Black History Month: Celebrating Black leaders in the world of food
February is Black History month, a time to celebrate the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities. This year’s theme in Canada is “February and Forever: Celebrating Black history today and every day”.
In North America, our farmland is stolen from Indigenous Peoples and cultivated by enslaved and exploited BIPOC communities. Racism and inequality are inherent to our food system and institutions and remain unaddressed as BIPOC communities face disproportionately high rates of social and economic disadvantage, including food insecurity and lack of food access. According to PROOF, an initiatives of the University of Toronto that researched household food insecurity in Canada, in 2017-18 Black households experienced the highest rate of food insecurity of any racial/cultural group at 28.9%, two and a half times the figure for white households.
Similarly, while small-scale regenerative agriculture has risen as a glorified rebuttal to ecologically devastating industrial agriculture, regenerative farming practices are largely whitewashed, excluding the Indigenous and BIPOC voices that developed them and the worldviews that inform these practices. This has perpetuated the continued erasure and marginalization of their ways of knowing while upholding the monochromatic nature of agriculture
This month, we’d like to uplift and honour some of the Black changemakers within the food world, both past and present.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver (1964-1943) is a pioneer of regenerative agriculture who promoted crop rotation and cover cropping using nitrogen fixing legumes such as peanuts, cowpeas, and soybeans to improve soil in the southern US that was depleted from intensive cotton cultivation. He was also an advocate for mulching and using compost to increase soil health. His research was published in agricultural bulletins that encouraged farmers to adopt these practices, and he also travelled around to rural communities to disseminate his information, thereby helping poor farmers save money by using inexpensive farming techniques and natural inputs they could gather from the land and increase productivity and resilience by building their soil.
Booker T. Whatley
Booker T. Whatley (1915-2005) is another trailblazer in the world of regenerative agriculture who helped small-scale farmers maximize their incomes and remain competitive with larger, industrial farms. He advocated for small farms adopting diversified business plans that involved minimizing unnecessary costs, regenerating soil, limiting waste, and growing a diverse array of crops. He also emphasized the importance of running a Clientele Membership Club (CMC), a membership model that involves customers pre-paying for produce at the beginning of the season (which is now known as community supported agriculture, or CSA) and operating as a pick-your-own farm, a model also known as U-Pick where customers harvest their own produce.
Anan Lololi is the founder and executive director of Afri-Can FoodBasket, a Toronto-based non-profit that leads and collaborates on Black food sovereignty initiatives for the city’s African, Caribbean, and Black community. The organization has animated over 100 community and backyard gardens since 1997 and also create education, training, and employment opportunities for youth through their Cultivating Youth Leadership program. Lololi is also the coordinator of the Black Food Sovereignty Initiative Toronto, spearheading the development of the newly approved Toronto Black Food Sovereignty Plan, a groundbreaking plan to address chronic food insecurity, anti-Black racism, and structural inequity in Toronto’s local food system and create long-term change and capacity for Black Torontonians.
Melana Roberts is the board chair of Food Secure Canada, a non-profit working to develop healthy, just, and sustainable food systems, and a policy development officer for Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee (CABR). Her work as a federal and municipal food policy strategist and food justice advocate focuses on the confluence of policy, food systems, race, health, and equity. Among the myriad Boards, Councils, and organizations she is involved with, she is notably the co-creator of the Toronto Black Sovereignty Plan and co-founder of the Black Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Zoë-Blue Coates is an Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean artist and historian who connects urban populations to land-based education through a historical lens. She created a zine called “BioDiversity: Faces of Ecological Stewardship”, which tells the stories of BIPOC ecological stewards, celebrates the lasting impact that these movers and shakers have had on environmental restoration, permaculture, herbal medicine, botany, agro-forestry, and agriculture, and inspire us to become better allies. The zine features artwork from BIPOC artists and are free to access online.