Catch a glimpse of Brian Yazzie’s left arm, and you’ll see cranberries, sumac, and sunflowers near his wrist, blue Hopi corn on his forearm and Navajo squash holding court at his elbow. An illustrated sleeve of more produce and wild game are up next for the right.
Chef Brian Yazzie. / Photo courtesy Brian Yazzie
The inspiration behind the ever-growing tattooed bounty of Native American produce started at age 7 for Yazzie, when the aromatics of Navajo blue corn mush or the sound of a knife tapping on a cutting board drew him into the kitchen to help cook for his large family. Raised by a single mother in Dennehotso, Arizona, located on the northeast part of the Navajo Nation, Yazzie remembers eating traditional and freshly foraged foods like wild spinach and pine nuts but also commodity foods like government cheese, canned chicken, and powdered milk.
“That was what we grew up on,” said Yazzie. “But for me, as long as we had food, we were OK.”
He discovered his passion for cooking but at the time was equally lured into gang life, spending his teenage years in and out of detention centers and county jails and skipping classes, sometimes to just hide out in the home economics classroom.
“I was blessed never to end up in prison or passing on,” said Yazzie, whose sisters would call to tell him to come home because they missed his food. “That was their way of checking up on me. Cooking always kept me out of trouble; it’s what saved my life.”
It’s also what prompted Yazzie and his wife, Danielle Polk, to settle in the Twin Cities in 2013. They wanted opportunity but also to stay connected to Native communities. “The Twin Cities has one of the top five Native urban populations in the U.S.,” said Yazzie, who works closely with the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes there while continuing to help the Dennehotso reservation and other tribal communities around the United States.
In 2014, Yazzie enrolled at Saint Paul College, where his first assignment as a culinary student was to perfect any dish from around the world. “I wanted to make something beyond frybread, but I realized at least 50% of ingredients inside Navajo tacos are native to the Americas,” said Yazzie.
Toppings like summer squash, peppers, and eggplant reminded him of French ratatouille, and he found his dish. More importantly, he discovered the larger influence of Indigenous foods and his passion for reviving, celebrating, and recognizing their ancestral origins.
Chef Yazzie found inspiration in eggplant, summer squash, and peppers, like the one on this circa 1951 seed packet from our collection, during his first assignment as a culinary student. / THF294269
He and Polk started a Native American Club on campus and connected with local chef/author/educator Sean Sherman, CEO of The Sioux Chef, to cater one of their events. “Seventy-five percent of the appetizers he served were foreign to me,” said Yazzie, who went on to work for Sherman before he and Polk started their own catering company, Intertribal Foodways. “We wanted to bring awareness to what’s been overlooked for so long.”
Along with showcasing Native ingredients and techniques, that’s also meant addressing health issues like diabetes that have long affected Indigenous communities. “We try to implement food as medicine,” said Yazzie, now executive chef of the Gatherings Cafe inside the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “Especially during this pandemic, we have to keep our elders strong and safe; a lot of them hold lost languages and teachings.”
After COVID-19 hit, Yazzie and his team started making 200 healthy meals a day for elders in the Twin Cities, established a Dennehotso COVID-19 relief fund, and regularly sent healthy food and supplies to the Apache County community. He works with local farmers and foragers to bring Native ingredients into his food whenever he can, even if it means taking baby steps with dishes like unhealthy frybread (created by Yazzie’s Navajo ancestors while they were in internment camps at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the 1860s). “It’s still on the table across North America as a survival staple for tribal communities, especially during the pandemic, so I had to take a step back and listen to my elders, but we’re getting there,” said Yazzie, who lightens up the wheat-heavy bread with amaranth flour or wild rice flour.
Feed Your Brain free food pop-ups on campus at Hamline University are making healthier pantry and produce options available to hungry college students. Hamline students pictured, from left: Maggie Bruns, Feed Your Brain co-founder Emma Kiley, Maddie Guyott, Feed Your Brain co-founder An Garagiola-Bernier, and Najma Omar. / Photo courtesy Andy King
On October 26, 2017, students of Twin Cities–based Hamline University left work and class to flock to a few benches in a campus parking lot where more than 2,000 pounds of nonperishable food items were stacked. “We ran out in 30 minutes,” recalled An Garagiola-Bernier. A sophomore at the liberal arts school at the time, she organized the donation event, called Feed Your Brain, with fellow students Elise Hanson and Emma Kiley.
