To sum up the broad scope of Oscar C. Howard’s life, one could say simply that he fed Minnesota — literally. The trained chef moved from managing large industrial cafeterias to owning successful catering businesses, which culminated in the development of the Meals on Wheels program. Many others were nourished in a more figurative sense through Howard’s teaching, mentorship, preaching, and philanthropy. Along the way, he broke through countless racial barriers, both official and unspoken.
After working to support himself through high school in his home state of Georgia, Howard began studies in commercial dietetics at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute in 1937, only to be interrupted by the United States’ entry into World War II. Drafted by the Army, he served first as a military policeman in Harlem. Transferred to Governor’s Island, New York, and then to New Orleans’ Camp Plauche, Howard trained other soldiers in cooking and baking. He would later credit his famous Southern pecan pie recipe to his time in New Orleans.
Following the war’s end, Howard completed his bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee, and the school hired him as an instructor and executive chef. Several personal and professional challenges followed this triumph, however, including the failure of his first catering business. He persevered, eventually accepting a position to open and run a large corporate cafeteria in Georgia. That experience led to an opportunity in Minnesota, where he would live for the remainder of his life.
The Twin Cities Arsenal in New Brighton hired Howard in 1950 as it resumed operations to support the Korean conflict. He trained and managed a cafeteria staff of 100 to feed 15,000 workers over three shifts. In the evenings, he launched a small catering business, cooking pies and soup at home and delivering them from his own 1940 Chevrolet. With a reputation for excellent food and service, Howard’s Industrial Catering Company eventually grew into a full-time venture. Based in North Minneapolis, it served many local companies, including Reinhard Brothers, Coast to Coast, and Northwestern Bell, as well as at weddings and other social events. In order to facilitate the hot delivery of food to multiple facilities, Howard developed portable, insulated food shelves. He patented these devices in a range of sizes, and, as a side business, sold the carriers through kitchen-supply retailers and at industry trade shows.
While establishing himself as a chef and business owner, Howard often faced discrimination. This ranged from being turned down for jobs for which he was clearly qualified, to an inability to receive bank loans or food supplies on credit to develop his business. Rather than focusing on these roadblocks, Howard worked tirelessly to chart his own course. He also understood the positive benefit of his presence within a variety of organizations, both on his merits as a successful businessman, and as an African American in previously all-white groups.
The Tuskegee ethic of using one’s success to help others was manifested throughout Howard’s life. Despite the low profit margins, he signed a federal contract in 1970 to feed schoolchildren in low-income Minneapolis neighborhoods. The project appealed to him, recalling the poverty of his own youth. Using knowledge gained through that venture and over years of delivering meals to a variety of customers, he began providing a low-cost, nutritious, daily in-home meal to senior citizens. This grew into the Meals on Wheels program in Minnesota, which would later be replicated throughout the country. The endeavor shifted later from the business realm to management by counties and social service agencies.
Howard frequently spoke to young people on themes of goals and responsibilities. He especially concerned himself with helping African Americans develop their skills and understand what it took to be successful. In 1971, he helped to found the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, which supported minority entrepreneurs with loans, education, and mentoring.
After selling his catering businesses in the early 1980s, Howard turned his focus entirely to philanthropy and public service, serving on boards for the Bank of Minneapolis, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the Dunwoody Institute, and others. A longtime member and deacon at Zion Baptist Church, following his ordination as a minister, he helped found Kwanzaa Community Presbyterian Church in North Minneapolis. He died in 2003, at the age of eighty-nine.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.