Food Roots is a three-part essay celebrating Black heritage in agriculture and beyond. Feeding Northeast Florida hopes that by sharing these significant stories of perseverance, ingenuity and resilience, we will help advance the ideals of equality, diversity, and inclusion across our community.
We invite you to read and explore Food Roots: Celebrating Black History Month.
Cela knew she would not be able to bring a bag of her belongings. She knew she would be separated from her babies, her community and homeland. But Cela wanted to give her children a chance for survival so she carefully and lovingly braided rice seeds into their hair for safe passage to America.
According to Judith Carney, a rice historian and author of Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, revelations indicate some slaves were prepared to be captured or had enough time to store the grains on their body before embarking on the never-to-return journey.
The enslaved people then taught their white masters how to grow and preserve the dark and hard grained rice that came from West Africa long before rice from Asia became a preferred option. Also hidden in hair were black-eyed beans, small cassava cuttings, maize and other grains.
Although enslaved West Africans lived and worked on southern plantations during the American colonial period, their masters did not allow them to eat much or provide access to food resources. Enslaved people had to rebuild their food culture with what little they were afforded in a new land. Working with what was available to them and what was in season, they preserved African food traditions and adapted traditional recipes.
Across what today is referred to as the “Deep South,” African Americans created hearty, sumptuous recipes such as gumbo, Hoppin’ John, hushpuppies, jambalaya, deep fried fish, rice pudding, collard greens, grits, and red beans and rice, to mention a few. Over the years this food became categorized as “Southern food” and during the Black Power movement in the late 1960’s and 70’s, the term soul food originated. Defined as African American heritage cooking, soul food has become easily identifiable and a celebrated aspect of American food culture.
Born out of necessity, from rice grains braided into the hair of West African women, soul food has become part of our American culinary heritage. Recipes have survived generations and continue to provide comfort, hope and nourishment to anyone in need of a stick-to-your-ribs meal.
In 1834, Henry Blair became the second African American to ever be issued a United States patent for his invention the Seed-Planter. Just two years later, Blair registered a second patent for his cotton planter. This second invention boasted two attributes that were needed in agriculture during the time – a horse-drawn drill to plant the cotton and cover it up, as well as agitate the earth, which uprooted surrounding weeds. Blair was illiterate.
Over the past 200 years, farming has changed significantly. Many inventions, ideas and agricultural contributions from African American farmers, horticulturists, and inventors have revolutionized how our food system functions today. Below are four innovative contributions of black farmers to agriculture:
Biological Regeneration of the Soil and Composting
George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist, inventor, and educator at Tuskegee University who developed methods to prevent soil depletion. He established a crop rotation method that alternated cotton with legumes like peanuts that fix nitrogen in soil. This method increased the productive capacity and helped to diversify the market by giving southern farmers another crop to produce and sell besides cotton. In addition to crop rotation, Dr. Carver promoted the practice of using compost to reintroduce nutrients and add organic matter to the soil. Using compost to build soil is a critical practice in organic farming and gardening today.
Community Supported Agriculture
Booker T. Whatley, an agricultural professor at Tuskegee University, developed the regenerative farming system which today is commonly referred to as pick-your-own (PYO). He also created the concept of subscription buyer’s club. Members of the club paid an initial membership fee which contributed to the success of the farm. In return, they received fresh produce that they would pick themselves.
Transportation Refrigeration System
Frederick McKinley Jones is the inventor of the refrigerated truck, one of the most important inventions to modern agriculture. He patented his refrigeration system in 1940 and became the co-owner of the company Thermo King through which he sold his invention. The refrigeration system was installed in trucks, boats, planes, and boxcars and improved the worldwide food trade. Because of his invention, fresh seasonal produce could be enjoyed throughout the entire year.
Farming cooperatives were established following the abolition of slavery in 1865, to increase opportunities, land ownership, agricultural education, and living conditions for black farmers. Booker T. Washington worked to offer agricultural education to Blacks and promoted self-sufficiency practices so black farmers did not have to rely on white landowners or the cotton market for income. Robert Lloyd Smith founded the Farmer’s Improvement Society in 1890, a farmer’s cooperative association which helped emancipated slaves escape the cycle of debt caused by the sharecropping and credit system developed in the wake of the Civil War.
There were nearly a million black farmers in America by 1920. Yet today, of the country’s 3.4 million total farmers, only 1.3%, or 45,508, are black, according to a report released by the US Department of Agriculture in 2017. White Harvest Farms (WHF) and Abundant Harvest Farms (AHF) are Black-owned sustainable agricultural farms in Northeast Florida. They are the only two.
Both farms are in areas considered to be food deserts – meaning people living in those communities have limited access to healthy and affordable food. WHF and AHF aim to heal their communities by providing high quality, nutrient dense food resources and through workshops to inspire more people to take charge of their health.
WHF, an initiative of the Clara White Mission, is in the historically rich neighborhood of Moncrief Springs on Jacksonville’s Northside and has become a symbol of hope and healing for a community still affected by the disparities caused by Jacksonville’s consolidation in 1968.