Even if the administration couldn’t see it, these three became acutely aware of food insecurity at Hamline after a sit-in over immigration laws earlier that year. “Students posted about immigration laws being changed, and some testified to experiencing so much hunger it was affecting their ability to learn,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
Photo courtesy Hamline University
The three friends wanted to dig deeper. They sent a survey to all undergrads to assess how food insecurity was affecting them, and included questions that addressed sourcing culturally appropriate food and healthy options for those with allergies or chronic conditions. “They were questions nobody was asking but students were really concerned about,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
Of the nearly 360 students who responded, 76% admitted to having trouble accessing food, and findings revealed heavier insecurity among Muslim, Hispanic, trans, and gay/lesbian students.
“We wanted to make the administration, and even the general public, aware that food insecurity is a profound indicator of poverty on college campuses,” said Garagiola-Bernier. “And if someone is food insecure, they’re also likely housing insecure or experiencing trouble with utilities or health care services.”
The findings contradicted Hamline’s reputation, and that of private college campuses in general, as places of privilege where food insecurity is an unexpected issue. “College students fall into a type of policy gap where they’re considered dependents of their parents. However, we know they’re living in financially independent situations,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
The first free food pop-up more than proved that, and a second one was held a month later. Feed Your Brain pop-ups continued monthly over the next two academic years (some intentionally set up in front of administration offices), and the founders continued to research food justice and work with faculty to help find a home for a food pantry.
“It was relentless advocacy and action first, and then asking for forgiveness later if we broke the rules,” said Garagiola-Bernier.
It was important for the pop-ups to offer students access to nonperishable, non-commodity foods and fresh produce. Not only do all three founders suffer from dietary health issues, but Garagiola-Bernier, a descendent of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, has seen the effects of unhealthy foods. “Being a Native woman, food sovereignty is a big issue,” she said. “Being able to choose what goes into your body and the repercussions of that, whether good or bad, and not just have commodity foods switched on you is vital. I’ve seen how having access only to unhealthy foods leads to extreme health conditions.”
In 2019, Feed Your Brain found a permanent home with the help of Kiley, who became the first campus food access AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America), and the organization started hosting dinners and discussions on topics like the stigma of food insecurity. “It was a space where students could have meaningful conversations around topics that are hard to talk about,” said Kiley, who has since graduated and passed the reins of VISTA on to fellow student Sophia Brown.
Photo courtesy Hamline University
This year’s survey solidified the importance of those conversations as a 15% increase in food and financial insecurity was seen among students since COVID-19 hit.
“When we started, food was the easiest entry point into this work. But at its core, it’s always been more about justice and reparations, and we used food to have those conversations,” said Kiley. “There’s a high percentage of students that are food insecure, but it’s about more than that. We have to change the way we think about distributing food so it’s more about caring for your neighbor and less about feeling bad for people or stigmatizing experiences.”
A pattern of Black activism exists, a pattern evident in the work of individuals who dedicate themselves to improving the health and wellbeing of others. These individuals may best be described as “food soldiers.” They arm themselves with evidence from agricultural and domestic science. They build their defenses one market garden at a time. They ally with grassroots activists, philanthropists, and policy makers who support their cause. Past action informs them, and they in turn inspire others to use their knowledge to build a better nation.
June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition, May 1970. / THF620081
Food is one of life’s necessities (along with clothing and shelter). Centuries of legal precedent confirmed the need for employers to provide a food allowance (a ration), as well as clothing and shelter, to “bound” employees. For example, a master craftsman had to provide life’s necessities to an indentured servant, contracted to work for him for seven years, or a landowner was legally required (though adherence and enforcement varied) to provide food, clothing, and shelter to an enslaved person, bound to labor for life. This legal obligation changed after the Civil War with the coming of freedom.
Landowner R.J. Hart scratched out the clause in a contract that obligated him to furnish “healthy and substantial rations” to a freedman in 1868. Hart instead furnished laborer Henry Mathew housing (“quarters”) and fuel, a mule, and 35 acres of land. In exchange, Mr. Mathew agreed to cultivate the acreage, to fix fencing, and to accept a one-third share of the crop after harvest. The contract did not specify what Mr. Mathew could or should grow, but cotton dominated agriculture in the part of Georgia where he lived and farmed after the Civil War.
