Celebrating Black Visionaries in Farm to School & Community Food Systems
Meet these Black visionaries below! Top: Betti, Brandy, Glyen, Haile. Middle: Jamese, Karen, Krystal, LaDonna. Bottom: Qiana, Rodney, Te’Lario.
February is Black History Month, a dedicated time to celebrate the power and resilience of the Black community and the many Black leaders on whose shoulders we stand. Historic and systemic racism in our country, as well as white privilege and power within the food systems, have unjustly obscured the significant contributions that Black individuals and communities have made and continue to make in our food system – including in farm to school. At National Farm to School Network, we acknowledge and apologize for our role in perpetuating these injustices and the harm that we have caused. We are also committed to taking actions to dismantle structural racism and shift power to those who have been marginalized, exploited, and excluded from the food system. You can read more about our commitment to creating a racially just food system here.
In this spirit, and in celebration of this time of Black History Month, we’re recognizing and honoring some of the Black visionaries, trailblazers, community leaders, and activists who inspire us and whose voices are leading essential conversations around racial equity and justice in farm to school, our food system, and beyond.
“Quality food, the kind which supplies sufficient calories and nutrition to allow focus, learning, productivity, and growth, is the right of every child – really every human being.”
Betti Wiggins is one of the foremost authorities on school nutrition and food service management. She is the Director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Houston Independent School District, which serves more than 280,000 students at 287 school sites every day. Prior to Houston ISD, she was the Executive Director of Child Nutrition Programs at Detroit Public Schools. Under her leadership, the Detroit School Garden Collaborative was established in 2011. Since its inception, the program has grown to support more than 80 school-based gardens and a 4.5-acre school farm. She is affectionately known as the “Rebel Lunch Lady,” determined to use her passion for food justice and agricultural upbringing to ensure every kid has the fuel they need to learn in school. Betti is a former National Farm to School Network Advisory Board member. Hear more from Betti:
> Betti Wiggins on her career journey from segregated hospitals to leading foodservice at one of the nation’s largest school districts (Food Management)
> Betti Wiggins: Changing the way American children eat at school (NBC News)
“We are in the middle of this massive cultural trauma of COVID and racial justice and an unprecedented ecological crisis… as political healers, we aren’t going to bury these things, we are going to bring them forward so we can heal from these things.”
Brandy Brooks is Co-Director of the Political Healers Project, a national network led by womxn of color and committed to centering healing, collective, and creative leadership in movement organizing. Brandy is also the founder and chief executive of Radical Solutions LLC, providing coaching, consulting, facilitation, and training around racial equity and environmental justice to organizations across the country – including us at National Farm to School Network. Brandy's work over the past 15 years has focused on community organizing, power-building, food justice, and food sovereignty, among others. In January, Brandy joined our monthly Coffee Chat series to talk about how we can address racial healing in National Farm to School Network's efforts towards a racially just food system and, more generally, how racial healing should be part of all food systems work – watch below! Hear more from Brandy:
> How Do We Address Racial Healing? (NFSN Coffee Chat)
> We Are Designed to Heal with Brandy Books - Feb. 23 (NESAWG Sankofa Series Webinar)
"It's a tough time for farmers, and even tougher for African American farmers. Farm to school can be a tool for African Americans to get back into farming, and to be able to sustain their farming."
Glyen Holmes is a founding father of modern farm to school efforts. In the mid-1990s, he founded the New North Florida Cooperative (NNFC), a network of African American vegetable farmers near Jackson County, Florida, with a goal of giving small farmers a viable market opportunity by selling their products to local schools. NNFC’s "small farm to school" program found success by selling wash, chopped, and bagged fresh produce to area schools, and has continued its work for more than 20 years, expanding to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas. During the pandemic, NNFC's processing capability put it in an advantageous position to supply schools with pre-packed fresh fruits and vegetables for grab-and-go school meals. Hear more from Glyen:
> Glyen Holmes Helped Revolutionize Farm to School Programs (Farm Aid)
> Farm to School - Glyen Holmes NNFC
“Through farm to cafeteria work, we gain experiences that help prepare us for the world.”
Haile Thomas is a 20-year-old wellness and compassion activist, international speaker, content creator, the youngest to graduate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition as a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach (at age 16), and the founder/CEO of the non-profit HAPPY (Healthy, Active, Positive, Purposeful, Youth). Haile founded HAPPY when she was 12 years old to redefine youth empowerment through holistic education and address the need for free/affordable plant-based nutrition and wellness education in underserved/at-risk communities. Haile was a keynote speaker at our 9th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2018. Hear more from Haile:
> Why Haile Thomas Wants America’s Kids to Think Different (Heritage Harvest Festival)
> Cooking Up History: Living Lively: Youth Empowerment through Food with Chef Haile Thomas (National Museum of American History)
“Centering equity and advancing racial justice is long-haul work that requires self-reflection, education, difficult conversations, and sustained action. It’s about making change; it’s about learning; it’s about growing as a movement; it’s about shifting, and yes, it’s about dismantling systems of oppression that exist both within us and outside of us.”
Jamese Kwele is the Director of Equity / Food Equity at Ecotrust, where she leads the organization's institutional equity work and a Food Equity initiative developed at the intersections of food and land justice, climate resilience, and economic development. Jamese is also one of the co-founders of the Black Food Fund, sits on the leadership team of the Black Oregon Land Trust, and serves as a board member for both the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition and the National Farm to School Network. Hear more from Jamese:
> Keynote Address: Equity in Farm to School (Vermont FEED)
> Introducing Jamese Kwele (Ecotrust)
"Food justice represents a transformation of the current food system to change current inequities. It's not a passive movement, it's an active movement. In order for all of us to work on food justice, we must actively be working on socially dismantling the injustices we see."
