to the United States where our allies from Brazil and Zimbabwe were able to meet, learn, share and build solidarity with WhyHunger and allied organizations by supporting and practicing agroecology in the U.S. These exchanges are critical steps in helping to build capacity for individual organizations while strengthening the fabric of the growing social movement for food sovereignty and justice for all. We continue to foster and grow the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, providing organizational and technical support for the Alliance and the 2016 Food Sovereignty Prize and Food Sovereignty Encounter. In 2016, we helped the Alliance to create and implement a new regional structure, increasing their effectiveness to build food sovereignty locally. We helped initiate a strategic dialogue between three growing movements; La Via Campesina, the Climate Justice Alliance and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, to build collective power and strengthen the ability for joint-initiatives and cross-sector support at the intersection of hunger and the environment.
Fueling Social Justice
WhyHunger is actively supporting and stewarding a national alliance of emergency food providers to shift from a model of charity as the solution to hunger to a model of social justice. In 2016, we facilitated a leadership retreat to establish a clear vision, goals and plan for the growing network and the Closing the Hunger Gap national conference in fall 2017, which aims to attract more than 500 participants from all 50 states. Our popular Food Justice Voices series What Ferguson Means for Food Justice, a powerful collection of articles featuring the grassroots voices of Black leaders working within movement building and food justice, produced 3 new issues. We launched a new report titled School Breakfast at Half Century - A Look Back to Move Ahead from activist, author, professor and WhyHunger Board Member Janet Poppendieck, an animated video If You Give Someone a Fish illustrating our theory of change, and Connecting Hunger & Health in Brooklyn and Beyond a video that tells the story of food justice and health in everyday lives. These publications and materials helped to educate and engage hundreds of thousands on the issues and solutions at the root of hunger and poverty.
WhyHunger continues to organize grassroots partners using our community of practice methodology around the intersection of hunger, food, agriculture and social justice. In 2016, we convened and led communities of practice for 70 participants around Hunger and Health in the Mid-West and Mid-Atlantic regions and nationally around Youth and Food Justice and Race and Food Justice. WhyHunger supported and accompanied Rooted in Community, a national youth food justice alliance, as they work to organize youth food justice leaders to build collective power. In 2016, WhyHunger provided capacity building support by facilitating a process to re-envision the organization’s governmental structure and by providing funding for youth to participate in their annual Youth Leadership Summit where they joined in skills building, co-learning, creative arts and direct action.