Cornelius Blanding grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. “The cradle of the civil rights movement,” he calls it. His childhood was spent in a low-resource community where none of the infrastructure was owned by his family, his neighbors, or their friends. “We didn’t own housing or surrounding businesses with the exception of things that were created within the homes and churches,” Blanding describes. “That’s always been consistent with black communities, especially in the South.”
After pursuing an education in business and economic development in Alabama and Florida, Blanding came across an organization called the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Members of the Federation invited Blanding to assist with their business development programs. “I provided education on business planning,” he explains simply. The hope was to get small businesses like car washes, hair salons, barber shops, etc., to participate in economic development efforts in the South at the time. “Many communities weren’t ready for that kind of development. The capacity and amenities are small,” he continues. It was at this point in his career that Blanding recognized the need to build on strengths of communities to steer them where they needed to go. Shortly afterward, he moved back to Atlanta and joined the administrative offices of the Federation to spearhead their international programs.
“My focus was on small businesses within the African American communities to develop them…build them to a greater point.” Blanding spent 10 years connecting the Federation’s farmers and business owners to regional and international efforts that were facing a similar lack in education and ownership. He spent another decade managing and directing field operations, followed by a promotion to Deputy Director of the Federation. Four years ago, Blanding accepted the title of Executive Director. In June of 2019, Blanding was awarded a James Beard Leadership Award for his dedicated work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Throughout these years of dedicated work, Blanding’s mission has remained the same—to be a catalyst for the development of communities through cooperative development, land retention, and advocacy.
“Our organization is one part of a bigger movement,” Blanding expounds. “It’s about organizing small farmers and land owners into cooperatives that can be used as problem solving tools in the food movement.”
Founded at the height of the civil rights movement, the Federation recognized that forming cooperatives were tools of necessity. Be it for social, political, or economic needs, people needed to be educated in the art of organization. This line of thinking applies to modern-day politics and socio-economic issues as well. For example, when Hurricane Katrina struck, the Federation spent time with the fishermen that were severely affected. “They were black, white, Croatian, Vietnamese,” Blanding recalls. “We went to their parish and educated folks about cooperatives as a form for disaster recovery. Shortly after, they began working together to support each other.” This group of fishermen pooled their resources to build their own dock, which created a sense of ownership and infrastructure. “No longer will they be exploited [by] docks they didn’t own,” Blanding states. “One or two fishermen couldn’t do that but as a community, with our support, they could.” The Federation taught them the simple formula—Build an infrastructure = Empower the community.
The Federation’s daily struggle is, of course, the financing of this work. “We have to do it through government, foundations, and individuals,” Blanding describes. “We don’t want to end up accommodating one in particular. Administrations change. Policies change. Programs change.” Here’s how you can help.
The United States of America is unlike any other country in the world for many reasons, one of which is that private land owners currently own more than the government. The choice of who owns the land and what is done with it is imperative to understand. When a farmer loses their land, it’s more likely than not converted into developments and the land is a loss for the farming community. The farmers impacted the most by land loss in the United States are black and brown farmers. Organizations like the Federation and Soul Fire Farm recognize this issue and are working nationally to bring about change to the laws and reclaim land that rightfully belongs to those who can do good for our agricultural systems.
Chefs across the country are coming together to do their part for supporting farmers. When direct relationships are built between chefs and farmers, it leads to a healthier and more fruitful business model. According to Chef Rob Rubba, of upcoming sustainable-focused restaurant Oyster Oyster, when farmers and chefs have genuine interaction, powerful relationships are formed leading to a better understanding of each other’s work and the community they can affect. “If a farmer is working with restaurants, they’re probably not dealing with government subsidies to grow commodity crops. This leads to healthier farming practices and a diversified revenue stream,” Rubba clarifies.
By working with local restaurants that consider seasonality and local sourcing as part of their mission, farmers have the opportunity for crop planning and the ability to sell good product year round. This is, however, a best case scenario. The reality for farmers is that many of them receive the smallest part of the dollar that goes towards the food they grow and sell.
Even when farmers work directly with restaurants, they’re often still battling land ownership or leasing issues, struggling to feed their own families, and have limited access to education, community support, and fair wages. Why should we care? Blanding says it best: “Our air. Our soil. Our water. These problems are what we as a people share. Our farmers, our black farmers, they are the vanguards. What they do impacts our daily lives. When we figure that out, we get a better understanding of something as simple as food.”
James Beard award-winning chef and national bestselling author Kwame Onwuachi says, “It’s very important to work with local purveyors when possible. It strengthens the local community, reduces emissions and green house gases, and provides opportunities to garner relationships with local artisans.”
As consumers, we’re empowered with choice and knowledge. We can make informed decisions at grocery stores, opting for produce that is seasonal and found locally. We can ask questions of our chefs and restaurants to understand that the menu we deem “pricey” could be a reflection of fair wages and wellness to all the people involved with getting the ingredients onto the plates. We can begin to discern which restaurants are using terms like “sustainable” and “farm-fresh” as buzz words and which restaurants genuinely mean it. It’s a matter of discovery, understanding, and dialogue. And, for us at Un-Plated, it’s about shining a spotlight on the individuals and organizations that work tirelessly in support of these endeavors.