Young Food Justice Leaders Speak Out | Civil Eats

Young Food Justice Leaders Speak Out

Young people gathered at one of the nation's most popular food justice leadership trainings talk about the change they want to see in their communities.

Youth have the energy, idealism, creativity, and conviction needed to move the food movement forward.

Nowhere is this fact more apparent than at a gathering of Rooted in Community (RIC), a national network of youth-centered food justice organizations. In late July, RIC convened more than 100 youth activists and 40 adult allies from around the United States for a five-day leadership-training summit in Greensboro, North Carolina. The gathering aimed to prepare its participants to advocate for resilient, equitable, and thriving communities—all through the lens of food.

Bevelyn Ukah, coordinator of the North Carolina-based Center for Environmental Farming SystemsFood Youth Initiative, which hosted the summit this year, says she finds youth to be more focused on action than other organizers. In all-adult groups, “there’s a lot of meetings, and nothing is done,” Ukah said. “That can’t go down with youth, because [if it does,] they’re going to stop showing up.”

Since the first RIC conference in Boston in 1999, the leadership summit has become an annual tradition, and the network of youth organizations working for food justice across the country has grown in number and strength.

This year’s summit in Greensboro culminated in a Day of Action, a public event at a city-center park at which the youth offered a food-justice-themed puppet show and series of speakers and then marched with local residents through the downtown streets.

Civil Eats spoke with some of the organizers and participants about the most pressing food-related issues they see in their communities, and the best ways for young people to get involved.

Youth leader Talar HsoTalar Hso, youth participant from Mebane, North Carolina

Age: 16; home organization: Transplanting Traditions Community Farm (TTCF), a farm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that provides refugees access to land, healthy food, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

What’s your experience with food and agriculture?

My parents, they’re Karen. We applied to come to America in 2008. We were refugees. We lived in a camp [in Thailand, near the Burmese border] that didn’t have a lot, but farming was a big thing there.

The food that my mom cooks is very different than the food I would eat at my school, because one is Asian and the other is American.

What do you see as the biggest issues related to food or agriculture in Mebane?

Not a lot of people know where their food is grown. Knowing about your food and where it comes from is important, because there are farmers farming those foods, and there are others helping the food you see in the grocery store [get] there.

Do you see any positive change in your community?

In my neighborhood, there weren’t a lot of Karens or people the same as me. But then they started coming into our neighborhood. Not that many people had gardens in their backyards before, but now I have five neighbors that have gardens in their backyard or beside their houses. The food my neighbors grow, they share with us. And we share with them. It’s a cool community with different vegetables, and everyone is giving each other different things. We’ve created a little community inside a bigger community.

Do you have any food heroes, people that you’ve met who have really inspired you in this arena?

Growing Change. They flipped a prison, and they’re turning it into a sustainable farm. That’s so cool! They have youth working there who have been kicked out of their homes or have been in juvenile. Changing from a troubled kid to a kid that’s helping others—that’s inspirational.

What power do you think youth in particular have?

Social media. It’s a big platform. I think we can change all the negativity on social media into a positive thing.

What do you hope to take from this? What do you hope to learn here?

I hope to have made an impact on others, and I want others to have an impact on me. I want to learn about what they do, and I want to learn how I can help them, and I want to learn how they can help me.

john wangJohn Wang, member of the RIC advisory council

Home organization: The Food Project, a Boston-based nonprofit that has engaged young people in “personal and social change through sustainable agriculture” since 1991.

RIC’s mission takes under-represented, low-income youth and teaches them to be food leaders. Why are the voices of these youth important to this movement?

A lot of folks don’t have space to develop their leadership skills. Rooted in Community offers the opportunity to see what’s possible—and to connect with other people that are also in that phase. People leave here super inspired. I see a lot of transformational change.

Over the years you’ve been involved with RIC, what have you seen?

In each region, there’s a particular issue that comes up that we use to focus the activity and demonstrate the kinds of actions you can take. In Detroit, it was water rights. In Albuquerque, it was indigenous people’s sovereignty. In Philly, it was creating a Youth Food Bill of Rights and trying to present it to legislators. There are all these different ways it comes together.

One of the things we’ve noticed is there are more formal and informal networks now forming. Before, we knew exactly who was out there [doing food justice work], and now, it’s impossible [because there are so many groups].

