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Building Healthy Communities South LA

Got Justice?: Observations on a Food Justice Youth Summit and Food as a Means to Youth and Community Empowerment

Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited, serves a home-cooked meal to the 150 participants of the Rooted In Community Youth Summit on Food Justice. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited, serves a home-cooked meal to the 150 participants of the Rooted In Community Youth Summit on Food Justice. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

When speaking with a major non-profit about their decision to put gardens in South Los Angeles, Garrett Broad says he was struck by their declaration that, after running the data, "it just so happen[ed]" that the highest incidences of heart disease, diabetes, and other health risk factors were found there.

Broad, a recent Ph.D. and volunteer with Community Services Unlimited (CSU), felt the statement was very telling of the divide within the food "movement."

"You would never hear anyone here use that phrase," he said gesturing towards the 150 food activists from around the country that had spent the week participating in Rooted in Community's (RIC) Youth Leadership Summit hosted by CSU.

Instead, the youth and their adult allies -- the majority of whom were African-American or Latino and from more marginalized communities -- were looking at food through a justice lens. To them, the lack of access to nutritious offerings in their communities wasn't something that "just so happened." It was a by-product of the injustices they saw as inherent in an increasingly globalized food system and exacerbated by being set within a context of deeply entrenched socio-economic inequalities.

That meant that, although they cared about things more commonly discussed by more mainstream activists, such as having more gardens, farmers' markets, nutritious school lunches, or home-cooked meals (see the Youth Food Bill of Rights), they understood that the solution did not lie in simply placing more such things in communities. It lay, instead, in addressing the root causes underlying the access issues.

Their work in food, therefore, tends to promote individual and community empowerment through the creation of a healthier environment (physically and spiritually), inclusive economic development, the reclaiming of blighted and abandoned lands for cultivation, the celebration of culturally-affirming farming practices and foods, increased access to leadership training and education, and/or the enhancement of food security through greater self-sufficiency.

Devonna Brown (on the floor) and other RIC participants put on a skit about how youth can lobby against vested interests for better school lunches. In this scene, she and her "classmates" have just suffered an attack of indigestion after eating a regular school lunch. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Devonna Brown (on the floor) and other RIC participants put on a skit about how youth can lobby against vested interests for better school lunches. In this scene, she and her "classmates" have just suffered an attack of indigestion after eating a regular school lunch. Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited, serves a home-cooked meal to the 150 participants of the Rooted In Community Youth Summit on Food Justice. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As if to drive that point home, Devonna Brown, an 11th grader from Philadelphia's Urban Nutrition Initiative (AUNI), asked to be interviewed and wasted no time in informing me of her displeasure at the fact that her food dollars did not "bounce" in her community.

Grocery stores were located well outside her neighborhood and the convenience stores found every two blocks were owned by people who did not live in the community. To her, that meant that any funds spent there were most likely lost to the neighborhood.

As so much of lower-income residents' budgets are dedicated to food and other basics, that outflow is significant, especially because funds spent at the corner stores weren't serving to generate much employment or being used to invest in bringing people better choices. Any produce available was of a very poor quality, she said with a dismissive wave, and made the junk and pre-prepared foods much more appealing for people with limited time and transportation options.

Making those people more food secure by helping them grow their own produce or access low-cost healthy food at a local stand would help keep dollars in her community.

Creating that kind of system wouldn't necessarily change things overnight, she said, because, "If five people hear what you do, four will display it [behaviors], and three will take it home. Two will start to do it, but only one will actually change."

But increased opportunities for youth to more regularly engage their neighbors about health and help them transition to healthier lifestyles would be a good place to start.

Want a Food Revolution? Provide More Structured Programs for Youth that Offer Stipends

In the world of international development, US-based donors and non-profits often appear to be allergic to the idea of paying the volunteers they rely upon to do the day-to-day implementation of their programs on the ground. There is a (somewhat twisted) school of thought that argues that offering payment to beneficiaries for participating in programs that are supposed to be good for them will corrupt their motivations. The absence of voluntarily spilled blood, sweat, and tears, the reasoning goes, cancels out any potential for genuine behavioral change, empowerment and, consequently, sustainable development.

Looking around Mercado la Paloma at the youth busily preparing their presentations for the press conference, it was clear how wrong this line of thinking could be.

