Tanikka Cunningham lends a hand to the nation's black farmers—and inspires a new generation to make its living off the land.
While Tanikka Cunningham loved her job helping small farms sell their produce in urban areas, she couldn't help noticing that few of the farmers she met were African-American. The granddaughter of a sharecropper, Cunningham knew that dwindling numbers of black farmers meant a loss not just of opportunities but of culture. "Every group's heritage is rooted in food," she says. "Black farmers are often the only ones who grow vegetables like okra, which are popular in our community. If they no longer exist, how will I pass down my grandmother's stew recipe to my children?" The statistics were alarming: Less than 2 percent of the country's farms are operated by blacks, versus 14 percent in 1920.
Through her work with her D.C.-based nonprofit, Healthy Solutions, Cunningham knew how hard it was for any small farmer to eke out a living. So she launched the Save Black Farmers Project to help African-American growers who weren't Internet savvy find the resources they need to weather hard times. Soon farmers were calling about everything from how to cut through governmental red tape to where to purchase new seeds. The project now assists more than 600 black farmers in seven states.
But Cunningham also wants to inspire young people. Last year she launched the inaugural Black Agriculture Awareness Week to celebrate African-Americans' rich farming tradition. She's also encouraging buyers like Walmart to purchase from black growers. "Many say, 'We never knew this was an issue,'" notes Cunningham. "And I say, 'We haven't done enough!' My staff is like, Calm down. There's always next year."