The Legacy of Black Collectivism in the Food Space

During the summer of 2020, as chef Kia Damon watched her community in Brooklyn take to the streets to protest police brutality, she asked herself, “What can I do for my people?”

Damon, who has led pop-up dinner series and worked as the culinary director of Cherry Bombe, had long noticed how difficult it was to access nutritious, affordable groceries in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. It was a void she knew she could help fill, building something that was “bred from the moment, but for forever.” The idea was the starting place for her organization, Kia Feeds the People Program, a budding nonprofit dedicated to putting quality produce and pantry items in the hands of underserved Black and queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) in Brooklyn.

The best solutions for the problems facing communities often come out of the communities themselves — no one knows as intimately the depth of need, or the nuances involved in addressing those needs. Little wonder then that over the past year, Black-led initiatives like Kia Feeds the People have felt especially vital as the Black Lives Matter protests, which filled streets around the country in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, became a broader reckoning with the systemic racism inherent in so many U.S. institutions, our food system included. In the months following the protests, and as the effects of COVID-19 continued to be felt disproportionately in Black communities, the exploding discourse around the vision of an anti-racist future compelled some activists and lawmakers to advocate for policies that would dismantle structural racism. But a more grassroots-led path forward for Black folks also presented itself: creating organizations outside of these institutions to provide meaningful representation and support.

The need for Black folks to construct their own support systems has existed since they arrived in this country. Just as enslaved Africans brought their agricultural knowledge and ingredients with them to the New World, they also brought a culture of collectivism that undergirds many African societies. In her book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, Jessica Gordon Nembhard writes, “Africans in the Americas and African Americans have showed throughout history their willingness and ability to organize themselves in order to survive enslavement and poverty.”

Members of the Black Panther Party stand behind tables and distribute free hot dogs.

Members of the Black Panther Party distribute free hot dogs to the public in New Haven, Connecticut
David Fenton/Getty Images

The civil rights era, as well the subsequent Black Power era, provides countless examples of Black people building support structures as a means for mutual uplifting. During the 1960s, Black cooperatives of all kinds, including supply co-ops, credit unions, and housing co-ops, flourished, but farming co-ops in particular thrived as civil rights activists in rural communities began to realize political participation meant very little without economic empowerment. Black Southerners, particularly those in rural areas, were essentially locked out of the economy. Black farmers were denied necessary support by government agencies like the USDA; the co-ops kept many of them in business.

In some areas, Black-owned cooperatives helped revitalize communities by providing jobs and new streams of income. Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Collective purchased hundreds of acres of land for members to cultivate and raised pigs to feed thousands of families. The success of Black-led Southern cooperatives made them a target of violence from local white business owners and white supremacists, who were angered by the economic competition and fearful that the cooperatives might lead to increased Black political empowerment.Still, they were proof that Black people had the capacity to create meaningful economic change in their communities by pooling their resources and creating a network of support.

Food apartheid is a term used to analyze the racial and socioeconomic inequalities that leave so many in our country without access to fresh foods and produce, and which disproportionately affects Black communities. A growing number of Black-led organizations, like Damon’s upcoming nonprofit, are championing food sovereignty to end food apartheid in these communities. Damon in particular is inspired by those who carved out space for themselves instead of waiting for the powers that be to intervene, and Kia Feeds the People is in part modeled after the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which fed thousands of children from 1969 until the Black Panther Party dissolved. “I’m not claiming to create a new program or system,” she says. “It’s just me picking up where my predecessors have dropped it off for me to continue that same vision and that same work for my people.”

Food co-ops can keep money circulating in the community and provide support for other efforts within the food system that consciously carve out space for Black people and people of color. In Brooklyn, for example, Central Brooklyn Food Coop, a Black-led grocery cooperative, has plans to open its first store later this year, while in Oakland, the Mandela Grocery Cooperative, a Black-led, worker-owned grocery store sources goods locally from Black and brown farmers and entrepreneurs. Community farms, meanwhile, focus on promoting food sovereignty and eradicating racism at the agricultural level. Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous-centered small farm in Petersburg, New York, gives away much of its produce to Albany residents living in neighborhoods grappling with food apartheid. Co-founded by Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black, the farm also offers training for aspiring Black and brown farmers to give them the tools needed to thrive in an agricultural system that is steeped in racial inequality.

