Bearing Witness

by Billy Shore

Black Activists Remember the Radical Origins of the Food Justice Movement

Friday, November 06, 2020

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“I believe in the power of the people,” said Ericka Huggins – human rights activist, educator, Black Panther leader, former political prisoner, and one of the first speakers of Conversations on Food Justice, a collaboration between Share Our Strength and the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program. 

The new series, from the organization behind the No Kid Hungry campaign, will examine the roots and evolution of the food movement and the ways it intersects with race and class, as well as with educational, environmental and health inequities. 

For Huggins, the power of the people was what drove the Black Panther Party to start what inspired the National Breakfast Program, an essential part of the fight against childhood hunger in the United States today.

Huggins discussed the history of the food justice movement with Devita Davison, executive director at FoodLab Detroit, an organization supporting independently-owned food businesses who are exploring models that create a more equitable and sustainable environment. The conversation was moderated by Norbert L. Wilson, professor of food economics and community at Duke University’s Divinity School.  

They highlighted the importance of history to inform current realities and the work societies have to do today. The conversation started with acknowledgements of the ancestral lands where the speakers were located and the legacy that slavery has had over the three Black speakers.

Davison highlighted the Greenwood Food Blockade in the early 1960’s, in which the Board of Supervisors of Leflore County, Miss. stopped winter food assistance to Black sharecroppers, including Davison’s parents, to repress their right to vote. 

“We cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves,” she concluded.

Around that time, Huggins and the Black Panther Party went to communities, asking them what they needed.

“‘Our babies are hungry,’” they told her. “‘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.’” 

The Party started a revolutionary program to feed all kids who needed food by providing free breakfast at schools. The program was so successful that it inspired the federal government to start today’s National Breakfast Program.

But those conditions of inequity persist today.

Davison drew a strong connection between how hunger and the coronavirus disproportionately affect Blacks in Michigan today, where Blacks represent 13% of the state’s population but 40% of people infected and killed by the pandemic. It’s a trend that holds true for people of color nationally, as we noted in our report, The Longest Summer

Still, Huggins and Davison are hopeful.  

“Restoring justice means, where there has been inequity, where there has been a continuous stream of violence meted out to one people, we need to think about what we can do together and individually to shift it,” Huggins said. 

This was the first of a series of conversations, that as explained by Share Our Strength’s Elliot Gaskins, highlight the connection of food justice and anti-hunger work. “One without the other one,” Gaskins said, “won’t lead to the systemic change that will be essential to eradicate the hunger crisis.”

Stay tuned for updates about the next Conversation on Food Justice, and please stay with us in the fight to ensure all kids get the food they need. We’re committed to breaking down any and all systemic inequalities that stand between a hungry child and healthy meal. 

Gaskins closed the conversation by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”