“I think the farm means a lot to the community,” said Imani Vidal, WHF farmer. “We are carrying on that legacy that taught the importance and respect for soil, plants, water and air. Our ancestors were the labor and mastery of American agriculture.”
Caria Hawkins, co-founder of AHF, shares this sentiment with Vidal. “Agriculture and African American history go back for centuries,” explained Hawkins. Hawkins and her husband purchased 40 acres of land in Baker County with the goal of returning to her family roots. “It feels as though I’m doing something my ancestors would be proud of.”
Vidal also feels more connected to her ancestorial roots. “Being an indigenous farmer honors both my indigenous African and Native ancestors,” Vidal said. “It reintroduces and supports DNA strands long ago created through the genius and peace they lived in for thousands of years before enslavement.”
There are many reasons why African Americans have left the farming industry. Discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other institutions, as well as a mass migration of Blacks from the rural South are a few. According to Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm in upstate New York, the decline in Black farmers can be attributed to the pain and trauma caused by slavery.
Mallory Schott, WHF manager, follows Soul Fire Farm closely and draws inspiration from their teachings. “For generations African farmers used their skills, tools and traditions to cultivate land that they did not own or have the opportunity to own,” said Schott. “This historic inequality contributes to the lower number of black farmers in our country.”
Despite the longstanding inequities, Vidal and Hawkins hope that more African American youth become involved in farming. “I really feel like our future depends on our African American youth and if the craft is not handed down, we’re going to lose something in between,” said Hawkins. “Our community’s health and independence rely on consistent access to nutritious, affordable food.”
African Americans have made lasting contributions to agriculture and the American food system; from carefully braiding rice seeds into women’s hair for safe passage to America, to inventing the first seed-planter and transportation refrigeration system, to healing communities through healthy, sustainably grown food. In honor of Black History Month, Feeding Northeast Florida celebrates Black heritage in food.
Vernetta Stewart grew up surrounded by good food. She remembers her mother, Rosetta, making flavorful chicken and rice, Salisbury steak with gravy, and shrimp fried rice. Working in restaurant kitchens for 45 years, Rosetta shared her passion for cooking with her daughter. Even so, Stewart never imagined she would follow her mother’s footsteps.
Finance was her chosen career path. But after twelve years, Vernetta left
banking and enrolled in culinary school at Florida State College at Jacksonville on a
whim. “I was enrolled in 30 minutes! I didn’t even know I was serious until I
enrolled,” laughed Stewart.
Her first experience in a professional kitchen was at Amelia Island Plantation.
The chef was hesitant to bring her on but took a chance and made Stewart a prep
cook. Stewart was blown away on her first day. “To see the flames and the action
and the tickets, I was in awe,” Stewart recalled. As a prep cook, she peeled shrimp
from 3-10pm each shift until her hands were raw but she kept at it and eventually
earned the chef’s respect. He offered her a full-time job.
What began as a whim quickly became Stewart’s passion. As she began
building her resume, Stewart became a chef at The Bolles School, and eventually a
chef at The Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Throughout her training and experience, she
noticed that Black people — specifically Black women — were underrepresented in
the culinary industry.
In July 2020, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit advocacy
group for restaurant workers’ rights, released a study indicating that
racial and gender biases compound to make it especially hard for Black women
to attain leadership roles in the culinary industry.
Stewart shared that although her mother worked in kitchens for nearly half a
century, she never earned the title of Chef. She recognized that she was given
opportunities, unlike her mother, though she always felt like she had to work harder
than her white, male counterparts.
“Black women can be boxed [in] in a sense,” Stewart said. “They think ‘you
just do soul food,’ or ‘you are a pastry chef. You make cakes and pies.’ We don’t get
the full [recognition] that we know how to do French-style, that we do plating.”
Stewart further explained that while Black female chefs must know more, they also
need to let go of their own insecurities to be able to be successful.
“There are insecurities like ‘how will I be perceived?’” she expounded. “If I go
in too meek, will they just consume me or if I go in too aggressive, will I come off as
angry?” Stewart credits staying true to herself as a secret ingredient to her career.
“For me, I didn’t have a lot of bad experiences. Everywhere I went I had a good
experience, I felt like I was respected, and I think it was because I stayed true to
who I was.”
This sense of self led Stewart to Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC)
where she became the Chef and Culinary Director. After years of working 16-hour
days, 6-days a week, for 14-years, Stewart wanted to focus on her family and that meant creating a better work-life-balance for herself. At the same time, she felt a
calling to serve the community and RMHC allowed her to serve and share her
talents while maintaining a healthy work-like balance.
“I just want to cook good food and build relationships,” Stewart shared about
her mindset and goal as a chef. She believes there is more work to be done by the
culinary industry to become more inclusive of Black women in leadership roles.
When Stewart thinks about the differences between her mother’s career and her
own, it boils down to opportunity.
“When I look at my mom, although [cooking is] what she did, she was never
given the title of Chef. She was never given the opportunity to go to school for it,”
shared Stewart. “I feel like what I do is important because I represent her, and I
make her proud.”