The legacy of collectivism carries on today with projects elsewhere in the food space. In February 2019, Colleen Vincent and Clay Williams launched Black Food Folks, a community of Black food professionals invested in supporting each other’s success and growth. The community is not only a space for networking and building connections, but also for sharing useful knowledge and experience. In pre-COVID times, this took the form of in-person gatherings, but since the pandemic began, Black Food Folks has continued fostering its community online, particularly through Black Food Folks Live, a series on Instagram Live featuring Black folks in the food industry sharing what they do and their experiences working in food.

“In connecting with Black people throughout the food sphere, we were hearing a lot of the same stories and the same challenges,” Williams, a Brooklyn-based photographer, says. He and Vincent realized how useful it would be to create a space where those folks could connect with one another. They’ve used their platform of over 40,000 Instagram followers to highlight Black people thriving in the food space throughout the country, lending more visibility to their work and talents. In November 2020, they furthered this work by announcing that they would be awarding $50,000 in grants, sponsored by Talenti, to 10 Black folks doing work in the food space. The grants were sponsored by Talenti, which reached out to Black Food Folks during the protests in June.

“It’s great that everyone is paying attention to us now, but we have to build things for ourselves, so that once the attention has moved on to something else, and it will, we still have structures in place that can continue to help us grow,” says Williams. “Unless we’re in a position to make things for ourselves and have structures that are built specifically to support us, everything is just at the whims of the people in power, which is still not us.”

Over the summer, some of those people in power were held to account for failing to recognize people of color in their sphere: In June 2020, Adam Rapoport resigned as editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit after a photo of Rapoport seemingly in brownface surfaced online and amid reports of a wider culture of racism at the Condé Nast publication. People of color were quick to point out that the problems at Bon Appétit were part of a much larger conversation surrounding food and race. On social media, stories of the culinary world perpetuating issues of pay discrepancy, tokenization, and exclusion of Black talent proliferated. Media brands admitted to past failures to meaningfully include Black voices. Many of these brands promised to do better in the future, but as the events at Bon Appétit showed, these problems can’t be solved by merely hiring more Black people into a structure not set up for them to succeed.

For the Culture, a magazine celebrating Black women in food and wine, aims to combat the structural issues that prevent adequate representation in food media. Founded by chef and author Klancy Miller, it released its first issue January 22, with food historian Jessica B. Harris on the cover and featuring contributions from 35 women; it was funded through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for $40,000, which went mainly to printing costs and paying contributors. “Black women have shaped so much of cuisine in the U.S., and in other countries throughout the world,” Miller says. “But our stories about our expertise and about our relationships with food don’t get highlighted that often.”

Already unique in its focus on Black women, For the Culture stands even further apart from traditional food media for the fact that all the stories are not only written by Black women, but also photographed and illustrated by Black women. Tangibly, this means more opportunities for Black women to grow in the food media space in a setting that’s dedicated to affirming them. It also means more exposure for Black women working in food. Food media can be extremely insular; editors often hire or commission work from those already in their networks, which can leave Black women out of the fold. For the Culture is a necessary intervention, a publication that, as Miller puts it, is “essentially by us and for us.”

But as more Black-led food spaces emerge and flourish, it will only open the door wider for others. “One of the things about being Black in this space, and other spaces like it, is that most of us are trying to help support each other,” says Williams.

Kia Feeds the People is banking on some of that support. In December, Damon launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $300,000 by fall 2021. When that happens, the nonprofit will be able to distribute 200 boxes of organic produce and 100 holiday turkeys and chickens, as well as serve hot meals and launch a free breakfast and lunch program — and become one more testament that Black folks, just as they always have been in this country, are very much at work building their own table.

Nicole Rufus is a food writer, recipe developer, and grad student in Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt living and working in Brooklyn, New York.

Lead photo credits: Black Panther Party, David Fenton/Getty Images, FPG/Staff/Getty Images


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