LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 9, 2023) — University of Kentucky alumnus Jim Embry, best known as a preeminent civil rights activist, eco-activist farmer, social justice advocate and public speaker, among other distinctions, was awarded the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award earlier this year in Chicago.
Often referred to as the “Oscars of the food industry,” the James Beard Foundation Awards recognizes leaders in America’s food culture that exemplify the James Beard Foundation’s core value of championing a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity and sustainability. An award from any of the 23 categories has been held as one of the highest honors in American gastronomy and culinary arts since the first award was presented in 1991.
Embry’s Leadership Award recognizes more than 50 years of work in the food justice movement and highlights his involvement with Sustainable Communities Network, Slow Food USA and Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, even as he has affiliations with at least a dozen other organizations. Embry’s interest in local and healthy food, urban agriculture and food justice can be traced back through his family legacy as agrarian intellectual activists. He is the great-grandson of formerly enslaved African farmers who fought in the Civil War and who became social activists in Madison County, Kentucky. Embry became involved in the civil rights movement at the early age of 10 when he accompanied his mother, the chapter president of Northern Kentucky CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), to meetings and picket lines. These childhood experiences instilled in Embry a lifelong commitment to social justice.
Some of his most enduring memories growing up are of representing the NAACP as Kentucky State Youth Chair around the age of 15 and organizing young people to join the March on Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1964 that featured Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson and many of Kentucky's civil rights leaders. In high school he was a member of the commission that drafted the first open housing ordinance for the city of Covington, Kentucky.
While a student at UK in the 1960s, Embry helped found and served as president of the Black Student Union that ushered in many significant campuswide racial justice initiatives. After attending Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta, he helped found the annual Martin Luther King Day march in Lexington.
“My years at UK were very pivotal to my life journey,” said Embry, who graduated in 1974 with a degree in zoology from the UK College of Arts and Sciences. “In the leadership role of president of the Black Student Union, we not only transformed the university in all kinds of ways, but my UK experience further instilled in me a lifelong commitment to social justice which led me to be a recipient of the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award."
In 1968, Embry reached a pivotal point in his life’s work when he spent the summer working in New York City with Ernie Greene and A. Phillip Randolph. It was here that he was exposed to food and health injustices. He witnessed firsthand that many communities did not have access to fresh food or vegetables as he had been accustomed to in rural Madison County where he was born.
After meeting and becoming friends with Dick Gregory, who spoke at UK in 1971, Embry was inspired to adopt a plant-based diet, expand his food activism and join with others to found the Good Foods Co-op in 1972. Embry’s engagement with cooperatives can also be traced back to his family ancestors in Madison County who attended Berea College as early as 1879 and who organized Black farmer, teacher, church and business cooperatives that were seen as essential to community building after the Civil War. These family members were also friends and collaborators with such icons as W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Carter G. Woodson and George Washington Carver, to name a few, who visited Richmond in the 1900s as part of the Colored Chautauqua.
With this family ancestral guidance, it was then quite natural that Embry would join in with other UK students to formulate the ideas of a food co-op, organic farming, local food and vegetarian eating interconnected with campus and community social justice activism.
“Good Foods was born out of this community of folks connected in some ways with UK but also people who were visionaries, activists, hippies and critical thinkers who had a love for good food, good health, justice and democracy,” Embry said. “So, the co-op was an opportunity to manifest democracy around the critical question of food and health.”
In 2001, Embry moved to Detroit to become director of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. In this role he worked closely with Grace which led to collaborations with Rosa Parks, numerous other luminaries and all area universities. His work included helping found the youth group, Detroit Summer, whose work centered around urban agriculture, community art gardens, local food and environmental justice. He developed a special love for the Catherine Ferguson Academy, the Detroit high school for teen mothers and their children that operated a working farm woven into the school curriculum. These down-on-the-farm experiences for the teen mothers and their young children were life-changing for Embry, and his support of this school led him to give tours to people like Danny Glover, Ossie Davis, representatives of the British Parliament and Nobel Peace Committee, along with other national and international admirers of the school with the urban farm. Embry further helped create a vision for the Greening of Detroit based on community-gardens.
He continued and expanded upon this work with community gardens when he returned to Lexington in 2005 and founded Sustainable Communities Network. Those community-based and transformative urban agriculture projects in Detroit inspired and guided his work in Lexington and across Kentucky. His extensive body of community-based activism in Lexington and beyond includes such projects as: Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden; HOBY mural projects; GreenHouse 17; the Locust Trace Agri-Science Center (inspired by Catherine Ferguson Academy); gardens in schools, parks, churches and neighborhoods; the Bluegrass Local Food Summit; Phoenix Rising; Climate Underground; Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance; Kentucky Black Farmers Cooperative; Federation of Southern Cooperatives; National Association of Black Scuba Divers; Black Soil; and local and national pollinator groups.
Within Slow Food USA, he is the state governor for Kentucky, was the primary author of the EIJ Manifesto, helped plan Slow Food Nations, and has served seven times as a USA delegate to the international gathering, Terra Madre/Salone de Gusto held in Torino, Italy. Local chef, Slow Food advocate and also James Beard award winner, Ouita Michel, refers to Embry as "a seer in our community."
In addition to his work that helped shape social and food activism in Kentucky, Embry is a writer and photographer. He has contributed articles and photographs to "We Are Each Other’s Harvest," Sustainable World Source Book, Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, Latino Studies, Biodynamics Journal, African American Heritage Guide, Humans and Nature, and other publications. Because of his lifelong participation in all the social movements of his era, Embry has been interviewed multiple times by KET/PBS and the UK Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.
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