Cotton is King, Plantation Scene, Georgia, 1895 / THF278900
This new agricultural labor system—sharecropping—took hold across the cotton South. As the number of people laboring for a share of the crops increased, those laborers’ access to healthy foods decreased. Instead of gardening or raising livestock, sharecroppers had to concentrate on cash-crop production—either cotton or more localized specialty crops such as sugar cane, rice, or tobacco. Anything they grew for themselves on their landlord’s property went first to the landlord.
Postcard, "Weighing Cotton in the South," 1924 /THF8577
With no incentive or opportunity to garden, sharecroppers had few options but to buy groceries on credit from local merchants, who often were also the landowners. A failed crop left sharecroppers even more indebted, impoverished, and malnourished. This had lasting consequences for all, but race discrimination further disadvantaged Black Southerners, as sociologist Stewart Tolnay documented in The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms (1999).
As food insecurity increased across the South, educators added agricultural and domestic science to classroom instruction. Many schools, especially land-grant colleges, gained distinction because of this practical instruction. Racism, however, limited Black students’ access to education. Administrators secured private funding to deliver similar content to Black students at private institutes and at a growing number of public teacher-training schools across the South.
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900, when he taught agricultural science at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, as it was known at the time. / THF163071
Lessons in domestic science aligned with agricultural science most obviously in courses in market gardening. A pamphlet, Everyday Life at Hampton Institute, published around 1907, featured students cultivating, harvesting, and marketing fresh fruits and vegetables. Female students also processed and preserved these foods in domestic science classes. Graduates of these programs stood at the ready to share nutrition lessons. Many, however, criticized this training as doing too little to challenge inequity.
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870
Nature Study and Children's Gardens, circa 1910, page 6 / THF213304
Opportunity increased as the canning industry offered new opportunities for farm families to produce perishable fruits and vegetables for shipment to processors, as well as for home use. Black experts in agriculture and domestic science encouraged Black landowning farm families that could afford the canning equipment to embrace this opportunity. These families also had some local influence and could encourage broader community investment in new market opportunities, including construction of community canning centers and purchase of canning equipment to use in them.
The Canning and Preserving of Fruits and Vegetables in the Home, 1912 / THF288039
Nutritionists who worked with Black land-owning farm families reached only about 20 percent of the total population of Black farmers in the South. Meeting the needs of the remaining 80 percent required work with churches, clubs, and other organizations. National Health Week, a program of the National Negro Business League, began in 1915 to improve health and sanitation. This nation-wide effort put the spotlight on need and increased opportunities for Black professionals to coordinate public aid that benefitted families and communities.
Nutritionists advocated for maternal health. This studio portrait features a woman with two children, circa 1920, all apparently in good health./ THF304686
New employment opportunities for nutritionists became available during the mid-1910s. Each Southern state created a “Negro” Division within its Agricultural Extension Service, a cooperative venture between the national government’s U.S. Department of Agriculture and each state’s public land-grant institution. Many hired Black women trained at historically Black colleges across the South. They then went on the road as home demonstration agents, sharing the latest information on nutrition and food preservation.
Woman driving Chevrolet touring car, circa 1930. Note that the driver of this car is unidentified, but she represents the independence that professional Black women needed to do their jobs, which required travel to clients and work-related meetings. / THF91594
Class identity affected tactics. Black nutritionists were members of the Black middle class. They shared their wellness messages with other professional women through “Colored” women’s club meetings, teacher conferences, and farmer institutes.
Home economics teachers and home demonstration agents worked as public servants. Some supervisors advised them to avoid partisanship and activist organizations, which could prove difficult. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), most noted for attacking inequity through legal challenges, first hosted Baby Contests in 1924. These contests had double meanings. For nutritionists, healthy babies illustrated their wellness message. Yet, “Better Baby” contests had a longer history as tools used by eugenicists to illustrate their race theory of white supremacy. The most impoverished and malnourished often benefitted least from these middle-class pursuits.
