Throughout the month of February, Oregon Food Bank celebrates and observes Black History Month to appreciate and recognize the achievements, contributions and sacrifices of Black Americans across the country.
Black History Month Background
Black History Month was established by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 in response to the lack of Black representation in educational institutions. Most history books focus on the traditional events and achievements of White Americans. Woodson’s goal was to highlight the contributions Black people had in the creation of America and to increase visibility of Black culture. February was designated Black History Month, being the birth months of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, two Americans who played an important role in the abolishment of slavery. (Teaching Tolerance)
In 1976, President Ford encouraged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” (History) Since its official recognition, Black History Month provides everyone the opportunity to share, celebrate and understand the contributions of Black heritage and culture. Black culture is ingrained in the very fabric of modern American life, though it has long been denied, invisibilized or unattributed to Black Americans.
The Black History of Food Justice
The Black Panthers
Some might not know that the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children program, which began in 1969, is considered one of the inspirations of food banking and school meals as we know them today. One of many social programs — including free medical and legal clinics — started by the Black Panthers, free breakfasts in the schools fed thousands of children per day. Black Panther members and volunteers solicited donations from grocery stores, consulted with nutritionists on healthy breakfast options for kids, and prepared and served food to bring to kids before school. Though the program was shut down following targeted attacks and disinformation campaigns, it put pressure on political leaders to feed children at school and acknowledge food as a human right. This led to the establishment of the USDA free breakfast program, which feeds more than 14 million children today. (History)
Fannie Lou Hammer’s Freedom Farm
In 1967, Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer created the Freedom Farm Cooperative, a 40 acre farm co-op, offering an avenue for liberation and land stewardship to impoverished local residents, most of whom were Black. Families could purchase a plot of land for a dollar a month, where they grew produce that would then be distributed back to the co-op members. The co-op expanded to 700 acres at its peak and started a “pig bank,” which produced thousands of new pigs over three years for families in the area. Freedom Farm was a groundbreaking model of food sovereignty in which Black residents could sustain themselves on the land and ensure food security for their families and community. (Atlas Obscura, SNCC)
Homegrown Efforts Today
Feed’em Freedom Foundation is a Black-led small farm incubator in Oregon, which today continues the legacy of Freedom Farm by centering food security and food sovereignty for Black Oregonians. The foundation “ignites and centers Black Agriculturists to participate as owners and movement leaders within agriculture, land stewardship, regional food security response, and economic prosperity.” (Feed’em Freedom Foundation)
At Oregon Food Bank, we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to thrive and contribute to our communities. That means we must address the policies and systems that drive hunger and poverty among Black Americans. Furthermore, we must learn from and atone for historic genocide and generational trauma in communities of color. In our efforts to move toward a more equitable existence for all, we are committed to educating and encouraging activism at the local, state and national levels to make lasting change.
We recognize that the root causes of hunger are systemic injustices at the intersection of racism, classism, sexism and more. These challenges both create and perpetuate the conditions that sustain hunger and poverty. So we commit to center the experiences of people with lived experience of food insecurity and systemic oppression — including Black, Indigenous and all People of Color. And through the leadership of these communities, we identify and execute effective strategies to eliminate hunger and its root causes.
Food Insecurity in Black Communities
Black Americans are – to this day – experience discrimination and anti-Black institutional racism: the systems, laws and policies in place that benefit the dominant race and keep all others from vital resources, services and the right to exist. The outcomes are staggering:
- Though comprising just 14% of the general US population, Black households experience food insecurity at a rate of 21%. Black people are almost three times as likely to face hunger as white individuals. (Feeding America)
- Moreover, the poverty rate for Black American households is 19.5%, versus 10% for White households. Poverty is a main driving force of hunger in America. (Feeding America)
- Discriminatory policies and practices have led Black people to be more likely to live in poverty and more likely to face unemployment. Black American unemployment is at least twice as high as unemployment among White Americans. (Feeding America) (Economic Policy Institute, 2019)
- Recent reporting shows that the effects of COVID-19 continue to fall hardest on Black communities here in Oregon, with only 39% of Black Oregonians reporting that they had enough to eat the previous week. (Willamette Week)
We know that those of us with lived experience of hunger are the experts on hunger. When we know intimately what the problems are, we are in the best position to determine meaningful solutions. Black Oregonians are doing incredible work throughout our state to close the gap between those of us experiencing hunger and the decisions that affect us. See “Opportunities for Learning and Action” below to see how you can support Black businesses and organizations.
