Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm: Civil Rights Leaders and Pioneers in the Fight Against Food Insecurity

By Parker Gilkesson

Throughout our nation’s history, African Americans have left an indelible mark with their tremendous contributions to every part of our society—including the fight against poverty and hunger. As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s remember and uphold the legacies of two pioneers—Fannie Lou Hamer and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm—who used their platforms to fight hunger.

As a grassroots activist during the Civil Rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer is widely known for her work to transform voting rights. But, in 1969, Ms. Hamer launched an initiative that helped to create the foundation for public benefit programs today. Ms. Hamer, who had her own experience with hunger—as the child of a sharecropper—created the Freedom Farm Cooperative to address extreme hunger in the Mississippi Delta by empowering poor farmworkers. With a $10,000 donation from Measure to Measure (a Wisconsin-based non-profit), she invested in 40 acres of farmland and 50 pigs to ensure families would have the resources and food they needed. Those who participated in the co-op and tilled the land, received a share of the harvest. Families could also participate by tending to a pregnant pig from the “pig bank” until she produced babies, which were donated to other families in need.

The program was one of the first of its kind, taking a grassroots approach that allowed people to reach self-sufficiency. Within two years, the co-op was able to purchase 640 more acres, and the “pig bank” produced thousands of pigs. Through the co-op, Fannie Lou Hamer created a wonderful example of how to help a community eradicate hunger by allowing members to learn skills and become self-sufficient and economically stable.

Shirley Chisholm, who is the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, also committed herself to protecting the poor and fighting against food insecurity. Representative Chisholm played a pivotal role in pushing legislation—including the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act—that helped create what we now know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), both of which have led to increased food security throughout the United States today.

The fight for food security continues. This month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a proposed rule that would take away nutrition assistance through SNAP from over 755,000 Americans—disproportionately affecting people of color. We know that stricter policies to take away assistance from people who don’t meet work requirements are racially coded. They perpetuate false stereotypes erroneously asserting that most benefit recipients are people of color who don’t want to work. This proposal does not account for the fact that people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with poor access to jobs, have low-quality jobs, have higher unemployment rates and work part-time involuntarily—they work part-time due to uncontrolled circumstances, but would work full-time if possible. Consequently, when stricter rules requiring reporting of steady work hours as a condition of receiving food assistance under SNAP are passed, they disproportionately affect communities of color. You can fight this proposal by submitting your own comment as part of the rulemaking process describing why the proposed rule is harmful.

The comment period only lasts 60 days, so please weigh in on the SNAP rule by April 2. Our partners at the Food Research Action Center have set up an action page where you can learn more and submit a comment using their template, adding your own words about the importance of SNAP. Honor the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm during Black History Month by raising your voice to promote food security.