20 Food Justice Heroines to Celebrate This Int’l Women’s Day

Danielle Nierenberg
This Sunday, March 8, is International Women’s Day. Since 1911, people around the world have observed International Women’s Day honour women’s advancements and highlight the barriers women still encounter.
Today, women hold over half of agricultural science degrees globally, and 70 percent of Africa’s food is grown by women. Meanwhile, women around the world consistently face sexual harassment, pay gaps, and obstacles when trying to purchase their own land. Across the food system, women are fighting for better wages, working conditions, and food access for people of all genders, ages, and races.


This week, Food Tank is highlighting 20 of our heroines, from farmers to researchers to fast-food workers, building a more equitable food system: Ali Berlow, An Garagiola-Bernier, Jyoti Fernandes, Tanya Fields, Lara Gilmore, Rosalinda Guillén, Marie Haga, Navina Khanna, Frances Moore Lappé, Toni Tipton-Martin, Elizabeth Mpofu, Maureen Muketha, Esther Ngumbi, Jamila Norman, Leah Penniman, Bettina Elias Siegel, Haile Thomas, Shantel Walker, Karen Washington, and Geum-Soon Yoon.
Contributing Author: Gabby Lozano
It’s no secret that women all over the world play an important role in food systems—in cultivating gardens for school canteens in Cote d’Ivoire, producing more than half of the food supply for rural areas in South America, establishing seed banks in India, and developing agricultural technologies in Silicon Valley.
Worldwide, women make up at least 43 percent of the agriculture sector—and in some countries, they make up 70 percent of all farmers. In the United States, the percentage of women-led farms is rising, from only 13 percent of farms in 2012 to nearly 30 percent in 2017.
Yet women often face barriers like sexual harassment, lower wages, and changes to the environment that threaten their personal and economic wellbeing. And the lack of land ownership can delay any advancement towards establishing equal rights for women in the agricultural industry. For example, women own less than 20 percent of land, and in over 90 countries, women lack equal rights to land; for developing countries, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that only 10 percent of women own land.
Thankfully, there are thousands of organizations and individuals around the globe working to improve equality in the food system. In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, Food Tank is honouring 20 women (among the tens of thousands of others we could have also chosen!) who are working to break down these barriers by leading organizations, projects, and movements in food justice.
1. Ali Berlow
Ali Berlow addresses factors that challenge the food system through literature and organizing. Berlow published The Food Activist Handbook, which provides suggestions to improve local economies and community food systems, like compost initiatives. Berlow also wrote The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse, which aims to create a community-based model for poultry slaughter machines. Additionally, Berlow founded Island Grown Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to help small farmers in Martha’s Vineyard, and the magazine Edible Vineyard. Currently, Berlow co-hosts The Local Food Report and studies Food and Agriculture Law and Policy at Vermont Law School.
2. An Garagiola-Bernier
An Garagiola-Bernier, a recent graduate from Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, worked to improve food insecurity for college students at her school. Garagiola-Bernier co-founded Feed Your Brain, a student-led coalition at Hamline University that seeks to assist students facing food insecurity. During Garagiola-Bernier’s time at Hamline, the program provided 680 kilograms, or 1,500 pounds, of food to 200 students every month at pop-up food pantries. Garagiola-Bernier received the Newman Civic Fellowship, earned a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and wrote for outlets such as Community College Daily, Fox News, and the Washington Post on food insecurity.
3. Jyoti Fernandes
Jyoti Fernandes is part of the Landworkers’ Alliance, a grassroots union for farmers and land-based workers in the United Kingdom that promotes dignity and living wages for land-workers and access to healthy, affordable food for communities. Fernandes is currently working on research to understand how agricultural subsidies must change in a post-Brexit situation to promote localized food systems, agroecology, and food sovereignty.
4. Tanya Fields
As founder and executive director of The Black Feminist Project, Tanya Fields is a food justice activist and educator. Fields started the Libertad Urban Farm, an organic urban garden in the Bronx, as an effort to address the lack of nutritious food and food education accessible to low-income people, specifically underserved women of colour. Additionally, Fields works closely with The Hunts Point Farm Share, connecting city residents to high-quality local produce through community-supported agriculture.
