By Molly Schintler, Communication InternMarch is Women’s History Month, and to celebrate, I knew that I wanted to write a blog focused on the role of women in food and agriculture. Originally, I envisioned focusing on historical, female leaders whose work laid the foundation for today’s food and agriculture systems. In retrospect, this may have been a bit ambitious. Thankfully, however, I have access to a powerful resource in the many individuals and organizations that make up the National Farm to School Network. When I reached out and asked our partners to share the names of female leaders, past and present, who have played an important role in food and agriculture in the U.S., almost all of those who responded shared the names of women who they know personally.
Many partners mentioned female colleagues, political representatives, and leaders of non-profits as women who have inspired them in their farm to school work. But inspirational women working in food systems existed long before 2018. Throughout history, women have been farmers, researchers, educators, political activists, scholars, marketers, and more in the name of advancing food systems. Who were the original lunch ladies? Who were the first women to champion agriculture education? Which female farmers planted seeds of change, literal and figurative, in their communities a hundred years ago?
To quote Dolores Huerta, a historical food activist who is still leading change in our food system today: “That's the history of the world. His story is told, her's isn't.” Dolores co-founded the National Farm Workers Association alongside César Chávez in the 1960s. For decades, she has championed farmworkers rights, and yet many people recognize Chávez’s name and not Huerta’s. For me, it is not about recognizing a name for the sake of recognizing a name. It is about knowing a women’s name because you’ve heard her story. It is about saying a women’s name because you are teaching others about her contribution to our food system. Dolores Huerta is one of so many female food leaders who our farm to school work can and should be teaching about.
If today’s students are taught about local food sheroes past and present, then we can start to tell a more complete, equitable history of our nation’s food system. In the garden, classroom, and cafeteria, let’s educate our students about the:
Activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, who in 1969, founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in opposition to the inequitable and pervasive sharecropping system of agriculture. She also led early, grassroots organizing in support of Head Start programs.
Leadership of Denise O’Brien, who, when asked about her life’s work as a farmer and founder of the Women Food & Agriculture Network said, “My life has been devoted to raising women’s voices in agriculture. My dream is that the landscape of industrialized agriculture will change as women become the decision makers on their land. To that end I will devote my time on this earth to women, prairie restoration and seed saving.”
Vision of Chef Ann Cooper, who is devoted to creating a future where being a chef working to feed children fresh, delicious, and nourishing food is no longer considered “renegade.”
Persistence of Karen Washington, who has lived in New York City all her life, and has spent decades promoting urban farming as a way for all New Yorkers to access to fresh, locally grown food.
Initiative of Chellie Pingree, who has been an advocate in Congress for reforming federal policy to better support the diverse range of American agriculture—including sustainable, organic, and locally focused farming.
Talent of M.F.K Fisher, who elevated food writing to poetry as a preeminent American food writer in the 20th century.
Community Organizing of Gloria Begay, a Navajo educator and founding Naat’aanii Council member of the Dine’ Food Sovereignty Alliance to restore the traditional food and culture system on the Navajo Nation.
Trailblazing of Betti Wiggins, who has worked to feed kids healthy food for over 30 years. As the director of food service for the Detroit Public Schools, Betti reformed the school lunch program through championing school gardens and local food. Today, she is still trailblazing for school food as Houston school dictrict’s officer of nutrition services.
Promise of Haile Thomas, who at the age of seventeen, is leading her generation toward a healthier food system. As a health activist and founder/CEO of The HAPPY Organization, Haile has engaged over 15,000 kids in activism since 2010. Haile will be a keynote speaker at the 9th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference this April.
Our network extends our humble thanks to the many women and non-binary identifying people whose work has built and continues our food system toward a more healthy, equitable future. We may never know all of your names, but we certainly know that our work would never be possible without you. Thank you for being local food heroes and sheroes!