How COVID-19 and Inflation Impacted Black Oregonians
It’s no secret that our communities continue to face significant economic disruption in the wake of COVID-19, now coupled with shocks to global food and fuel supplies. Nearly 1 in 5 Oregonians experienced income and job loss in recent years. And the impact fell hardest on the communities that have faced disproportionate hunger and poverty for generations, including Black Americans. The Oregon Food Bank Network saw an unprecedented need for emergency food assistance throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington — nearly 1.7 million people at the peak of the pandemic and an expected 1.5 million this year.
Recent reporting shows that the effects of the pandemic continue to fall hardest on Black communities here in Oregon, with only 39% of Black Oregonians reporting that they had enough to eat the previous week. (Willamette Week)
What this tells us is that hunger is not just an individual experience or a lone empty stomach. Hunger is a communitywide symptom of exclusion, of not having enough — not having enough nutritious food, enough income, enough power, enough representation in decisions that affect us. To end hunger’s disproportionate effects on Black Oregonians, we will need to meet both the incredible needs spurred by the pandemic and address the policies and systems that drive hunger and poverty.
Black and Indigenous Communities in Solidarity for Land Justice
Across the country, Black communities have been organizing to reclaim access to land they have been excluded from due to historical violence and systemic racism. Redlining, racist financing systems and use of eminent domain are just a few examples of the ways in which land — and therefore economic prosperity, food sovereignty, and generational sustainability — has been kept or stolen from Black communities.
In partnership with Indigenous communities and the Indigenous-led Land Back movement, Black communities are organizing to advance land justice. These movements are inextricably linked in their efforts to empower intergenerational economic prosperity and decolonize wealth and land ownership. As Ayo Ngozi, an ancestral herbalist explains: “Our people share common threads of experience—from land reverence and kinship, to violence, displacement, and genocide — so it makes sense that we would work in solidarity to free ourselves.” (Yes! Magazine)
Land Back efforts fight hunger by building systems that create regenerative, community wealth, combatting the root causes of hunger like poverty and racism. In addition, these efforts advocate for greater food security in Black communities through increased access to farming and sovereignty over food production. The National Black Food & Justice Alliance explains further: “Community self-governance of our food systems allows for healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically regenerative methods, and the right to define our own food ways. Still, we know we must assert our rights through action. Our framework of community self-governance leverages the power of those working and consuming at all points of the food chain, over the demands of corporations and markets.” (Black Food Justice)
In Oregon, Mudbone Grown and the broader Feed’em Freedom Foundation create opportunities for land access and increased food sovereignty for Black Oregonians. Mudbone grown “is a black-owned farm enterprise that promotes inter-generational community-based farming that creates measurable and sustainable environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts in communities. Mudbone Grown's work helps to develop and implement workplace-based educational experiences to help teens, young adults, and low-income communities develop marketable careers, education skills that help build and sustain community capacity and place them in local jobs. By doing this we can succeed in our five-year goal to enhance food security, reduce energy use, improve community health and well-being, and stabilize our communities.” (Mudbone Grown)
Opportunities for learning and action:
- Indigenous and Black Communities Find Common Cause for Land Justice - Yes! Magazine
- Equal Justice Initiative
- National Black Food & Justice Alliance
- How Do You Reconcile A Lynching - Taylor Stewart