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Co-founders Become the First African Americans to Receive a James Beard Humanitarian Award

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The Humanitarian Award was given to Karen Washington and Olivia Watkins at the just concluded James Beard Awards. The two are the first African Americans to receive the prestigious prize.

According to Black Enterprise, the James Beard Award, also known as the “Oscars of the food world,” recognizes 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 northeastern United States fair and unbiased, and they are thrilled that their efforts have been recognized on a national scale.

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

Today, their purpose is to foster Black community wealth and health through investing in the Northeast’s Black agricultural sector. According to the CBC, the organization has raised more than $1 million since its founding to offer as loans or grants to its community members.

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 inequality is wide throughout industries, but especially in agriculture. She and her colleagues hope to bridge the racial divide and right the wrongs that have been done.

Rafael Aponte, an Afro-Puerto Rican farmer who runs Rocky Acres Community Farm in Freeville, New York, was featured on Civil Eats. After the pandemic destroyed his business, he appealed for and received assistance from the non-profit Black Farmer Fund in the form of a $50,000 grant and a $25,000 loan.

He was able to expand his direct-to-consumer business strategy to include a home delivery service as well as a small on-farm store with their help. He was also able to expand his original 10 acres to 30 acres, which he and his family now own.

Watkins explained how they maintain their loan rates so low, with the maximum being four percent, by first becoming acquainted with the farmers they support, and then finding methods to develop services and community support around them.

Olivia Watkins (Left) and Karen Washington (Right)


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.

“What we mean by social capital and communal wealth is the collective power communities of color have when we pool our resources together,” Washington told Essence. Give us wealth, resources, and opportunity, and communities that were once thought to be helpless will become powerful.”

Watkins expressed her hope that the Award they got will raise focus on some of the difficulties in the food chain. She hopes it will motivate others to commit to sustainable business practices and to invest in or give to charities supported by the Black Farmer Fund.

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

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