5. Lara Gilmore
Along with her husband Chef Massimo Bottura, Lara Gilmore launched Food for Soul, a nonprofit organization that attempts to redefine the traditional soup kitchen and raise awareness for hunger and food waste. As the president, Gilmore aims to accomplish this by building Refettorios, community hubs that feed families nutritional meals and provide a space for inclusivity. According to Food for Soul, the program impacts over 80,000 people across the world. Gilmore also speaks widely on how people can use food to help each other.
6. Rosalinda Guillén
Rosalinda Guillén serves as the Executive Director of Community to Community Development (C2P) to support food and agriculture justice and immigration reform in the northwest United States. Guillén initially worked with Cesar Chavez and represented farmers at the local and state level as the National Vice President of the United Farm Workers of America. Through policy organization, Guillén aspires to “strengthen cross-border alliances” that support farmworker and immigrant rights.
7. Marie Haga
Marie Haga is the Associate Vice President, External Relations and Governance Department of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and previously the Executive Director of the Crop Trust, a nonprofit organization striving to promote crop diversity and sustainability. Haga has worked in Norwegian politics as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Director of Renewable Energy in the Federation of Norwegian Industries and previously occupied three ministerial positions, including Minister of Petroleum and Energy. Haga is trusted as a leader in activism to protect the planet and the food system, particularly for her advocacy in protecting the world’s biodiversity and supporting small farmers.
8. Navina Khanna
Navina Khanna serves as the Founding Director for the Health, Environment, Agriculture, and Labor (HEAL) Alliance. This nonprofit coalition of multi-racial and multi-sector food and farm organizations works to improve food systems in various communities within the U.S. Now based in Oakland, California, Khanna sits on the board of Urban Tilth, assists the Real Food Media Project, and organizes with the #Asians4BlackLives movement. In 2014, Khanna earned a James Beard Leadership Award.
9. Frances Moore Lappé
Frances Moore Lappé works as a writer, leader, and speaker focusing on democracy and food politics. Lappé founded the Institute for Food and Development Policy, or Food First, which aims to eliminate hunger and promote food sovereignty through education and social movements. Lappé also started the Small Planet Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to establish living democracy. Lappé has written 18 books, including Diet for a Small Planet, which explores pathways for sustainable, healthy diets. Lappé will release the 50th-anniversary edition next spring. She has also earned numerous awards, including the Right Livelihood Award, Women’s National Book Association, and James Beard Humanitarian of the Year.

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10. Toni Tipton-Martin
Toni Tipton-Martin, based in Baltimore, Maryland, works on a series of endeavours to promote food justice. Martin served as the President of Southern Foodways Alliance Board of Directors and was the first African American food editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Additionally, Martin founded SANDE, a nonprofit organization that works with children to combat childhood obesity while supporting African American cuisine. Martin’s current projects are Jubilee and The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbook, two books attempting to trace current attitudes surrounding African American cuisine.
11. Elizabeth Mpofu
Based in the Masvingo Province of Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Mpofu is the General Coordinator at La Via Campesina (LVC). This coalition of 182 organizations from 81 countries strives to promote peasants’ rights and unite agricultural workers from around the world to establish a more just and sustainable food system. Mpofu engages as a member of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), serves as a board member of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, and represents as a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Special Ambassador in Africa for Pulses. Additionally, Mpofu operates a small farm in Zimbabwe and speaks about agriculture policies at multiple organizations, such as the Bund Naturschutz (Association for the Protection of Nature). In 2017, Mpofu received a Grow Ahead Scholarship that funded her agroecology projects.
12. Maureen Muketha
Maureen Muketha is a Kenyan nutritionist and founder of Tule Vyema, a community organization that focuses on eradicating malnutrition and maximizing food accessibility in Kenya. Tule Vyema teaches women about growing nutritious food through sack farming and consuming sufficient nutrients from locally grown food. Additionally, Tule Vyema allows unemployed women to sell their surplus food, which raised some families’ monthly incomes. The organization’s work increased BMIs, reduced the rate of anaemia during menstruation, and de-wormed 1,200 children.