In fact, the interesting thing about this very passionate and committed group of young people was that many of them had stumbled upon the food justice movement precisely because of the lure of a salary.

Unlike "Pollanites" (devotees of food guru Michael Pollan) or other foodies that came to healthier living by choice, many of the youth confessed to needing the job (their internships with organizations are generally paid), hearing it was a fun job from a friend, or having wanted to try a job that would let them do something new (such as working on a farm). They later became genuine champions of the food justice movement -- albeit paid ones -- because they found it to be an antidote for many of the struggles they had been through as children.

For Brown, for example, living first with a grandmother who "fried everything" and, later, in foster homes meant she didn't have a whole lot of control over how she ate.

When she found herself pregnant at a young age, she realized she wanted something different for her baby. So, when educators from a cooking class she took at school told her she could apply for an internship with them, she jumped at the chance.

The group felt like the family she had never had growing up, she said.

And it helped her in other ways, too. She gained confidence in her own voice from having to lead workshops in middle schools, from working at the produce stand, and from the affirmative dialogue she had with others in the program.

"That's important," she said of finding her voice, "Because I want to be a lawyer."

The youngest participant -- just 12 years old from Texas -- speaks about her group's research question at the press conference. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The youngest participant -- just 12 years old from Mississippi -- speaks about her group's research question at the press conference. Neelam Sharma, Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited, serves a home-cooked meal to the 150 participants of the Rooted In Community Youth Summit on Food Justice. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

It was inspiring, she said, to look around at the other participants in the conference and see she was not a unicorn.

Not only were there others like her that cared about building their communities from the bottom up, they were genuinely passionate and dedicated to the cause, often because they had lived the very same struggles they identified as oppressing their neighbors.

Perhaps no one embodied this more than Kriss'Shon Day, an adult ally from the Social Justice Learning Institute's program with the Black Male Youth Academy and quite possibly the most mature 19-year old I've ever met.

He had always been focused, he said when I remarked on his youth, because he had decided very early on that college would be his escape from violence and uncertainty.

He wanted to get as far away as possible from a life that included his father's parting gift of a beating that sent him to the hospital and his mother regularly crying with worry that they wouldn't have enough money for food or to keep their room at the residential motel where they lived.

But as his family's situation grew more dire, dreams of college appeared to be increasingly intangible to him.

He felt like dropping out of high school at one point, but finally decided to swallow his pride and ask for help from a local youth organizer. The $150 a month job he was able to score with the BMYA helped his family scrape through some of the tough times and convinced him that, when he had the chance, he would pay it forward by giving back to his community.

Now, a college student himself, he works on mentoring other teens through a "critical awakening" that prepares them to engage in transformative activities, like the construction of their first Empowerment Community Garden or their participation in community forums.

The combination of education and public action, he hopes, will help undermine the dominant narratives that young black men have internalized regarding their potential. The ultimate goal, he said, was to get everyone to college.

In that regard, their garden and food-related work were not the "ends," but rather one of the means to empowerment that would aid communities in upending the conditions that created the need for such programs to begin with.

The BMYA youth and other youth leaders at the conference couldn't have done the food and other justice-related work they have without being paid, but they were no less committed to the work because of it. And, it had given them the necessary leadership skills, critical thinking skills, and breathing space to begin to not only envision a better future for themselves but also ways to bring more development into their communities.

That's a pretty good return on an investment, I'd say.

Food is So Much More than Something You Eat

At the end of last year, Tanya Fields, a lower-income, African-American South Bronx urban gardener and founder of The BLK Projek (dedicated to utilizing food justice as a tool for economic development for youth and women of color), was disinvited from a TEDx Manhattan event on "Changing the Way We Eat."

The reasons Fields was given for the rescinding of her invitation didn't make much logical sense and seemed, to her, to fall into the realm of excuses. As did the statement by event organizer Diane Hatz that Fields "wasn't quite ready for this type of event."

The outrage the move sparked among food justice advocates finally prompted the organizers to issue a formal apology acknowledging that they had much to learn about how the "fundamental issues of race, representation, cultural divide, and fear affect our work" and that these issues did need to be addressed, "respectfully and honestly.”