Button, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1948 / THF1605
Nutrition became increasingly important as science linked vitamins and minerals to good health. While many knew that poor diets could stunt growth rates and negatively affect reproductive health, during the 1920s and 1930s medical science confirmed vitamins and minerals as cures for some diseases that affected children and adults living in poverty. This launched a virtual revolution in food processing as manufacturers began adding iodine to salt to prevent goiters, adding Vitamin D to milk to prevent rickets, and adding Vitamin B3 to flour, breads, and cereals to prevent pellagra.
"Blue Boy Sparkle" Milk Bottle, 1934-1955 / THF169283
It was immediately obvious that these cures could help all Americans. The American Medical Association’s Committee on Foods called for fortifying milk, flour, and bread. The National Research Council first issued its “Recommended Dietary Allowances” in 1941. Information sharing increased during World War II as new wartime agencies reiterated the benefits of enriched foods.
World War II Poster, "Enrichment is Increasing; Cereals in the Nutrition Program," 1942 / THF81900
Black nutritionists played a significant role in this work for many reasons. They understood that enriched foods could address the needs of Black Americans struggling with health concerns. They knew that poverty and unequal access to information could slow adoption among residents in impoverished rural Black communities. Black women trained in domestic science or home economics also understood how racism affected health care by reducing opportunities for professional training and by segregating care into underfunded and underequipped doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals. That segregated system further contributed to ill health by adding to the stress level of individuals living in an unequal system.
Mobilization during World War II offered additional opportunities for Black nutritionists. The program for the 1942 Southern Negro Youth Conference at Tuskegee Institute addressed “concrete problems which the war has thrust in the forefront of American life.” Of the conference’s four organizing principles, two spoke directly to the aims of food soldiers: "How can Negro youth on the farms contribute more to the nation’s war production effort?” and “How can we strengthen the foundations of democracy by improving the status of Negro youth in the fields of: health and housing; education and recreation; race relations; citizenship?”
Program for the 5th All -Southern Negro Youth Conference, "Negro Youth Fighting for America," 1942 / THF99161
Extending the Reach
Food soldiers knew that the poorest suffered the most from malnutrition, but times of need tended to result in the most proactive legislation. For example, high unemployment during the Great Depression led to increased public aid. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built new schools with cafeterias and employed dieticians to establish school lunch programs. Impoverished families also had access to food stamps to offset high food prices for the first time in 1939 through a New Deal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Elizabeth Brogdon, Dietitian at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947 / THF135669
Elizabeth Speirs Brogdon (1915–2008) opened school lunchrooms under the auspices of the WPA in 19 Georgia counties for six years. She qualified for her position with a B.S. in home economics from Georgia State College for Women, the state’s teacher’s college, and graduate coursework in home economics at the University of Georgia (which did not officially admit women until after she was born).
While Mrs. Brogdon could complete advanced dietetics coursework in her home state, Black women in Georgia had few options. The Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, designated as Georgia’s Black land-grant school at the time, did not admit women as campus residents until 1921, and did not offer four-year degrees until 1928. Black women seeking advanced degrees in Home Economics earned them at Northern universities.
Flemmie Pansy Kittrell (1904–1980), a native of North Carolina and graduate of Virginia’s Hampton Institute, became the first Black woman to hold a PhD in nutrition (1938) from Cornell University. Her dissertation, “A Study on Negro Infant Feeding Practices in a Selected Community of North Carolina,” indicated the contribution that research by Black women could have made, if recognized as valid and vital.
Increased knowledge of the role of nutrition in children’s health informed Congress’s approval of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. In addition to this proactive legislation, some schools, including the school in Richmond Hill, Georgia, where dietitian Elizabeth Brogdon worked, continued the tradition of children’s gardens to ensure a fresh vegetable supply.
Child in a School Vegetable Garden, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1940 / THF288200
The pace of reform increased with the arrival of television. The new medium raised the conscience of the nation by broadcasting violent suppression of peaceful Civil Rights demonstrations. This coverage coincided with increased study of the debilitating effects of poverty in the United States. Michael Harrington’s book The Other America (1962) increased support for national action to address inequity, including public health. President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “War on Poverty” became a catalyst for community action, action that Kenneth Bancroft Clark analyzed in A Relevant War Against Poverty (1969).
