2019 Leadership Award Winner Leah Penniman
Co-Executive Director and Program Manager of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NYRachel Tepper Paley
April 29, 2019
Honored for her work facilitating powerful food sovereignty programs, including farmer training for black and brown people, a subsidized farm food distribution program for communities living under food apartheid, and domestic and international organizing toward equity in the food system.
As a young mother with two children, high school science teacher Leah Penniman and her husband were living in a corner of southern Albany in New York when she realized finding fresh food was nearly impossible. Her zip code had been classified as a food desert by the USDA—Penniman prefers the term “food apartheid,” because it more accurately describes the difficulties that marginalized communities face in finding healthful ingredients—and she was forced to resort to drastic measures to properly feed her family.
“In an effort to provide our children with fresh, healthy food, the only way we could access vegetables was to join a CSA, which is community supported agriculture subscription program with a farm,” Penniman explained. But without a car or available public transportation, the family had to walk more than two miles each way to pick up their vegetables. “The cost was more than our rent,” she said. “That's just an outrageous barrier for a family to have to surmount to access fresh food. So our neighbors encouraged us to start the farm. They said, ‘When are you going to start a farm for the people?’”
In 2010, Soul Fire Farm was born. Originally intended to be a community farm to service her old neighborhood, over time the operation has grown into a sprawling organization with programming aimed at ending racism and injustice in the food system. Penniman’s background makes the evolution a natural fit: she’s been farming since 1996, when as a teen she got involved with Boston-based program The Food Project.
“I completely fell in love with farming amidst the turmoil and tumble of being a mixed race black teen who grew up in a predominantly rural conservative white town and really struggled with a lot of racial aggression and bullying from my peers,” Penniman said. Together with the other teen participants, Penniman helped reclaim vacant lots and transform them into urban farmland, in turn providing that food to low-income farmer’s markets and soup kitchens. “This was an opportunity that I had to be with other youth who looked like me, [and] to work together to do something very tangible and beneficial for the earth and the community.”
Years later, those experiences helped shape the programming at Soul Fire Farm. “Parents who were getting our food delivery said, 'Our kids, who are mostly black and brown youth, are getting harassed by the police in the summertime. They don't have things to do. Can you create programs for them?’” Penniman recalled. These days, Soul Fire Farm welcomes at least 7,000 people per year from the U.S. and beyond from wide-ranging backgrounds, many of them black, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian. Participants learn farming and cooking skills, receive leadership training, and learn about social justice activism.
“Anything new we do is because we were asked to do it,” Penniman said. For example, Soul Fire Farm is in the process of kickstarting a new organization called the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which is aimed at helping its alumni overcome institutional, often racially-motivated barriers that make it difficult for people of color to get what they need to start farming. The overall goal of the program—and for all of Soul Fire Farm’s programming, for that matter—is to create more leaders.
“The James Beard Leadership Award is not just for me,” Penniman said. “I really take it as a win for the returning generation of black and brown farmers,” she continued. “We’re reclaiming our right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. I feel really excited about the visibility and support that we're getting.”
The 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients will be honored at a ceremony in association with Deloitte on May 5 in Chicago. Learn more about all our 2019 Leadership Award winners.
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.