Participants in the poetry workshop release good words and aspirations into the air. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Participants in the poetry workshop release good words and aspirations into the air. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

But, it seems like it will be some time before the kinds of questions the RIC participants were asking about race, class, and justice are a comfortable fit in the larger food movement -- if it can actually be called a movement.

To a food novice like myself, the disconnect seems somewhat hard to understand. When I picture the movement, I tend to envision a sort of romanticized David-and-Goliath kind of scenario in which the little guy takes on Big Food by beating it into submission with homegrown organic tomatoes and broccoli stalks. You would think within that story of tossing off the shackles of an oppressive industry that there might be room for a discussion of the different kinds of shackles burdening different communities.

However, it seems (again, to a novice) that the divide occurs because the more mainstream food folks see the ability to choose more pleasurable and healthy living and eating habits as an end while those on the justice side of things see organizing around questions of access, health, and the environment as a means to lifting people out of oppressive circumstances.

Although their positions are not mutually exclusive, the fact that they are beginning from completely different sets of assumptions can make meeting in the middle somewhat challenging.

As does the fact that there are hierarchies, noted Santos Flores, the adult ally from DIG (a youth leadership and urban farming program linked to SEEDS in North Carolina).

Those in power and guiding the debate -- the foundations, larger non-profits from outside the community, universities, or health centers that fund many of the youth programs represented at the conference -- often take a more traditional and outcome-based approach to food issues, focusing on food, nutrition, access, and narrow understandings of health.

Meanwhile, the youth programs they sponsor tend to incorporate consciousness-raising into their curricula in order to make them more relevant. Ironically, they make participants like DIG intern Nilisha Mcphaul highly attuned to the extent to which the supporters of such programs are or are not genuinely dedicated to youth and community empowerment.

Mcphaul said she had spent much of her free time at the RIC conference comparing notes with representatives from other organizations to see how they were run, what kinds of activities they were able to engage in and how they handled them, and how much of the reins the youth were able to take in guiding their organizations' work.

She said she could see that there was work to be done with regard to making space within the mainstream movement for the voices of the very people of color seen as the targeted "subjects" whose unhealthy behaviors were viewed as being in need of modification. There also didn't seem to be as many opportunities as she had hoped for activists like herself to move up on through the ranks and take the lead in discussions about communities' needs or on designing appropriate interventions. Those that had made it up through the ranks, she observed, still appeared to be very constrained by the fact that questions of race, class, or justice were seen as outside of the purview of what many food advocacy programs were about.

I was deeply impressed by the 17-year old's ability to offer a clear and complex (and diplomatic) analysis of where she and youth like herself fit into the bigger picture.

As she spoke of potential strategies for dealing with the problems she had identified, I realized that this was perhaps the most important outcome of the RIC summit. Not that youth were more educated about different approaches to questions of food justice -- which is obviously important and enlightening, don't get me wrong. But, rather, that the coming together of 150 youth from all over the country suddenly made the bigger picture more tangible for them. Drawing on the confidence and leadership skills they had gained in their own programs, youth like Mcphaul learned as much as they could from each other so they could go back home armed with more tools to fight both for the well-being of their own communities and for firmer footing in the movement.

Now, all they might need is to be better at getting their message out so that it can become part of the larger dialogue on food.

Sadly, I may have been the only "press" at their wonderful and elaborately planned press conference on Saturday. It's an unfortunate problem that many of the most effective community-based organizations face. Because they tend to dedicate the lion's share of their limited resources to working in the community and building a strong and sustainable base there, they feel no need to make their message sexier or fit a narrative better. Thus, their work doesn't always get the attention it deserves.

Here's hoping stories of their work reaches the ears some in the wider food movement.

If not, they could always resort to tapping into the youth, who have no shortage of talent. A passionate freestyle rant against the food choices in one youth's Minnesota neighborhood turned out to be rather catchy and had everybody bouncing. It could be a great calling card:

"McDonald's tryna get me fat!...
Wendy's tryna get me fat!...
But fast food can't hold me back!
No, fast food can't hold me back!"

Congratulations to the folks from Rooted in Community for bringing together such a great group of youth and to Community Services Unlimited who somehow, with only a handful of staff and volunteers, managed to feed 150 people beautiful and healthy home-cooked meals 3 times a day (and clean up after them, too), run workshops, host tours of Los Angeles, keep everything moving along smoothly, and offer hugs, smiles, and encouragement for five full days.

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