Michigan examples indicate how agricultural policy expanded public aid during the 1960s. President Johnson’s War on Poverty expanded public programs. This included a new Food Stamp Program in 1964, a recommitment to school lunch programs, and new nutrition education programs, all administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nutritionists, including June L. Sears, played a central role in implementing this work.
“June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition,” May 1970. Rosemary Dishman served as a program aide and Dorothy Ford as supervising aide for Michigan’s Expanded Nutrition Program. / THF620081
Mrs. Sears earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University in Detroit and taught home economics before becoming the “Family Living Agent” in the Cooperative Extension Service of Michigan State University (Michigan’s land-grant university). In that capacity, she, along with Rosemary Dishman and Dorothy Ford, worked with low-income families in two metropolitan Detroit counties (Wayne and Oakland), educating them about nutrition and meal planning. The USDA’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), funded in 1969, sustained this work.
Detroit Mayor Coleman Young explained in February 1975 that as many as 200,000 of his city’s 1.5 million citizens were undernourished. This extreme need existed despite efforts to address food insecurity, documented as an issue that mobilized protestors during the violent summer of 1967. Then, investigations by Detroit-based Focus: HOPE, a community advocacy organization, confirmed that food was more expensive for lower-income Detroiters than for some wealthier suburbanites, a condition now described as a “food desert.”
“Depression's Harsh Impact at the Focus: HOPE Food Prescription Center in Detroit” Photograph, March 1975 / THF620068
Focus: HOPE staff opened a “Food Prescription Center,” stocked with USDA commodities that included enriched farina wheat cereal, canned meats, and other supplements.
Commodity packaging has changed, as has farm policy over the years, but nutrition remains foundational to human health and well-being, and private and public partnerships remain essential to meeting need. The work continues with organizations such as Diversify Dietetics, Inc., which exists “to increase the racial and ethnic diversity in the field of nutrition.”
Food & Freedom
While nutritionists worked with schools, cooperative demonstration programs, and public service organizations, another brigade of food soldiers linked farming to full citizenship.
Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer built her freedom struggle around land ownership and family farming. She founded Freedom Farms Cooperative to provide land to displaced sharecroppers, where they could grow crops and livestock and build self-esteem.
June Sears, Rosemary Dishman, and Dorothy Ford Discussing Women's Nutrition, May 1970 / THF620081
A food soldier is a person who fights for something many of us take for granted: widespread, consistent access to good nutrition. George Washington Carver can be described in this way and is familiar to us at The Henry Ford for his work with the peanut—and his friendship with our founder. Carver’s impact went deeper, including dozens of agricultural pamphlets designed to convey scientific farming methods to rural Black Americans. Food Soldiers: Nutrition and Race Activism, a new pop-up exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, looks at these pamphlets as a starting point for a topic with a consequential history in the 20th and 21st centuries. From our partners at Focus:HOPE to our Entrepreneur in Residence, Melvin Parson, this exhibit celebrates those who have made it their life’s work to ensure that everyone has the ability to meet this most basic of necessities.
Food Soldiers connects with Black History Month (February) as well as Women’s History Month and Nutrition Month (March). The exhibit is an on-site component to a larger initiative that includes digital and virtual elements. Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, will build upon the themes in her blog post Healthy Food to Build Healthy Communities with one on Food Soldiers in coming weeks. You can also look forward to a live Twitter chat on the topic this month.
Food Soldiers is located near the 1930s kitchen in the museum and will be on view through March 31.
What measures do you use to judge whether food is “healthy”? What connections do you see between healthy food and healthy communities? Today the concept of “food security” links nutritious food to individual and community health. This blog features historical resources in the collections of The Henry Ford that help us explore the meaning of “food security.” Many relate to the work of Black agricultural scientist George Washington Carver with Black farm families in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, between the 1890s and 1940s.
What Does "Food Security" Mean to You? A big meal often symbolizes food security. You can almost smell the roast goose (once preferred to turkey) and taste the fresh apples, oranges and bananas in this centerpiece on a family’s holiday table!