Karen Washington has been a community activist striving to make New York City a better place to live since 1985. As a community gardener and board member of the New York Botanical Gardens, she worked with Bronx neighborhoods to turn empty lots into community gardens. As an advocate, and former president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, she stood up and spoke out for garden protection and preservation. As a member of the La Familia Verde Garden Coalition, she helped launched a City Farms Market, bringing fresh vegetables to the community. Karen is Co-owner/Farmer at Rise & Root Farm in Chester New York. Karen was our 2020 Movement Meeting keynote speaker - watch below! Hear more from Karen:
> Keynote: Food Justice is Racial Justice (NFSN 2020 Movement Meeting)
> It’s Not a Food Desert, It’s Food Apartheid (Guernica)
"There's a true opportunity to leverage school meals in a way that prioritizes local producers and BIPOC farmers who have been left out of the conversation.”
Krystal Oriadha is the Senior Director of Programs and Policy at National Farm to School Network, where she guides the overall strategic programs and policy advocacy activities of our organization. Krystal is a recognized community leader and activist for justice in Prince George’s County, Maryland and the wider community. For more than 10 years, she’s advocated for criminal justice reform, education, women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and food justice. Krystal is also the co-founder of PG Change Makers and the LGBTQ Dignity Project. Hear more from Krystal:
> A Shared Vision for School Food Policy (FoodCorps Town Hall)
> White-Led Organizations: Actions Speak Louder Than Words (Written by Krystal Oriadha and Helen Dombalis, NFSN Executive Director)
LaDonna Sanders Redmond
“All oppression is linked. Food is just a tool for organizing. It’s not really about the food. It’s about what the food brings: choice and dignity.”
LaDonna Sanders Redmond is a community activist who began her advocacy for a fairer food system when she wanted healthy, organic food to help combat allergies her young son had developed. But that food wasn’t available in West Chicago. So, she became an advocate for food justice and helped create community access to fresh, healthy, pesticide-free, and GMO-free food. She achieved her vision by converting vacant city lots into urban farms, creating retail food enterprises to sell fresh fruit and vegetables in the community, and replacing junk food with salad bars in Chicago Public Schools. Hear more from LaDonna:
> Food + Justice = Democracy: LaDonna Redmond (TEDx Talk)
> Keynote: Ending Systematic Oppression in the Food System (8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference)
"If this is not the time to dismantle something as big and persistent as food apartheid, when is the time?"
Qiana Mickie has spent more than 10 years fostering a food-based solidarity economy that increases farm viability, healthy food access, and leadership opportunities for small- and mid-scale regional farmers, youth, Black, Brown, mixed-income, and other communities of color. Qiana also brings an equity-driven lens to policy work on issues such as food sovereignty, land stewardship, and health. Qiana is the former Executive Director of Just Food and continues working with the organization as a special projects consultant. Qiana joined our Coffee Chat series last fall to discuss what food apartheid is and how we end it in our communities – it was a rich conversation that our staff continue to revisit and reflect on. Hear more from Qiana:
> How Do We End Food Apartheid In Our Communities (NFSN Coffee Chat)
> Qiana Mickie on Food Justice & Access (Heritage Radio)
“I see it as my mission to ensure that no child feels the indignity of being hungry. Not on my watch.”
Rodney Taylor is an expert and early pioneer in farm to school salad bars. In 1997, he established the first “Farmers’ Market Salad Bar” program while working as Director of Food and Nutrition Services in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. He has also held Director roles in school nutrition departments at Fairfax County Public Schools and Riverside Unified School District. Rodney has served on the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, the University of California (UC) President’s Advisory Commission for Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Network for a Healthy California’s Executive Committee, and National Farm to School Network's Advisory Board. Hear more from Rodney:
> He grew up hungry. Now he wants to revolutionize school lunch. (Washington Post)
> Spotlight on Rodney Taylor, Farm to School Pioneer (Healthy Schools Campaign)
Te’Lario Watkins Jr.
“All kids should have enough food to eat to learn and grow.”
Te'Lario Watkins Jr. is a 13-year-old mushroom farmer, entrepreneur, and food justice advocate in central Ohio. He also founded The Garden Club Project, which has a mission to help end hunger and encourage kids to eat healthier. During the pandemic, Te’Lario has donated seed kits to local daycare centers, helped deliver over 2,000 lbs of fresh produce to a local food pantry, and started work on a community garden to help feed families that may otherwise have difficulty regularly accessing fresh produce. Hear more from Te’Lario:
> Te'Lario Watkins II: Farmer, Activist, Businessman, Youth Leader (Slow Food USA)
> Follow Te’Lario on Instagram
These are just a few of the many Black trailblazers, innovators, and movement makers who are helping power farm to school and community food systems efforts nationwide. There are many more - including on our staff, Advisory Board, in our network of Core and Supporting Partners, and others - who we also celebrate this month.
Our commitment to listening to and lifting up Black voices and leadership in farm to school doesn't stop at the end of February. Every day is the right day for being honest about and addressing the racism and inequities in our work. (You can read more about National Farm to School Network's commitment to centering our work in equity here.) In April, our staff will be participating in Food Solutions New England's 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge - sign up to join us. And, we encourage you join us in continuing to honor the Black leaders who have given, and continue to give, boundless wisdom, vision, creativity and commitment to the farm to school movement.