Farming

Young People Working for Food Justice in North Carolina

Published by
Christina Cooke

A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of the Deep Dish, our monthly newsletter for members. Become a member today to receive the next issue.

Over a few weeks this fall, the youth involved in the Growing Change program have adopted two orphaned cows: One was born in the driving rain of Hurricane Ian and got so wet her mother did not recognize her scent; the other was a rejected twin. The young men, who are part of a project to flip a decommissioned North Carolina prison into a sustainable farm, are bottle-feeding the two animals and plan to introduce them into the farm’s multi-species grazing system soon.

“There should be a term beyond humanely raised,” says Noran Sanford, Growing Change’s founder and executive director, for the love and care the boys are giving the animals.

Seven 14- and 15-year-olds, all on the edge of the criminal justice system, comprise the current group helping convert the Scotland Correctional Facility, abandoned since 2001, into a working farm and education center. (We first reported on the effort in 2020.)

Growing Change is one of seven youth-led food justice organizations across North Carolina that make up the Food Youth Initiative (FYI), a project of NC State University. Other FYI groups include Transplanting Traditions, a community farm led by Karen refugees from Myanmar, PJC Poder Juvenile Campesino, a farmworker youth council affiliated with NC FIELD, and Pupusas for Education, a nonprofit that provides higher education scholarships to undocumented and DACAmented students.

“Youth are going up against the tide all the time,” says FYI’s youth food systems coordinator Bevelyn Ukah. “On the other hand, youth are the best, the most provocative storytellers in the world. In that sense, they’re well positioned and our greatest hope. Not because, ‘Oh my gosh, youth are the future,’ but because of their levels of willingness and courage to push against the status quo.”

The pandemic presented FYI with great challenges: For a couple years, the organization was not able to carry out its central work of convening youth to learn, share ideas, and build off each other’s energy. But the group is finding its footing once again, Ukah says.

“[Young people are] well-positioned and our greatest hope. Not because, ‘Oh my gosh, youth are the future,’ but because of their levels of willingness and courage to push against the status quo.”

Significantly, FYI recently received a $1.7 million grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield to fund racial equity work in food systems. And the organization is once again bringing young people together. In its first in-person effort since the pandemic, about 18 participants and their adult allies painted a food-justice mural on the side of a community food truck that will be used to help prospective chefs and young people launch food businesses and navigate the systemic barriers that often stand in the way. After an eight-month process, they unveiled the completed truck at the Transplanting Traditions farm in June.

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“It’s really important to create the space where youth have roots,” said Cecilia Polanco, the director of development of Pupusas for Education, who is also helping lead FYI’s racial equity work. “If they see an injustice or need support, they’ve got supportive adult relationships they can call on. We’re also creating a standard they take into the world with them [where they can say], ‘Actually, this is not right. We can do better.’”

In addition to caring for the baby cows and carrying out other elements of the program’s master plan, the young men at Growing Change are establishing a vermicomposting business using food waste they collect from local residents and businesses. They are also expanding a project they developed during the pandemic to distribute boxes of food to people in need. To stock the boxes, they collect overflow food from the local food bank and partner with local churches to help them establish gardens.

“They’re feeding hungry neighbors,” says Sanford, “but deeper than that, they’re demonstrating that despite their challenges, they can be part of the solution, not the focus of the problem.”

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Christina Cooke

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, TheAtlantic.com, 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 www.christinacooke.com.

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Christina Cooke

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