Contributions from Black Americans to America’s Food Culture

by Eric Meredith, MEd, MS, RDN, CHES Consultant, Feeding America

Black Americans have shaped modern food culture in the United States – from introducing indigenous African foods (e.g., coffee, kola, and black-eyed peas) to influencing the establishment of the National School Breakfast Program. In recognition of Black History Month, Feeding America honors Black Americans’ influence on the country’s food environments, systems, and policies. Through this post, you are invited to explore the profiles of several individuals and groups who have contributed to American agricultural innovation, anti-hunger policy, and culinary traditions.

The Honorable Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2005)

Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress in 1968. Rep. Chisholm (D-NY) played an essential role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), ensuring that low-income mothers could have access to free, healthy food for their young children.

The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program

In 1969, the Black Panther Party began providing free breakfast to children before school. The breakfast program, called Free Breakfast for School Children, fed thousands of children from 1969 into the 1970s. The Black Panthers’ breakfast program helped contribute to the existence of the current federal free breakfast program.

Booker T. Whatley (1915 – 2005)

Booker T. Whatley is one of the pioneers of sustainable agriculture in the post-World War II era. He created a Clientele Membership Club, which required members to pay a fee in exchange for fresh produce that they would pick themselves. Today, this idea is commonly referred to as community supported agriculture (CSA).

Lloyd Hall (1894 – 1971)

In 1932, Lloyd Hall discovered a method of suppressing food-spoiling nitrogen by combining sodium chloride with sodium nitrate and nitrite. He later developed approaches to preventing food spoilage by using chemicals like lecithin as antioxidants and invented a way of purifying foods from spoiling microbes by using ethylene oxide gas.

George Washington Carver (1861 – 1943)

It would be difficult to make any list of American food pioneers without mentioning George Washington Carver. Carver developed more than 300 uses for peanuts. He helped spread the idea of rotating crops to help combat soil depletion. He also invented 118 products from sweet potatoes, including molasses and postage-stamp glue.

James Hemings (1765 – 1801)

After Thomas Jefferson was appointed commerce minister to France in 1784, he and James Hemings set sail for Paris, which is where Hemings began his cooking career, becoming the first American trained as a French chef. Hemings introduced European-style macaroni and cheese, French fries, crème brûlée, and ice cream to America.

George Crum (1824 – 1914)

Do you like potato chips? Then you have George Crum to thank. A chef, Mr. Crum invented what later became known as “Saratoga Chips” in 1853 while working at the Moon Lake Lodge resort in Saratoga Springs. In 1860, Crum opened a restaurant of his own, which proudly featured a basket of potato chips on every table.

Henry Blair (1807 – 1860)

Henry Blair was the second African American to be issued a U.S. patent. He patented two inventions: a corn planter and cotton planter. The corn planter’s compartment dropped seeds and the rakes covered them with soil. With the horse drawn cotton planter, two shovel-like attachments divided the soil and a cylinder-shaped wheel dropped seeds into newly turned soil. Both inventions greatly increased efficiency by reducing labor and time.

Eric Meredith is a cultural competency consultant for Feeding America.  He currently serves as a Tribal Relations Specialist at a large government agency.  Prior to his current role, Eric was a community nutrition education program manager for the University of Illinois and federal government.