‘Doctor for his community.’ Kentucky man wins James Beard Award for sustainablity
Richmond, Kentucky— About half a mile from the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky sits the farm Jim Embry’s family has owned for two centuries.
The 30-acre farm, with animals, fruit trees, and orchards, is located in what used to be an African American hamlet, a Black community located in a rural area, Embry, a longtime food justice activist, told the Courier Journal. When it was founded after slavery was abolished, it was more than just a single piece of property — it was a community with schools, churches and businesses where his ancestors, Black midwives, blacksmiths, butchers, barbers and teachers, lived.
That farm, in large part, inspired Embry’s work around food activism, much of which is focused on educating people about the importance of sustainability.
The 74-year-old Richmond native is the founder and director of Sustainable Communities Network, a member of Slow Food USA, a founding member of Good Foods Co-op, and a founder of the Kentucky Black Farmers Co-operative, which advocates for BIPOC farmers and displaced persons in agriculture by providing education and awareness for equitable economic development. His work with these organizations, and more, has helped increase equitable access to quality, healthy food in areas across Kentucky.
Those who know Embry call him a “doctor for his community.” He describes himself as an “agrarian intellectual activist.” Now, he can add James Beard Award winner to his list of titles.
In March, the James Beard Foundation awarded Embry the leadership award “for his lifelong work as a community activist advocating for sustainable living practices and Black and Indigenous rights,” according to its website. A nonprofit organization, the James Beard Foundation defines its mission as celebrating, supporting, and elevating the people behind America’s food culture.
For Embry, learning he’d been chosen alongside Eastern Kentucky native Valerie Horn as a recipient of the national award was reaffirming the work he’s done to advocate for sustainable living while acknowledging the “wonderful work being done right here in Kentucky.”
“This award wasn’t solely about me. It was about ‘we,'” he said.
That “we” includes his family farm and its legacy in Kentucky since 1800, the organizations dear to his heart, and the areas that he calls home: Richmond, Lexington, and the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.
“Part of my work has been to try to find ways I can contribute to turning food injustice to food justice; turning environmental injustice to justice; turning the injustice towards women to justice for women,” he said.
A start in activism and the concept of food justice
Embry’s journey as a Kentucky activist begins with his participation in the Civil Rights movement alongside his parents. Since then, he has participated in other social reform campaigns, including the women’s rights movement, and has spoken nationally and internationally about sustainability and food sovereignty at events including the Italian Terra Madre, an international network of food communities launched by Slow Food.
Embry is passionate about food justice and its connections to food apartheid, or food deserts, a community’s lack of access to good, quality foods, within low-income areas, something that is common across the country. In Louisville alone, more than 44,000 people live in areas defined as food deserts, the Courier-Journal previously reported. Additionally, 31,000 are food insecure and don’t qualify for federal food assistance, according to a 2022 report on Louisville food insecurity conducted by the Greater Louisville Project.
Embry said food injustice is a “painful circle,” including topics such as water rights within Indigenous communities, who aren’t receiving adequate water for their agricultural fields, food apartheid within urban and rural communities, and international populations growing food for European taste with the Green Revolution.
The activist is working to combat those statistics by educating others on the importance of sustainable agriculture, which he says is the basis of human life and culture.
“All the different human art forms stem from agriculture,” he added. “Religion was about praying to God if you’re going to eat tomorrow; praying that you might find water tomorrow; praying that you might be able to kill a deer or rabbit tomorrow so you could have food. That was the basis of religion and prayers and songs and dances.”
Embry said he believes farming goes back to the most essential aspect of what makes human life possible.
“It’s important to every human being, and it’s essential. It’s indispensable,” Embry said. “Because it’s so essential, then we should all recognize that we’re all part of the food and agriculture movement.”
Unfortunately, in this country, agricultural and culinary work achievements are not celebrated the way sports accomplishments are, he added. If professional sports were to disappear tomorrow, people would still survive and thrive as human civilization carries on, but if you stop agriculture — an essential survival element — everyone will quit what they’re doing to find food.
“It’s one of the most essential contributions, one of the most essential professions, and one of the most essential elements of our workforce, but oftentimes it’s the least appreciated,” he said. “We need to begin to think about those kinds of things differently.”
Decreasing chemicals in farming and focusing on ‘horticultural therapy’
Embry noted a contemporary challenge is recognizing the ecological importance of farming to ensure its practices don’t wreak environmental havoc. He said many of the chemicals used on farms, including fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, are washed off the farmlands and dumped into places like the Ohio River, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
“We have to change our farming practices to be much more sustainable, which means moving away from so many chemical inputs,” he said.
Embry added he’s also used farming techniques to help heal victims from past emotional trauma in a process called horticultural therapy, where people who’ve experienced domestic violence or are living with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as veterans and incarcerated people, spend time farming or gardening as their ancestors once did.
“We now recognize that one of the ways to help people heal is through farming and gardening and touching the soil,” he said.
Though much of his work has been focused on making a change in his home state of Kentucky, Embry has a bigger end goal in mind — being a good ancestor or ensuring previously caused damages are repaired.
“How do we begin to live a lifestyle that preserves the integrity of the ecosystem, and preserves the quality of life for our great, great, great grandchildren?” he asked. “That’s the real question.”
Features reporter Leah Hunter can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @theleahhunter.