Fannie Lou Hamer's Pioneering Food Activism Is a Model for Today
Food systems in the United States are in turmoil. What little progress the country has made on race relations and combating police brutality is crumbling before us. In many ways, the United States today doesn’t look much different than it did when voting and women’s rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was fighting against those same injustices with her Food Farm Cooperative. Until her death in 1977, Hamer, who co-founded the Freedom Democratic Party and National Women’s Political Caucus, used food as a political weapon to protest against systemic oppression.
Established in 1967, the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) was an act of resistance. The idea was to provide African Americans with a path to economic opportunity and access to nutritious food that had been systematically denied to them due to white power structures. The United States Department of Agriculture routinely rejected African-American farmers’ loans for land, or imposed other policies that caused African-American farmers to lose their land, nationwide. As a result, many were forced to become sharecroppers or do other forms of low-wage work to survive. This was just one of many examples of the federal government intentionally preventing African Americans from attaining wealth or a living wage during the Jim Crow era. Over the past century, Black farmers lost approximately 12 million acres of farmland in the Delta area alone. It is estimated that 6 million of those acres were lost between 1950 to 1964.
Located in Ruleville, Mississippi, in rural Sunflower County, Hamer's Freedom Farm Cooperative and pig bank was part of a larger plan to address the increasing poverty faced by area residents. “I think there was a lot of respect for her, especially when she started working with white folks and the word got out that she didn’t give a damn who you were, if your children were hungry, you could be involved,” said Reverend Jeff Goldstein, a community organizer, and activist who worked with Hamer on Mississippi Delta grassroots civil rights movements.
Thanks to the help of singer and activist Harry Belafonte and the charitable group Measure for Measure in Madison, Wisconsin, Hamer was able to purchase the initial 40 acres in Sunflower County to create the FFC. “If you give a hungry man food, he will eat it,” Hamer said. “[But] if you give him land, he will grow his own food.”
The FFC had three main goals: addressing and enriching the nutritional needs of African Americans; creating access to affordable housing; and fostering entrepreneurship opportunities. In exchange for a few hours of work, families could take home a bushel of produce from the farm. This allowed over 1,500 families to sustain themselves by growing cash crops and vegetables such as snap peas, butter beans, squash, peas, and cucumbers. It also further reinforced the idea that the person who owns the land owns the food.
Hamer ensured affordable housing on the land with the construction of 200 homes, some of which are still standing today in Ruleville. Via the FFC, she provided financial assistance to thousands of rural people from Mississippi to purchase homes with running water and heat, which was previously inaccessible to much of the county’s population. Cash crops such as cotton and soybeans were grown to pay for taxes and overhead. Families were charged one dollar per month to use the service. This nominal fee was so much of a burden for many that only 30 families could afford it. Hamer believed that FFC's collective land ownership meant control of the food and would bring them a step closer to political freedom
FFC was also home to a Head Start program, commercial kitchen, community gardens, and a garment factory that assisted African Americans who had been fired and/or evicted for exercising their right to vote. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers alike were afforded education and retraining opportunities in healthcare and disaster relief.
With many of Sunflower's residents trying to flee racism and the prejudices of the Jim Crow South, the FFC opened the door to self-sufficiency. The region was also suffering from a continued population loss to the North, Midwest, and West as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which triggered the Great Migration. Starvation was one of many strategies used to prevent African Americans from voting. Policies enforced by Mississippi congressman Jamie Whitten of the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee worked counter to the USDA’s efforts to bring more food programs to the state. Hindering marginalized people from access to these programs further exacerbated malnutrition in the state. This was clearly in retaliation for Hamer and people like her who continued to register and encourage African Americans to vote.
Continued oppression from politicians and racism forced many African Americans to leave their low wage domestic and agricultural jobs and seek employment in northern cities. Landowners made rent so high for sharecroppers and tenant farmers that most were barely surviving. African American workers had to choose between their right to vote and their existence. Exercising their right to vote meant paying for grossly expensive tests that were often financially out of reach, losing employment, and in some cases risking bodily harm or death.
The promise of better living conditions, educational and employment opportunities, as well as the widespread transition away from manual labor and towards more sophisticated farming, lured many Southerners to northern cities and west to California. The transition to farm machinery was also a driving force after generations of exploiting African Americans for their skilled labor.
FFC's collective model was a threat to the existing white hierarchy and the political and economic control that kept African American residents in poverty. This cooperative approach helped to stave off a second wave of migration to the North. It allowed African Americans who wished to remain in the Mississippi Delta a chance to create a healthy community with access to an alternative food system.
A year after the creation of the FFC, Hamer purchased another 640 acres, and the pig bank was born. Thanks to a donation from the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Hamer was able to buy five male pigs, Jersey boars, and 50 female pigs, Yorkshire gilts. To welcome the pigs, she threw a party complete with dancing, eating, singing, and handshaking. Hamer believed that as long as people had a pig, they would not starve to death.
The Sunflower Pigs, as they were called, were delivered to a breeding barn built by local women who were often the more experienced farmers and had the skills to manage the farm. The gilts were loaned out to families where they would return piglets to the bank as interest. These families would butcher the pigs once they reached an acceptable weight.
This allowed families to go upwards of a year without purchasing store-bought ham and lard from the nearby plantation commissary. By its second year, 100 families had slaughtered pigs, frozen meat, and roasted pork. This brought a sense of pride and was a confirmation of the resilience of the Black women and men who were responsible for steering this initiative.
Despite having the help of civil rights activists, celebrities, and non-profit organizations, the FFC began to fall apart in 1974. The cooperative didn't have a strong framework to realize its long term potential and fulfill its promise. Donors became frustrated due to lack of acknowledgement, and eventually, partner organizations such as the NCNW withdrew their support. The farm wasn't financially stable, even though it was feeding and nourishing the community. In 1976, due to Hamer's fading health from breast cancer and increasing financial strain, the FFC was shuttered.
These days, the pig bank model is worth considering. While we fight a global pandemic, our food system is on the brink of collapse. We remain a nation divided on, just to name a few things, police brutality, healthcare, education, voting, and housing, many of the same issues the Freedom Farm was created to address. Maybe it's time to reconsider sowing the seeds that Fannie Lou Hamer planted not so long ago.