It seems like we’ve helped to build and launch these groups. How can we shift now to help support those networks or connect them with each other?

cecilia polancoCecilia Polanco, adult ally on the RIC planning committee

Age: 24; home organization: a 2017 fellow with the Raleigh-based Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, working with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, the organization hosting RIC through its Food Youth Initiative.

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How would you describe your relationship to food and agriculture?

I have a food truck and catering company called So Good Pupusas and a nonprofit called Pupusas for Education. Through those two entities, we leverage the social justice food truck to give last-dollar scholarships to undocumented students. Food is how I practice activism.

Food has always been something that’s very closely associated with family, with my mother, with keeping our heritage alive. In college I realized I could use food as a means to make a difference. I learned a lot about cultural capital, and the cultural capital I had.

I share [pupusas] with people as a means to bridge communities and encourage cultural appreciation, to combat some of the narratives around immigrant communities or Latinx populations.

What are the biggest issues you see with food in Durham?

The summer I was starting my food truck, I read an article about Durham police cracking down on illegal food vendors. It was a story that stopped me in my tracks.

Food trucks have been in many Latino communities for decades. We would see them at construction sites and soccer fields. Now that there’s an explosion of the food truck scene, this community is being left out. A lot of people who have traditionally sold their food in nontraditional ways—out of the back of their van or at a certain corner store every Saturday, for whom this is their livelihood or this is their means of helping pay for their child’s education—are being shut down instead of uplifted.

What are the biggest challenges young people face in trying to get involved in the food justice movement? Where do they falter, and what might they do to avoid that?

It’s not easy for them to get involved yet. When you’re young, you’re not really sure what’s going on. Especially if you’re underserved, the opportunities to think for yourself aren’t as available. The more adverse childhood experiences you have, the less likely you are to be able to get involved in a movement of change. Your main focus is surviving.

[Young people] might not know what food justice is yet. But if you take them to a community garden and you start to talk about why community gardens matter—then they’ll already be a part of it before they [learn the term] food justice.

Bevelyn Ukah, coordinator of the Food Youth Initiative, host of this year’s summit

Home organization: Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a research, extension, and education organization that “develops and promotes just and equitable food and farming systems” and runs the Food Youth Initiative.

What role do you see youth playing in the food movement?

It’s easy to get complacent as an adult. [Youth] will call you out. They remind me all the time it that doesn’t have to be done in any particular way.

One of the reasons RIC is really powerful is they acknowledge that any movement that has been successful has been led by youth. With the Woolworth [lunch counter sit-ins]—people talk about the Greensboro Four, [college] students. But a high percentage of them were from Dudley High School. I never really knew that, and I think those stories don’t get told for a reason. High school students haven’t been “tamed,” and there isn’t as much to lose.

What is it about this group of youth that has motivated or equipped them rise to leadership positions?

Their circumstances. At Poder Juvenil Campesino, for example, most of the youth that are doing advocacy work around migrant farm labor rights have been in the fields [themselves]. They talk about their own experiences. They’ve been doing a lot of work around child labor in agriculture and have really made moves to shift the legislation in North Carolina to raise the minimum working age.

Then, [when they can] see one another do that work, I think that adds a whole other level, because it’s creating an opportunity for collectives to form across these issues.

CEFS has been working on having a commitment to racial equity for a really long time. It’s something that’s very rarely done, uplifting the work of people of color in food systems’ work. That’s my professional answer.

How different is your personal answer?

The stories and experiences of people of color present so much depth and meat. There’s so much that goes with being a person of color in the U.S., because of our history, because of the U.S. history of genocide, colonialism, and slavery. Also, because of the resilience of people of color in reaction to those things.

You can see when these youth get together and stories start being told it’s like, “Oh my gosh, our connector is this marginalization thing—this being not acknowledged, not ever having a full sense of belonging, not being able to express my culture fully.” It creates a connection that is very positive. I think that positive connection is about resilience and humanity.

youth leader alexander sandersAlexander Sanders, youth participant from New Orleans, Louisiana

Age: 18; home organization: farm fellow for Grow Dat Youth Farm.

What’s your experience with food or agriculture? What’s your food story?