Family Seated at Dining Table for a Holiday Meal, circa 1945. THF98738
But does having a big meal on special occasions mean that a person, a family, or a community is “food secure”?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explains that a person is “food secure” if they have regular access to safe and nutritious food in amounts required for normal growth and development and in quantity and calories needed to maintain an active and healthy life.
Students at this South Carolina school all appear healthy. This implies that they have access to a quantity of nutritious food necessary for normal growth. It also implies that they consume it consistently which helped keep them healthy and better able to complete their schoolwork.
School Teacher and Her Students, Pinehurst Tea Plantation, Summerville, South Carolina, circa 1903. THF115900
Historically, many farm families raised much of the food they needed to survive, including meat, vegetables, grains, and fruit. The Mattox family farmed their own land, and they dedicated time and energy to tending their garden and raising their own beans and sweet corn (as pictured in this photograph). Being responsible for your own food supply required careful planning and hard work year-round because families had to grow, process, preserve, and then prepare and consume what they (and their livestock) ate. As long as everything went according to plan, and no disasters arose, a family might be food secure.
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991. THF45319
Many factors led to food insecurity. This indenture for three orphaned children, William (7 yrs old), Dennis (5 yrs old) and Henry (18 months old), specified that they receive “a sufficiency of food.” What did “sufficiency” mean? Consuming calories might provide energy to work, but calories alone did not (and do not) ensure a healthy life. Furthermore, being unfree made these indentured children dependent on someone else who might have other ideas about what “sufficiency of food” meant.
Indenture for "...Colored Children Named William, Dennis & Henry," July 20, 1866. THF8563
Cotton and Food Insecurity Southern farm families often grew cotton as their cash crop. Farm families could not eat cotton though the seed yielded byproducts used in livestock feed, and oil that became a popular cooking ingredient. Landowners and tenant farmers could strategize how much cotton to grow, and could plant corn to feed their hogs, and could dedicate land for a garden. Yet, many families across the rural South, Black and white alike, farmed cotton, and they received a share of the crop they grew as payment for a year of labor. Owners expected these sharecroppers to focus their energy on the cash crop – cotton - and not spend valuable labor on raising their own food. Instead, families became even more economically insecure by buying inexpensive food on credit.
Many sharecroppers and agricultural laborers in the South lived on a diet of meat (pork), meal (cornmeal) and molasses (processed from either sugar cane or sorghum) – the 3M diet. While pork in its many forms (including lard sandwiches) and cornbread with molasses provided much needed calories, the 3M diet did not deliver nutrients needed to maintain health. Niacin deficiencies led to the debilitating disease, pellagra, which afflicted impoverished people across the South and beyond.
Trade Card for Silver Leaf Lard, Swift & Company, 1870-1900. THF225588
Inadequate supplies of food, and diets lacking in nutrients, undermined food security. Racism also undermined access to adequate foods. Graphic arts advertising southern staples often reinforced racist stereotypes rather than reality – that Black women often held positions of authority as Black cooks who prepared meals for others who could afford fresh foods and a varied and nutritious diet.
Advertising Poster, "Old Fashion Molasses," circa 1900. THF8044
Improving rural health required a revolution that reduced the dependency on cotton and increased the types of crops grown for market. George Washington Carver, the first Black American to hold an advanced degree in agricultural science, used his knowledge to try to convince farmers to improve soils to increase cotton yields, but to also raise additional crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts.
George Washington Carver's Graduation Photo from Iowa State University, 1893. THF214111
George Washington Carver’s Work with Peanuts Many associate Carver with peanut butter, but his relationship to peanuts far exceeds peanut butter.
A man in Montreal, Canada, secured a U.S. Patent for peanut candy – a paste sweetened with sugar – in 1884. At that time George W. Carver had been living for five years in Kansas working as a cook and laborer. Between 1886 and 1888, after being refused entry into a college in Kansas, Carver homesteaded near Beeler, Kansas.
Alabama, the location of Tuskegee Institute, where Carver went to work in 1896, ranked fourth in peanut production in 1900 behind Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Farmers in these states raised most of the raw product that Northern food processors like H.J. Heinz dry roasted and ground into peanut butter. This Heinz peanut-butter packaging features a blond blue-eyed girl in a grain field holding lilacs. This did not accurately represent southern farm families raising the high-quality crop that Heinz depended on for its “choicest peanuts.”
