Food History

Last Week Wasn't the First Time Ben & Jerry's Stood Up for Black Lives

October 10, 2016

Last Thursday, Ben & Jerry's released a statement delcaring its support of the Black Lives Matter movement. "All lives do matter," their statement reads. "But all lives will not matter until Black lives matter." This pissed a large swath of America's pearl-clutching netizenry off, with self-described longtime fans threatening boycotts. It also prompted a deluge of adulation, even spawning an amusing trending topic, #BenandJerrysNewFlavor on Friday.

There's a dose of healthy suspicion in this trending topic—what can we really expect of our corporations? Is Ben & Jerry's the Matt McGorry of woke corporations? Well, consider what some (see below) have already pointed out on Twitter. The company has something of a history of valuing black lives and labor in a way few other corporations have. Look back to their initiative for Georgia's black pecan farmers in the early 1990s, an episode that isn't talked about too much these days.

In her 2013 memoir The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear, former Georgia State Director of Rural Development Shirley Sherrod recalls how Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's, had approached her about sourcing pecans directly from Georgia's black farmers in the early nineties. Following the devastation produced by the drought of 1988, the plight of black farmers in the state was especially dire. The drought had compounded the garden variety racism that black farmers had come to face as a thoroughfare of their practice by then. By then, Ben & Jerry's had long been producing its butter pecan ice cream, but Cohen wanted to source these pecans directly from black farmers whose harvests had been affected badly by the drought.

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The company had tried something similar in 1990, when it sought to diversify its supplier pool through getting black farmers in Georgia to supply peaches for the company's Georgia Peach ice cream, only to find that there weren't many black farmers who raised peaches in the state. They'd gotten this idea when Ben & Jerry's representatives had met Ralph Paige, then director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, in the mid-1980s during a Farm Aid concert; Sherrod credits Farm Aid with jolting the public consciousness into the understanding of the systemic roadblocks that farmers, particularly black ones, faced.

Sherrod and a representative from Ben & Jerry's were given two directives: find black pecan farmers, and find a processing plant for those pecans (after all, pecans have to be de-shelled before they can be stuck in ice cream). The process was unexpectedly difficult, and they found themselves stymied by most processing plant owners, most of whom were white. "While trying to find a processing plant, we encountered racism," Sherrod writes. "We couldn't find anyone to help us. They all saw an opportunity for themselves but not so much for our farmers."

Encountering this fierce resistance eventually led Sherrod to realize that processing plant managers wouldn't budge to comply with her and Ben & Jerry's demands. She eventually realized that farmers needed a processing plant of their own, and Ben & Jerry's took the steps to realize Sherrod's vision. To counter this antagonism from processing plants, Ben & Jerry's agreed to pay market price, plus a premium, to farmers so that they could acquire their own processing facility in 1997. This processing plant would soon become the Southern Alternatives Agricultural Cooperative, owned by black women who grew and processed shelled pecans bought directly from black farmers.

In her memoir, Sherrod chalks this up to a successful campaign in which a corporate entity expressed interest in aiding black farmers during a period when their livelihoods had been thrown into peril. It's been nearly two decades since all of this happened, of course. But given this history, Ben & Jerry's has shown that it's capable of going beyond corporate lip service. It's set a precedent for itself to actually do the hard work of fostering allyship wth black lives and the indignities they face in this country—something that hasn't exactly changed in twenty years.

Do you remember Ben & Jerry's support of black farmers in Georgia? Let us know in the comments!

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.