Where I live at is a food swamp. Fast food is everywhere. When we first moved there, I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ I got all the foods I wanted. I could get a burger from here, some fries from here, some nuggets from there, some pizza down there. It was amazing.

But then when I came to Grow Dat, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really unhealthy for me.’ And it’s kind of got me in a system where I’m brainwashed. And I just keep coming back here, spending my money, wasting it. At the end of the month, you’ve spent like $40. Grow Dat has really opened my eyes to planning out foods and making affordable meals that are going to fill you up and be cheap.

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What do you see as the biggest issues in your home community?

Probably the brainwashing gimmicks fast food restaurants like to use. Those burgers be looking A-1 on the commercials. But as soon as you buy it, it’s so small and ugly. But you bought it, so you’re going to eat it. You’re not just going to throw it away.

What’s the hardest thing about trying to get involved in changing the way people think about food?

One challenge is helping those who have less access—like no transportation or no money. They’ll listen to you, and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I understand.’ But they can’t go nowhere, and they can’t do nothing about it, because they only got a certain type of money, and they’re walking or they’re on the bus.

How do you expect to use what you learn at the summit back at Grow Dat?

The people here are really nice and open and welcome. I barely know half the people’s names here, and they just like “Hey, what’s up?” As a farm fellow, I’m going to deal a lot with college students and volunteers. I’m going to try to show that same love. Even if I don’t know your name, I’m going to talk with you. I’m going to show you how to do the farm task, and when we get to talking, I’m going to share some experiences and some learnings with you, and I hope you share some back.

Diamond McKoy, adult ally from Hope Mills, North Carolina

Age: 19; home organization: intern with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina; working as a team leader with Youth Ambassadors for a Better Community at a host site in Delco, North Carolina.

What’s your relationship with food or agriculture?

I’m from Council, a really small, rural community in Southeast North Carolina. I come from generations of farmers and sharecroppers. But my farm experience [is limited to] shucking corn and opening the peas.

It wasn’t really until I got to college that I started getting more into social activism and learning it’s not just about human rights, but it’s about food rights as well—equal distribution of food, and everybody deserves to eat. I decided to major in business and African American studies and minor in sustainability, because I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a big need in communities of color and underrepresented communities.’ What I really want to do is bridge the gap between sustainability and communities of color [looking at] how agriculture and food come into play.

In your home community, what do you see as the biggest issues surrounding food?

It would have to be the lack of resources and lack of access to fresh produce—true fresh produce. A lot of times at the farmers’ market you’ll see people selling “fresh, local” produce, but they’ll have oranges and pineapples. No—we don’t have that here. That’s a big problem, because people think they’re buying local food, but it’s not grown here. There’s a lack of knowledge.

The poorest counties in the state… were once two of the most profitable when it came to farming. But if you go down there now and you pass by some of the corn fields, there’s sand on the top. Sand. They use the pesticides to get rid of the weeds, so it depletes the soil.

Does anything stick out that you’ve learned at the summit so far?

I went to a wealth workshop earlier, about different ways to think about wealth. Oftentimes, we only think about it in terms of assets and how much money we have, but in reality, it could be in terms of impact.

How do you apply that to thinking about the food movement?

A lot of people aren’t interested in working on conservation because they don’t see dollar signs. I want to go back to the youth and say, “Hey, being wealthy doesn’t mean having all this money. Being wealthy is about your health and wellbeing, about how you feel when you walk into a room. If you’re breathing and you have your family and you have something that makes you happy, that’s your wealth.”

What place do you think these young people here have in the food movement? What do they bring?

They can change everyone’s perspective—they can take it to their parents, they can take it to their friends. I remember going home as a child and telling my mom, “You should stop pouring the grease outside, because you’re hurting stuff.” She’d be like, “Oh! Okay—I didn’t know that.” And she stopped. Some people realize times are changing and we need to make certain changes if we want to live longer. Youth have the power to make the changes we want. It’s all in our hands.

Photo credit, Jonathan Seelig / HomeGrown Heroes.

Christina Cooke is Civil Eats' associate editor. Based in North Carolina, she has also covered people, place, science, business, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The New York Times,, The Guardian, Oxford American, and High Country News. In the past, she has worked as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the documentary writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies and the creative nonfiction writing MFA program at Portland State University, she teaches interviewing and nonfiction writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Find out more at Read more >

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