African-American Food Culture: Community Nourishment & Knowledge

Drawing on diverse African cultural and culinary practices, these agricultural centers enrich their neighborhoods.

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by April Jones
Know Dat Grow Dat is a sustainable urban farm in New Orleans.

Discover how African-American food culture has shaped three communities and their local agriculture, and find a food sovereignty definition rooted in hope, a strong community, and a vision of a better future. As the author notes“Food sovereignty is about a profound opportunity to have a local point of view, allowing people to dazzle and marvel at the beauty and sustaining power of the local food system.” 

This article is also in audio form for your enjoyment. Scroll down just a bit to find the recording.

America has always been a mix of cultural food traditions. Its wealth of foodways (the agricultural and culinary traditions around food) allows us to be part of an expansive awareness. As cities become more culturally diverse, it’s a chance for renewed cultural fusion. Building our food webs to nourish, to grow, and to strengthen communities lets us all thrive.

As we lean into more diverse foodways, we’re reclaiming food and culture to create security, order, and resilience in our communities. Food access, education, and supporting farmers throughout our food system all help create healthy communities. We share our collective values and our commitment to honoring our food cultures, foodways, and traditions that honor the land stewardship of our forebears. We prove that challenges and barriers can’t stop the moral courage and steadfastness of communities working diligently toward the common good and sharing the bounty of the land. Food sovereignty is about a profound opportunity to have a local point of view, allowing people to dazzle and marvel at the beauty and sustaining power of the local food system.

Building Food Networks in Akron, Ohio

Leveraging African ancestral practices to revitalize urban land, Akron Urban Agriculture in Akron, Ohio, strives to build better communities. It does this through agriculture, conservation, and allowing communities to access land for growing culturally relevant crops and for being an active part of the food movement. Akron Urban Agriculture helps improve food systems, food production, and food quality. Food leader Kashava Holt hosts beekeeping classes that cover the basics and expand the shared knowledge of the community.

Holt is also part of the Akron High Tunnel Initiative as an outreach specialist. The initiative hosts monthly events that include training, support, and guidance for participants in a five-year contract to use the high tunnels to create food opportunities for urban environments.

A young black man kneeling on the ground beside a tree setting up a galvanized…

Akron Urban Agriculture strengthens local food web networks within the city. It encourages food cultivation and practices that extend the growing season, such as solar greenhouses and high tunnels. It also works directly with the local public school system.

“Community gardens bring different cultures together,” says Holt. Cross-cultural exchanges through food and land are a powerful means to create sustainable change. Directly connecting foodways helps address problems, such as food shortages, non-nutritious foods, and waste management. Food can be used as a catalyst to create real change, allowing people and communities to create unity, harmony, care, and growth.

African and Indigenous Land Practices Honor Family Traditions

Using her knowledge of African and Indigenous land practices of intercropping and saving seeds and applying only a few external inputs, Marquita Smith of Akron, Ohio, is building upon her family’s gardening legacy. She grows crops, such as field peas, that’ll improve the soil and, thus, the next planting season.

“I’m passing on the holiday recipes to my daughter this year, who recently graduated high school and will be attending college this spring!” she says. “I’ve always felt that our traditional African American foods, grown from the ground and served at the table, keep the care for family, memories, and culture alive, well, and wrapped with warmth and love.”

close-up of a black woman holding a handfull of freshly-harvested carrots with dirt still on…

Smith is part of a new generation that’s begun the reclamation process, focused on honoring and standing by the values of civility, truth, justice, and moral clarity. This new generation uses techniques, such as crop rotation, to prevent pest problems and to build up the soil. They save their own seeds from harvest to harvest, only collecting and using the best of each plant, and sharing that seed knowledge with the farming community. These growing practices help create remarkable soil health.

“This fall’s harvest has been one of reverence for the traditional foods cooked by the women in my family during the holidays,” Smith says. “I’ve planted, with purpose, sweet potatoes for the delicious pies, along with okra, corn, and collards for our side-dish must-haves.”

This model of domestic renewal requires a significant amount of physical labor and concentration on the economic and cultural legacy of her family. And as Smith builds ties to that legacy, she also allies with many family members and neighbors to create a robust and strong agricultural community that works toward land justice together.

