How a Local Organization Is Changing a City's Food Landscape

The Clever Cookstr is joined today by Kathy Soll and Josh Serrano from Teens for Food Justice, an organization galvanizing a youth-led food justice movement. TFJ not only trains youth in urban farming and nutrition and health outreach, they’re also tackling issues of food insecurity in New York City through urban farming and peer mentorship.

Kara Rota,
May 9, 2017
Episode #150

Below is an excerpt from the Clever Cookstr interview with Teens for Food Justice. To hear the full interview, listen in the top right hand player, or on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Spotify (simply search the mobile app!).

Clever Cookstr: Tell us a bit about the differences between food insecurity, food scarcity, malnutrition, and hunger. We hear these terms tossed around, but let’s talk about how they intersect.

Kathy Soll: Food insecurity really is the cause for all of these things. I think it’s at the root of all of these issues. If you live in a neighborhood that has a scarcity of resources for fresh, healthy produce and the raw materials for preparing a healthy meal at home or the prepared food options in restaurants, you are going to be experiencing food scarcity. You’re eating a lot of calories, but they’re pretty empty and that’s an issue that I think really relates to food scarcity. And certainly, you are going to be seen as a result of that malnutrition. And, you know, there is a very profound and counterintuitive relationship between people who are living in low income communities and who are really not receiving adequate nutrition, but at the same time are very overweight. And those issues intersect because these communities are food insecure and there is a paucity of healthy food options available, certainly affordably. And not only just affordably, but at all.

CC: One of the reasons that I think food issues are such a great place to start thinking about so many other topics is because there really is so much in there. Everything in our food system is affected and everything in our food system affects everything else from education to labor laws to the environment. Food issues have such a huge impact especially on children and schools and communities. Tell us how Teens for Food Justice empowers change centered in those places and how the organization’s mission evolved.

KS: Our organization always focused on teens. Because we started eight years ago as an organization that was focused on catalyzing youth in meaningful and educative community service programming that connected them to social justice issues that were prevalent in our city and about which they were concerned. And giving them the understanding that they could be part of a movement for social change. So, working with youth has always been fundamental to what we do. We actually then made the transition to focus on the food justice movement because we saw that the kids that we worked with were really concerned about this. They were really concerned about the fact that people are working multiple jobs and yet, they’re not making enough money to be their rent and have enough money to left over at the end of the month to afford enough food to reasonably feed their families. That’s called the meal gap and that’s a huge contributor to all of the issues around food insecurity and poor nutrition and the resulting health outcomes. So, in many ways, the students and the youth that we were working with drove our focus on the issue itself. Not that we weren’t already addressing it, but it really kind of laser focused us on that issue. The other area that young people showed us they were really concerned about was all of the environmental implications of our food system. And so, you know, the urban agricultural movement, community gardening, and the ongoing concern about how are we going to feed our planet given the exponential growth of mankind and the increasing lack of available land in which to grow. Actually, the kids lead us to focus on the issue so it was most definitely a youth-led program.

CC: The peer mentorship program is also such a unique part of the organization’s mission. How does that work and how do teens actually get involved in fighting around these issues?

Josh Serrano: It’s important for students to be able to be guided and connect with folks who maybe come from similar experiences that the students are having. Or with young people who are in the places these students will be in the very near future and so, it’s important to get those people to be directly involved with guiding the youth through the program. We did a food justice advocacy project through body movement and it was a step performance. And we were able to take something fun, like dance or step, and use it as a tool to get our voices out about food justice issues that were most important to the teens. I think the youth mentor component allows for that. It allows this funky, fresh nature to be attributed to the program; that allows it to really be focused on the experience of the students from these communities and allows us to find creative ways that we’re able to connect and really get the point across and deliver program in a way that’s not similar to how the experience they would get in the regular school day.

CC: So how can people get involved in food justice in their own communities? What are some of the things that you can do to learn more or take steps in that direction to contribute more?

There is a very profound and counterintuitive relationship between people who are living in low income communities and who are really not receiving adequate nutrition.

Kathy Soll: Definitely, one of the first things you can do is find your local community garden because usually your local community garden is not just a group of gardeners but it’s a group of activists. The political piece as well as the community piece is definitely going to be available to you that way. I think that there’s a lot that you can read. There’s so much film content out there that is describing our food system. Everything from farm worker’s rights to food distribution and access, there are just so many different points on the compass that you can get involved with this movement through. Somebody shared with me the real food challenge, which is a college program basically to help to get better food into the college setting, but also is really about food justice advocacy lead by college students. They have created a wheel that shows all the intersectionalities of the food movement and I was looking at it the other day and just thinking, ‘My God, there are so many different touchpoints here,’ depending upon where their first lens is, the minute you get in the wheel, you’re in the whole wheel.

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