Youth Empowerment Through Food



Doron Comerchero and Abby Bell have been talking about Food Justice since they founded Life Lab’s award-winning youth empowerment program “Food, What?!” seven years ago. On the surface it means giving low-income high school youth, who might otherwise not have access to local organic produce, the opportunity to grow and prepare healthy and sustainable food. But Food Justice is about much more than cooking or sustainable agriculture. And food is simply the vehicle whereby youth gain responsibility, leadership skills, and job training, finding their voice and discovering who they want to be within the safety of a supportive community.

In the past, FoodWhat youth have hosted their annual benefit dinner, preparing a sumptuous meal from the produce they’ve planted and harvested themselves, at their home territory on the UCSC Farm. This year, in keeping with the growth and improvement that has been a trademark of the program since its inception, they expanded from last year’s sold-out crowd of a hundred guests to a 200-seat event at the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park.

When guests arrived on a clear September evening, they were treated to appetizers of chickpea bruschetta and lemon verbena spritzers, as well as prosciutto and pear FoodWhat interns had put together with sustainable butcher Chris LeVeque at El Salchichero. Interns, whose positions are paid, and alumni who volunteered to ensure the success of an expanded venue, had set up tables under the trees, and had strung across the courtyard laminated photos and testimonies of the FoodWhat Crew.

Under a photograph of himself enjoying lunch prepared by the group, Noah Beserra had written: “I have taken a step up to get things done without being asked to. I am a stronger person than I was before, physically and emotionally.” Under his own photo Edgar Castillo had written: “My on the job professionalism greatly increased, and my fear of crowds was nearly eliminated.”

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Deonte McClure wrote that he became more of a leader and Crystal Espinoza’s reflected her pride to be starting at UC Santa Barbara, the first person in her family to go to a university. This is in part thanks to FoodWhat’s hiring of a third staff member, Associate Director Alex Carelli, who helps students navigate the process of applying for college and securing financial aid.

Another recent FoodWhat development is its expansion into South County. In the past FoodWhat interns commute to and from Watsonville has been a two-and-a-half hour bus ride. So to widen the circle of justice to best serve youth in their home community of Watsonville, this year FoodWhat expanded its programming onto Live Earth Farm, partnering with Tom Broz, farm owner and operator.

While guests enjoyed several dishes including tomatoes stuffed with ricotta and leeks prepared by the youth with Bantam’s Benjamin Sims, their hosts described what it was like to share in the FoodWhat bounty. A big part of the FoodWhat mission is building confidence and helping students find their voices, and the students’ ability to speak in front of a crowd is testimony to that.

Tyrone Antoine said, “I learned it’s okay to make mistakes but it’s up to you to correct your mistakes.”

“It’s hard work,” Estephanie Ruiz told the crowd. “After a day on the Farm this summer, I couldn’t get out of bed the next morning. It sounds funny, but I worked five hours, one day a week, and I have relatives who work every day in the fields. It made me think about how they’re rarely home, rarely with their kids, and they work for really low wages. Working at FoodWhat made me think about farm worker justice and want to do something about it. ”

“FoodWhat is a family,” Eddie Sanchez said. “I didn’t have a real family before. FoodWhat changed my views toward eating habits, and it changed how I think about the world. I made a commitment to being clean and sober, and to being someone. It’s not just a job, it’s more like a family, and it helped me overcome a lot of challenges in my life.”

Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant got up to speak. She said that at the beginning of her one-year tenure as mayor, her plan had been to focus on youth. Then her attention had been pulled in a different direction when two beloved Santa Cruz police officers were killed in the line of duty. But it was youth who gave her hope, and it was Food What youth she turned to when she needed a boost.

As the Equinox evening light faded, Iysha Benavidez read an original poem about FoodWhat crew members “motivating and pushing each other” to become stronger.  While guests enjoyed a dark chocolate dessert with strawberries and ice cream prepared by the crew with Penny Ice Creamery’s Kendra Baker, a loud crash came from under the eaves of the Mission.

A table of serving plates had fallen, but within seconds of the crash over a dozen FoodWhat Crew members, unprompted, jumped into action to clean it up. That was just more proof of how much pride and commitment “Food, What?!” engenders within its community of youth.

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