These co-founders are the first African Americans to receive a James Beard Humanitarian Award

Dollita Okine June 12, 2023
Olivia Watkins (Left) and Karen Washington (Right), are the first African Americans to receive the Humanitarian Award from the just ended James Beard Awards. Photo Credit: Black Farmer Fund

Karen Washington and Olivia Watkins were the recipients of the Humanitarian Award from the just-ended James Beard Awards. Historically, the duo are the first African Americans to receive the esteemed award.

The James Beard Award, popularly known as the “Oscars of the food world,” according to Black Enterprise, honors chefs, restaurateurs, culinary authors, and food-focused journalists in the United States.

Olivia Watkins told CBC that they have worked hard to make the food system in the northeast region of the United States a fair and unbiased one and are excited that their works have been recognized on a national stage.  

In 2017, the two women, farmer-activist, Olivia Watkins, and social entrepreneur, Karen Washington, met at a conference, and after sharing their frustrations about the broken system with each other, realized the need to create an avenue for Black farmers who have a hard time accessing funds for their farms and food businesses, according to Black Farmer Fund.

Today, their mission is to nurture Black community wealth and health by investing in the Black agricultural system in the Northeast. Since its inception, the organization has raised more than $1 million to distribute as loans or grants to its community members, according to the CBC.

Watkins shared that in reality, there are not a lot of financial institutions that Black farmers could trust, and they set out to do just that.

Karen Washington told Essence Magazine, “We as Black people have been waiting for others to save us from an economy and food system that was not meant for us, only to see how it has exploited people of color.”

“The average income of a white farmer in the state is $48,000 a year; for a Black farmer it is minus $906, and these inequities persist across the country,” She explained.

According to her, the racial wealth gap is huge across industries, but more so in the agricultural industry. She says she and her team are hoping to close the racial gap, and make some corrections to the wrongs being done.

Civil Eats told the story of Afro-Puerto Rican farmer, Rafael Aponte, who runs Rocky Acres Community Farm in Freeville, New York. He applied for and received support from the non-profit Black Farmer Fund in the form of a $50,000 grant and a $25,000 loan after the pandemic brought his business down.

With their backing, he was able to shift his direct-to-consumer business model to include a home delivery service, as well as a small on-farm store. He was also able to increase his original 10 acres to 30 acres, which still belong to him and his family.

Explaining how they keep their interest rates so low, their highest is four percent, Watkins shared that they start by familiarizing themselves with the farmers they support, and later find ways to establish services and community support around them.

She added that the farmers and food businesses get a combination of grants and a loan that they could use for whatever they need in their business. “So people will use it to buy tractors to buy land, to pay down a personal debt, to start new projects,” she said.

Washington said to Essence, “What we mean by social capital and communal wealth is the collective power communities of color have when we pool our resources together. Give us capital, resources, and opportunities, and communities you once deemed powerless now become powerful.”

Watkins revealed that she hopes the Award they received will shed light on some of the challenges that are in the food system. She expects that it will inspire others to commit to sustainable practices in their businesses and invest or donate to causes Black Farmer Fund is working on.  

According to the New York Times, 25 of the 30 2023 award winners were people of color.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: June 12, 2023


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