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Part 1. Black Activists Who Built the Food Justice Movement

  • Features
February 1, 2023
Written By: Amanda Ruffner

The food justice movement in the U.S. has always been a racial justice movement. Many historians and contemporary food justice activists point to Black farmers’ organized resistance to the 1962 Greenwood Food Blockade—when the all-white Leflore County Board of Supervisors stopped funding the Federal Surplus Food Commodity Program, which provided essential food to 90% of Black people in Mississippi—as the start of the food justice and food sovereignty movements we participate in today.

For this year’s Black History Month, we’re continuing to highlight Black people who have radically impacted the U.S.’ food and farming systems, building up movements for food justice that increase community power and directly confront the racism at all levels of U.S. society and government.

Erica Huggins & the Black Panther Party

Ericka Huggins is a human rights activist who joined the Black Panther Party at 18 and became a leader of the Los Angeles chapter’s work on the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program. Ericka remembers going to communities with other Black Panther leaders and asking them what they needed from the Party: “‘Our babies are hungry,’ they told us. ‘They go to school, but they don’t have nutritious meals because we live in conditions of poverty and can’t provide what they need.’” Out of the 64 community programs the Black Panther Party launched, food access and food justice were considered in every single one.

From 1973-1981, Ericka was the director of the Oakland Community School, a community-run elementary school funded by the Black Panther Party that fed students breakfast and lunch 5 days a week. Now, Ericka is a facilitator with World Trust, an Oakland-based organization that uses films documenting the impact of systems of racial inequity to build social justice and equity movements.

Read moreHow the Black Panthers Free Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government

WatchThe Radical Origins of Free Breakfast and the Food Justice Movement

ListenOral History Interview with Ericka C. Huggins (June 30, 2016)

Georgia Gilmore

Georgia Gilmore was an activist, cafeteria worker and chef who used the food she made to support the folks on the ground in Montgomery, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. Georgia organized the Club from Nowhere, a collective that sold food to fundraise for the Montgomery bus boycott. After she was fired from her cafeteria job for her involvement in the bus boycott, she ran a restaurant out of her home to feed and financially support Civil Rights protesters and organizers (including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) 

Read moreThis Montgomery, Alabama Cook Helped Fund the Civil Rights Movement

Read moreIf You Want to Experience Liberation, Black Women Must Be at the Table

George Thomas “Mickey” Leland

Mickey Leland was a civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-hunger activist who served 6 years in the Texas State Legislature and 11 years in the US House of Representatives. As a college student in the late 1960s, he was a leader in the Houston-area civil rights movement and brought national leaders of the movement to the city. He continued his racial and economic justice work in the early 1970s, organizing door-to-door outreach campaigns in Houston’s low-income neighborhoods to inform folks about their medical care options and do preliminary medical screenings. 

During his political career, Mickey built an interrogation of the connections between structural racism, poverty, and health disparities into Congressional infrastructure by co-founding the U.S. House Select Committee on Hunger. As chair of the Committee, Mickey led legislative efforts to increase poor people’s access to fresh foods, strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, create comprehensive services for people experiencing homelessness, and mobilize foreign aid to Africa to combat the destructive effects of global colonialism on African food systems.

ListenAn Interview with Congressman George Thomas ‘Mickey’ Leland

Read more USDA’s Black History Month Spotlight: US Congressman Mickey Leland

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the US Congress, spent her 7 terms fighting nonstop for racial, economic and food justice through, in part, the expansion of food assistance programs and protections and wage increases for domestic workers, immigrants and farmers. In 1981, she introduced the Farmworker Bill of Rights Act, one of the first bills of its kind on a national level that would establish health, safety and labor standards for all farmworkers. 

Shirley Chisholm was also the architect of and main advocate for the legislation that created what we now know as SNAP and WIC, both federal programs that continue to fund folks’ access to nutritious food across the U.S.

ExploreShirley Chisholm: A Resource Guide

Booker T. Whatley

A horticulturist and agricultural professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Booker T. Whatley was an advocate for regenerative agriculture and is credited with founding the CSA (community-supported agriculture) model in the U.S. Whatley’s system, called the clientele membership club, allowed people to pay up front for a season of food to guarantee business for Black farmers who were consistently denied loans by the federal government.

Read moreYou Can Thank Black Horticulturist Booker T. Whatley for Your CSA