African-American Food Culture: Growing Community

Our diversity connects us as a nation and a community. Shanti Community Farm in Akron, Ohio, provides refugees with the chance to farm and to carry on their agricultural traditions. Growing food gives us the tools to adapt, and we create a forum for growth and diplomacy. “We should all think like generational farmers for the future,” says Holt.

As we garden in our communities, we’re building a strong foundation of community skills that allows us to experience the beauty of nature. Perfecting growing techniques and strategies helps create kinder and more caring communities. Growing crops in a community also brings out our creative side, as we select colors, scents, smells, and culturally relevant food spaces.

two black farmers in an industrial kitchen weighing large leafy greens on a digital kitchen…

Gardening and getting into the soil is a wonderful way to combat depression. It also gives children and families food independence and freedom. Children can build land and plant knowledge that they can pass on from generation to generation. This helps codify our cultural use of herbs and spices.

By focusing on sustainable African ecological land practices to increase soil fertility and health, we introduce new ways of thinking to our farming system. We can use these practices to combat climate change and to improve pest resistance in crops. By combining the old ways with new practices, we create a renewal that starts at home and helps bring about long-term, sustainable change in our food system.

Supporting Farmers in Detroit and New Orleans

The Detroit People’s Food Coop is committed to providing farmers access to markets to create community change from within. It wants to facilitate greater access to healthy foods, education, and the tools people need to make decisions around food. The organization focuses on community learning and engagement around nutrition, cooking, and sustainability. It helps people heal themselves and each other through food by connecting the community back to the land and supporting farmers, the stewards of the land.

Actively working to remove barriers to the food system helps give the farmer and the customer better access to it while supporting farmers. “Black foodways are so important to us, because we know as our relationships [with the food and the land that nourishes the food] deepen, we can become more creative about how we can replace systems that harm us,” says Shakara Tyler, president of the board of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. “It equally becomes a form of social and political resistance to food apartheid and a form of worship to the spirits that ensure our well-being.”

Mutual cooperation toward land access, food, and seed sovereignty creates a new reality that can also exist as a meaningful model for renewal and reclamation. Engaging in the local food system allows all of us to honor the past and work towards a more sustainable future.

“The veneration of our sacred foodways and attuning to our spiritual ecologies of Blackness are intimate companions. And one of the most fruitful ways to do this is in rebuilding our spirits of intimacy with others. The only thing better than watermelon, okra, and black-eyed peas is stewarding them in beloved community with our people,” says Tyler.

A view of a farmers market. The asphalt is lined with trees on one side…

As cities across our nation welcome arrivals from around the world, the one thing that connects us is land and food. New Orleans’ rich heritage of cultures, languages, and traditions creates a wealth of knowledge to access to unify our communal land and cultural practices.

New Orleans The Market Umbrella operates the weekly Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans. It connects farmers, fishers, ranchers, and local food businesses with customers, resulting in excellent quality, good prices, and robust community dialogue.

“Local seasonal produce is not only delicious, but it is rooted in culture and place,” says Ashanti Anderson, the development director for the Market Umbrella. “All of our vendors operate within 200 miles of New Orleans and bring to the market products that grow from our own rich soils.”

A Food Sovereignty Definition Rooted in Hope

As we expand our land practices and gain insight into the microcosms of the soil, we build our knowledge and adaptation skills in an ever-changing environment. Soil is the foundational aspect of our food system, and these communities use their cultural knowledge to improve soil health. And just as sharing cultural knowledge builds the health of the soil, it also builds healthy communities, while helping us bring beauty to fruition through our harvests.

These ongoing community projects by people of color show how we can create a more just, vibrant world. The food system is a place to explore, to grow, and to honor other cultures as we reflect on our own values of justice and equity. We’re all called upon to take up the mantle and to move our country forward toward agricultural justice. Let’s create a democratic system where everyone has a role in the community food system, and where everyone can see their culture and community reflected in it.

April Jones is a community advocate from Akron, Ohio, who’s dedicated to promoting food justice, water access, and food sovereignty. With a strong passion for community gardens, farmers markets, and creating a fair food system, she’s an accomplished writer, public speaker, consultant, blogger, recipe developer, book reviewer, and event planner.

Originally published as “Black Foodways: Nourishing the Community, Sharing Community Knowledge” in the August/September 2023 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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