Trade Card for H.J. Heinz Company, “Mama’s Favorites,” circa 1905. THF215296
As consumer demand for peanut butter increased, production increased. Nutritionists understood the value of peanuts and of peanut butter as an inexpensive source of plant-based protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Farm families could eat their own home-grown peanuts but could also find a ready market for them.
Women grinding peanuts into peanut butter at Heinz. THF292973
Tuskegee, Alabama was located just north of the peanut-growing region of southeastern Alabama. Carver set about to convince Black landowning farmers in and around Tuskegee to take advantage of the market opportunity. Orchestrating a more complete overhaul of cotton-dependent Alabama agriculture required convincing white landowners to free sharecroppers from requirements to grow only cotton. Others sought a revolution in civil rights through legal means. Even though many criticized the self-help message, families who ate better could channel new-found energy toward securing civil rights and social justice.
Carver appealed to his constituents in writing. He linked concerns about health and nutrition to economic independence in his May 1917 pamphlet, “How to Grow the Peanut.”
Bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, 1917. THF213329
Carver described the peanut as having “limitless possibilities.” The “nuts possess a wider range of food values than other legumes.” THF213331
Carver described 105 ways to prepare the peanut – ground, boiled, roasted, and as a main ingredient in soups, salads, candy, and replacement for chicken, and other meats. THF213335
Crop Innovations Carver applied his life-long fascination with plants to identify crops in addition to the peanut that had the potential to displace cotton. He used this weeder to collect specimens. He studied their molecular composition, extracted byproducts, and devised new uses for them.
Weeder Used by George Washington Carver at Greenfield Village, 1942; Gift of Henry and Clara Ford. THF152234.
Carver promoted crops through short publications that stressed financial and food security.
Some crops occurred naturally, the wild plum, for instance, which landowning farmers might have on their property but that they undervalued as a food source.
Bulletin, “43 Ways to Save the Wild Plum Crop,” 1917. THF288049
During World War I, Carver promoted crops that Alabama farmers grew, but that could be processed into alternatives to wheat flour. THF290275
During the 1920s, Carver urged farmers to grow even more crops that they could eat, such as sweet potatoes.
How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes, 1925. THF37735
During the 1930s, as economic conditions worsened during the Great Depression, Carver published a pamphlet focused on growing the tomato, a vitamin- and mineral-rich food source.
Bulletin, “How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table,” 1936. THF288043
Carver, Food Byproducts, and Food Security Carver’s research into plant byproducts and new foods from farm crops caught the attention of Henry Ford.
Carver and Clara and Henry Ford corresponded about topics as practical as gravy made from soy and peanut flour, and as personal as digestive systems.
Letter from George Washington Carver to Clara Ford, March 19, 1940. THF213553
Henry Ford recognized Carver’s inspiration by naming the Nutrition Laboratory in his honor on 21 July 1942.
George Washington Carver and Edsel Ford at the Carver Nutrition Laboratory, Dearborn, Michigan, 1942. THF213823
Peanut Oil: A Byproducts Many Uses Carver explained that peanut oil (separated from peanut paste) was “one of the best-known vegetable oils.” You can see oil, sitting atop the peanut paste, if you look for “natural peanut butter” at your local grocery store. Food chemists experimented with how to prevent the oil from separating from the ground peanut paste. Preventing separation requires hydrogenation, which changes the chemical composition of unsaturated fats and turns them into saturated fats. Heinz drafted advertisements to promote the new hydrogenated peanut butter to consumers as this example indicates.
The varied uses of peanut oil that Carver promoted increased market opportunities for impoverished farmers which increased their food security. To that end, Carver experimented with peanut oil as a rub to relieve the discomfort that polio patients suffered. While science could not link the peanut oil itself to positive benefits, the process of messaging the oil into the patient reduced pain by manipulating the muscles.
Photographic print, Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson and Frank Campsall Inspect Bottles of Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938. THF213794
Healthy Communities Building healthy communities started with individuals but grew through collective effort. Farm families, schools, businesses, church groups, and investors each committed resources to the cause. National intervention furthered local goals. The 1946 National School Lunch Act increased access to good food for all school children, not just those who could help themselves.
Photographic Print, Cafeteria at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947. THF135671
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.