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Local Food Icons: Three Women You Should Know

It’s Women’s History Month! This month is all about amplifying the stories of women, and we’re highlighting a few who have made a significant impact on local food and our food system. While women have ancestrally and historically been a huge part of the food system, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate 3 women who have made a mark on our American way of eating, and the communities they built around nourishment. Read on to learn more about 3 female local food icons!

Fannie Lou Hamer

An accomplished civil rights activist and community organizer, Fannie Lou Hamer began her life as the 20th child of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow era of the American South. Despite intense hurdles to success, she helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which ran in opposition to the local Democratic party that blocked black participation, and Freedom Summer, which mobilized college students to register voters. 

She was an incredible person with many different accomplishments, but made this list because of her work with the Freedom Farms Cooperative, which provided economic and job opportunities to black farmers and families, who were routinely denied opportunities because of institutionalized and often outright, violent racism. The Freedom Farms Cooperative created a community with 200 units of housing and 680 acres of farmable Mississippi Delta land, as well as a ‘pig bank’, which provided food and profit for poor farmers, Fannie Lou Hamer created a real-life dream of economic and community empowerment with food, and for that reason, she is a local food icon. 

Robyn Van En 

Robyn Van En was amongst the first US farmers to invest in a CSA model, and helped create the American movement towards community supported agriculture. The CSA model is designed to knit a community around farming, and cut out the middleman between farmers and consumers. Inspired by the ‘subscription farming’ method of Booker T. Whatley and similar models in Japan,  Robyn Van En, with her friend Jan Van Tuin and a group of like-minded farmers, began the Indian Line Farm CSA in 1985 with 30 CSA customers buying apples, vinegar and cider, which quickly grew into 150 customers. 

With such success in connecting neighbors with farms and food with care, Robyn Van En founded CSA of North America, and traveled extensively speaking about the CSA model and how to build a community around sustainable food. We can thank her efforts for the proliferation of CSAs in Michigan and around the world, and for that reason, she is a local food icon.

Alice Waters

Alice Waters is credited with amplifying the farm-to-table movement in fine dining in the US and her restaurant, Chez Panisse, is famous for serving a single Masumoto heirloom peach and a knife for dessert.  The naming of local provenances on restaurant menus is said to have been popularized by Waters and her aim to celebrate and choose the foods that are grown locally with care.

Waters was inspired to create Chez Panisse after studying abroad in France, and even named the establishment after a favorite Marcel Pagnol character. After such success with her Berkeley, CA restaurant, she moved on to create such projects as the Edible Schoolyard, which aims to create a connection to food, the land and wellness with children, through teaching gardens and sourcing from sustainable, local farms. She’s the Vice President of Slow Food International, and even is behind the most recent iteration of the White House kitchen garden! While she is not without her share of criticism, she uses her fame for advocating for food that is sustainably grown, delicious, and supports the work that farmers do to bring food to our table, and for that reason, she is a local food icon.

While women’s stories have always been linked to our food system, we don’t always get to hear about them! There are countless underrecognized local food voices in the US, and women make an important contribution to the way we eat. 

For more information about Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farms Cooperative, read on: 

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/fannie-lou-hamer

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fannie-lou-hamers-dauntless-fight-for-black-americans-right-vote-180975610/

For more information about Robyn Van En and to read her own words, check out these sources: 

https://www.wilson.edu/robyn-van-en-center

https://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/robyn-van-en-zm0z91aszhun

For more information on Alice Waters or to read one of her cookbooks, go to these sites: 

https://www.npr.org/2019/11/27/783390766/chef-alice-waters

https://bookshop.org/books/the-art-of-simple-food-notes-lessons-and-recipes-from-a-delicious-revolution/9780307336798?aid=14683&listref=eating-seasonally-and-locally

Claire Butler is the Communications Coordinator for Taste the Local Difference. You can reach her at claire@localdifference.org.

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