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African American Foodways Summit Connects Culture, Cuisine, and Our Community

Students embrace skills and stories from local chefs, entrepreneurs and farmers 

As beekeeper Kairi Dukes and his mother Nikkia Rowe built the John Newman Honeybee Company — the only Black-owned, woman-led apiary in the city — they learned the history of beekeeping in Africa and the African American community. “Beekeeping is traced back to some of the earliest hunter-gatherer tribes,” says Kairi. “In the U.S., all students enrolled at Tuskegee University were once required to learn beekeeping as part of the curriculum.”

After 4 years in business, Kairi has plenty of knowledge and stories to share about beekeeping, honey harvesting and maintaining hives. And he shared them with City Schools students as one of 14 local experts, entrepreneurs, chefs and farmers at the 3rd annual African American Foodways Summit at Great Kids Farm.

More than 60 students from 6 schools participated in the day-long summit in February. 

Owned and operated by City Schools, Great Kids Farm is 33 acres of forests, fields, a stream, greenhouses, and a barn full of animals. Baltimore City Schools’ Farm to School Programs promotes experiential education that connects students to nature and food systems. 

The idea for the African American Foodways Summit originated when Great Kids Farm Specialist Laura Menyuk read Michael Twitty’s “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” — the 2018 James Beard Foundation Book of the Year. 

“We wanted to create an entire program for students that was explicitly about heritage and culture — something that was more than just a few minutes over the course of a daylong field trip to Great Kids Farm,” says Menyuk. 

Great Kids Farm’s staff recruited a founding steering team of Black entrepreneurs, educators, artists, and activists in Baltimore's food spaces to plan what would become the first African American Foodways summit — developing objectives, definitions, and themes that would guide the project. The team included: 

- Dr. Carleen Carey of  America 250
- Krystal Mack of IAO Design (“In Absence Of”)
- Lee Jordan of  Black Yield Institute
- Sache Jones of No Boundaries Coalition

The 2022 African American Foodways Summit welcome activity was designed by student steering committee members from Baltimore School for the Arts and  Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Using this year’s summit theme “Metamorphosis” as inspiration, participants explored the concept of seeds as a component of agriculture, a food source, and a metaphor for participants’ evolution and nourishment.

Then it was onto workshops with panelists including Marvin Hayes of the Baltimore Compost Collective, Jinji Fraser of Pure Chocolate by Jinji, and Kenya Miles of Blue Light Junction/Hidden Harvest Dye Garden

Despite February being far from prime beekeeping season, Kairi designed a board game that taught players about the lifecycle of a hive, the impact of pest pressure and the ways bees’ environment affects the amount of honey produced. 

The day opened and closed with members of the student steering committee sharing their ideas and thoughts on the metamorphosis theme.  Lauren Edwards, a junior at Baltimore School for the Arts, likened emerging from the pandemic to a butterfly leaving its cocoon, and Deairra Nelson, a senior at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, shared her hope that through food we could transform our relationships with friends and communities. 

Here are just a few examples of post-Summit student feedback: 

“This event was a great way to connect with local businesses and agriculture-based trades that are was valuable to be in direct contact with community members who are successfully working in their individual fields in an eco-friendly and inclusive way.”

“My biggest takeaway from the event was that culture and food are very connected. I have learned that food can really reflect important things from our history and tell a story.”

"There is a lot more to food in Baltimore than just eating. There is a lot more to do to help our communities."

Teachers were enthusiastic as well! 

“The workshops were phenomenal — the topics were interesting to the students and everything was hands-on,” says Gerimi Belin, biology instructor at Baltimore City College who accompanied twelve of his students to the Summit. “I was hoping there would be opportunities for us to engage with the content from an ecology perspective, and it surpassed my expectations. Not only did the bees and composting tie into our curriculum, but the students were engaged with all the activities. They had question after question. I’d love to bring my class again next year.”

Now, with three summits in the books, the team at Great Kids Farm is excited to grow the event. “We want to build more relationships with panelists and really entrust the student steering team with the tools and experience to be the driving force behind the Summit,” says Menyuk.

Kairi Dukes will take every opportunity to share knowledge of beekeeping and the importance of bees’ role as pollinators in future Summits. “In so many of our communities, food insecurity is a real thing. It’s so important to spread the word about sustainable, local, healthy, food alternatives," he says. “And make sure you tell everyone: SAVE THE BEES!”

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