by Nicole Jenkins
Looking back in time, our US agriculture system was built on and perpetuated traditional gender roles, placing women in the part of the farmer’s wife who kept house, not the farmer herself. While keeping house is as important and admirable a job as any other (and one often done in tandem with other jobs), women have fought for the ability to decide what impact they will make on the world. As we consider Women’s History Month and the role women (inclusive of all who identify as women) play in our food system, on-farm and throughout the supply chain, it is clear that women are, in reality, the backbone of this system and are serving as a major catalyst for the transformation it badly needs.
According to the US Census of Agriculture, as of 2017, 36% of US farmers were women, and the farms they operated accounted for 43% of US farmland.1 Women also make up 52% of restaurant workers and 30-50% of culinary staff.2,3 However, in certain higher-level roles, women are not as well represented. In the culinary world, women make up less than a quarter of head chefs and cooks.4 Additionally, only 16% of senior-level roles among food and beverage manufacturing companies are held by women.5 Even when women receive these higher-level positions, the gender pay gap remains.
Tremendous progress has been made on the representation of women in our food system, but evidently, there is still trailblazing ahead of us.
As a woman striving to contribute to this change, I find myself looking to the radical women in food who are creating change throughout the food system. The following are just a few women who have inspired me in my work toward a more holistically sustainable food system. While this list is limited in number and to women in the United States, I want to acknowledge the incredible impacts women are making in our food system all around the globe.
In founding the Vegan Women Summit in 2020, Jennifer Stojkovic brought together her passions for food system change, tech, and women’s empowerment and equality. Through the summit, she has focused on the diverse and equitable representation of women leaders, partnerships with major tech brands, and creating education and empowerment for women in their careers.
As a farmer and food justice activist, Karen Washington has made an impact in her borough of the Bronx and beyond. She co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS) in 2010, an organization that supports urban and rural Black growers, and is also on the Board of Directors for the Black Farmer Fund and Soul Fire Farm. Since 2014, Washington has co-owned Rise & Root Farm in New York, where she is an organic grower.
Rachel Dreskin is the Chief Executive Officer of the Plant Based Foods Association, the first and only US trade association representing the nation’s leading plant-based food companies. Previously, she served as the Executive Director of Compassion in World Farming, partnering with major food companies to create and improve their animal welfare policies. Rachel is also a board member of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. Her work has harnessed the power of food businesses to make meaningful change.
Dr. Temple Grandin
A scientist and animal behaviorist, Temple Grandin is well-known for advocating for animal welfare and autism acceptance. She has been an impactful proponent for more humane treatment of livestock. The systems she has designed are used globally, and her research has helped reduce the stress endured by animals in handling. Additionally, Temple has worked to foster acceptance of neurodiversity and autism as a person with autism herself.
Winona LaDuke is an activist working on issues related to climate change, indigenous rights, human rights, local foods, clean water, and many others. She founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which seeks to buy back land of the Anishinaabe people and has worked to revive the cultivation and harvest of wild rice on that land. The Project sells this and other traditional foods under its label, Native Harvest. She also co-founded Honor the Earth, which seeks support and funding for Native environmental groups, including those working on food systems issues.
These descriptions merely scratch the surface of these women’s accomplishments, and there are innumerable women beyond this list changing our local and global food systems for the better. As we work to continuously make a better system for humans, animals, and the planet, may we continue to look to the work of courageous, driven, and innovative women.
1 USDA NASS. (2019, October). 2017 Census of Agriculture Highlights: Female Producers. https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Highlights/2019/2017Census_Female_Producers.pdf
2 The Aspen Institute. (2013, May). Profiles of the restaurant workforce and the restaurant opportunities centers united. http://www.aspenwsi.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Profiles-of-the-Restaurant-Workforce-and-Restaurant-Opportunities-Centers-United.pdf
3 Tso, P. (2014, January 22). https://jezebel.com/how-female-chefs-are-breaking-barriers-1506722297
4 Deloitte. (2019). Data USA: Chefs & head cooks. https://datausa.io/profile/soc/chefs-head-cooks#demographics
5 Berry, D. (2020, February 4). Women underrepresented at senior levels of food and beverage manufacturers. https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/15346-women-underrepresented-at-senior-levels-of-food-and-beverage-manufacturers