13. Esther Ngumbi
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is the Assistant Professor of Entomology; African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and founded Oyeska Greens, an agricultural start-up in Kenya. The organization helps women gain access to technology and training that properly equip them for food sustainability, especially amid climate change. Oyeska Greens helped 31 farmers and plans to continue assisting more communities by constructing greenhouses that produce green peppers and tomatoes. Apart from the organization, Dr. Ngumbi advocates on the grassroots level for more affordable government programs that teach women how to farm.
14. Jamila Norman
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Jamila Norman is a world-renowned urban farmer and food activist. In 2010, Norman founded Patchwork City Farms, a certified naturally grown organic urban farm where Norman farms—and provides the local community with safe and nutritious foods. Norman is also co-founder of EAT Where You Are, an initiative that aims to spread awareness of the importance of including fresh foods in diets, and is a contributing author to OASIS (Oldways Africana Soup in Stories). Plus, Norman is the manager and one of the founding members of the South West Atlanta Growers Cooperative, which supports Black farmers of Atlanta in creating an equitable food system that encompasses environmental sustainability and cultural responsibility.
15. Leah Penniman
Leah Penniman is an educator, farmer/peyizan, author, and food justice activist. Penniman co-founded Soul Fire Farm in 2011 and focuses on ending racism in the food system. As Co-Director of Soul Fire Farm, Penniman leads food sovereignty programs such as farmer training for people of colour, a subsidized farm food distribution program for people living under food apartheid, and domestic and international organizing toward equity in the food system. Penniman recently released Farming While Black, a book that provides people with African heritage a guide to small-scale farming.
16. Bettina Elias Siegel
Bettina Elias Siegel advocates for improving school lunch and children’s health on her blog The Lunch Tray. Siegal has also created online petitions around school lunch, gaining hundreds of thousands of signatures. These petitions caused the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to change their policy on ground meat in schools and eliminate processed chicken from China from school lunch meals. Recently, Siegal published Kid Food, which examines the influence of unhealthy eating during a movement that attempts to educate children on making healthy choices.
17. Haile Thomas
At 12 years old, Haile Thomas founded HAPPY(Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth), a non-profit that works with children in underserved communities by implementing programs that prevent health issues and empowers people to make healthy lifestyle choices. Thomas teaches plant-based nutrition and culinary education. She has personally engaged over 15,000 kids since 2010 and also has a large Instagram following and a popular podcast. Thomas’ forthcoming book, Living Lively, provides vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, and egg-free recipes to spread HAPPY’s message of using food to promote health and wellness.
18. Shantel Walker
Shantel Walker, a fast-food worker at Papa John’s, strives to empower fast-food workers through social justice movements that aim to establish ethical working conditions for low-wage employees. As an organizer for Fight for 15, Walker fought to raise the minimum wage to US$15. Additionally, Walker’s work contributed to the establishment of Fair Work Week Laws, which became effective in November 2017. These policies attempt to prevent abusive scheduling practices and allow employees the option to donate their paychecks to a charity. Walker also helps organize grassroots movements like Fast Food Justice and Fast Food Forward.
19. Karen Washington
Karen Washington, a farmer and community activist, wants to build a different agricultural narrative inclusive of all races, genders, and sexualities. Washington created Rise and Root Farm to be a place of healing for diverse and marginalized communities—particularly important today, as black farmers work to call attention to not only their own contributions to the modern food system but also the impact of the slave trade on the development of global food chains. “Agriculture must be inclusive in its diversity,” Washington tells Food Tank.
20. Geum-Soon Yoon
As the President and Founder of Korea Women Farmers Association, Geum-Soon Yoon aims to empower poor and female farmers in South Korea. Yoon worked to facilitate the first reunification conference between North and South Korean farmers. Additionally, Yoon advocates to improve international policies that affect the environment and farmers’ rights. Prior to this endeavour, Yoon started daycare for farmers’ children in Choong-ju and Sung-ju, which spread to other villages.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.)