How a cool posse of enterprising teens managed to find greater meaning in life and give back to the community. Two words: Food Justice.
Not too long ago, Jacques Jackson, a Watsonville teenager, often came home after school and, by his own admission, would not do anything productive at all. “Me and my friends would just go and waste time.”
Then there’s Sal. He lives in Santa Cruz’s Beach Flats area. A year ago, the 19-year-old says he just “partied” with his friends—like … off and on from Friday night through Sunday.
At 18, Kayla Kropp had an internship at the water department but when she wasn’t attending to work, she’d find herself sitting inside all day, “being with my friends and doing nothing.”
And Mason Melander. Well, he says he “really did nothing” with his life. “I was at the beach every day watching the waves, thinking, ‘There must be something else out there.’”
There was. It was Him.
At least the Him destined to make a positive difference in the world. Now, Mason, Kayla, Sal and Jacques have turned their “nothing” into something. The four local teens have suddenly become an integral part of a fiercely committed pack of 25 young individuals working at UC Santa Cruz’s “Food, What?!” portal this summer. The youth empowerment program uses food through sustainable agriculture and health as the major thrust for generating personal growth and transformation. That may sound so spiritually wolverine in its definition—really, transformation? (Yeah, really.)—but the organization, led by founder Doron Comerchero, and operating within the nonprofit Life Lab at UCSC, doesn’t seem to lack passion in its mission to offer teens new ways of looking at life—literally. Here, the youth grow, cook, eat and distribute healthy sustainably raised food. Much of all this is designed to assist—OK, nudge—teens to realize their full potential, too.
Is “Food, What?!” a midwife to latter-day teens hoping to discover their full identity?
“It’s not about spreading the good ‘organic gospel,’” Comerchero told GT back in January when he nabbed a local Nextie Award for his commitment to the community. “The heart of the program is that we’re using food as a vehicle to grow strong young people.”
Many of those young people learned of “Food, What?!” during Comerchero’s outreach at local schools, something he often does. (Much like local Danny Keith and Grind Out Hunger.) During one talk/event last spring, Mason realized there could, indeed, be something else out there for him. He was accepted into the UCSC program only to later wind up being hired for a summer internship.
“I was really interested in how to grow vegetables but I really didn’t have any idea of how to do it,” he says. “Actually seeing how to grow them and doing all the different kinds of farming methods—that also interested me and I was interested in how to be self-sustained.”
Kayla, Sal and Jacques also entered the “Food, What?!” fold in the spring and have been participating in the summer internship alongside Mason. And each day ushers in a different experience but there is a weekly rhythm to things on this half-acre haven, which includes a modest satellite office, fertile farmland, some chickens, bees—always good to see them—and a cornucopia of other nature-rich, pro-ag bliss. Mondays and Tuesdays, for instance, find the youth taking turns farming, tending to the myriad vegetables, fruits and flowers. They prepare meals here, too. Other days find them reaching out to the community, including working closely with the Homeless Garden Project—assisting in the planting of vegetables and attending to them—or bringing boxes of fresh vegetables to, say, the Beach Flats community, which always seems in short supply of that manna.
Sal, who takes a bus from his home in Beach Flats every morning to get to UCSC, is fully aware of what’s lacking, food wise, in his own neighborhood. “In the Flats, they only have little markets and you go in there and everything is expensive,” he says. “I told my neighbor, ‘Hey, if you need any vegetables, come to me and I will give you vegetables.’”
Sal Vasquez grabs a big chunk of life—literally—at “Food, What?”
Admittedly, it’s an interesting word to hear coming out of the mouth of a teenager from an area notorious for its crime and other pitfalls. Certainly, offering vegetables to somebody on the street is a much better alternative to, well, drugs. And this is what makes Sal, Mason, Kayla and Jacques all the more interesting, especially in an era where the likes of texting, social media and even the alt-world rave “Second Life” have distracted young individuals from real connection and real living.
So, on a sunny August afternoon, as the five of us sat at a picnic table in the outdoor kitchen area at Life Lab (Comerchero on hand) we began discussing not just how each of the teens’ lives have changed since they have been working with the land—growing food, and offering it up to the local community—but how they see the bigger picture itself. What are their efforts contributing to—really? Basically, why the heck are they here?
Enter: Food Justice.
But to fully grasp what that concept means, it’s best to pull away from the picnic and get real.
The dirt on Food Justice is rich and rife with delicious meaning and terminology. Think of it as an über forward-thinking, pro-ag, positive-health, circle-of-life orgy with deep roots and orgasmic consequences for the mind, body and soul of local communities and the individuals that comprise them.
That said, buckle up as we attempt to pick this apart.
The actual “Food Justice” movement has grown considerably over the last decade with a denizen of organizations sprouting up to promote a common cause. The California Food & Justice Coalition, for instance, which is based in the Bay Area, harvests a bevy of good vibes about food, agriculture and raising the level of awareness about the positive effects—and often the challenges—of accessibility to healthy-grown food. It promotes “the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice.”
Meanwhile, other portals, like New York-based Just Food, connects local farms to New York City neighborhoods with an intent to unite local farms and city residents of “all economic backgrounds” with fresh, sustainable foods. It’s pro-community garden, tackling the deficiencies in food access, among other things.
In their book, “Food Justice,” authors Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi discuss the increasing disconnect between food and culture; going on to target the “horrific conditions faced by farmworkers and those who work the meatpacking and poultry plants; of low income neighborhoods that lack access to fresh and healthy food but abound in fast food restaurants and liquor stores; of thousands of food products introduced each year that emphasize convenience, packaging gimmicks, and cheap food and fast food over fresh food and healthy food; and of the international reach of American fast-food franchises that has been a major contributor to an epidemic of “globesity”—among other things.
At its core, Food Justice is consciousness-raising in that it hopes to bring greater awareness about where the food you consume actually comes from—and understanding who helped grow it and what it actually took to grow it. (There’s a saying about thanking the hands that brought you the food—literally.) So let’s put it this way: At the end of the day, when you’re looking down on your dinner plate, what are seeing? Locally grown vegetables? Meat or fish that once thrived within your own community bubble?
It’s the F-to-F Factor: Farm to Fork. It’s about the food and how it arrived to you.
For Comerchero, Food Justice is serious business. “It’s about having ‘just’ food—in its production, for its consumer and in their access and affordability to it, and for the environment,” he says.
A University of Michigan grad with lofty goals of being a good steward for the planet, Comerchero worked hard to understand “the land” and the role food plays in the vast spectrum of life. At one point, he collaborated with urban community gardens back in New York—and at a time when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was trying to eradicate them. He descended upon the Santa Cruz area more than five years ago and created “Food, What?!” in 2007 within Life Lab’s lair.
Raising the level of awareness about Food Justice is one thing, but Comerchero, now in his early thirties, seemed to realize early on that it could produce more profound effects if he’d plant such rich concepts about the food system into young fertile minds. Imagine what could happen, then, if teens learned a deeper value and appreciation of food? Would that, in fact, produce a life-giving, pro-community after-effect of profound proportions?
That’s the idea.
Many of the teens at “Food, What?!” are dubbed “at-risk” and/or are in alternative schooling, but there don’t appear to be any labels here. It’s these very human that are growing and watching over the food. It’s a cornucopia on the farm, a bastion of good-earth freshness: from green beans, kale and heirloom tomatoes to strawberries, blackberries and plums.
Comerchero is “at home” here. He often sports a sun hat, comfortable, loose-fitting clothes and an upbeat attitude. He seems driven, focused and—for lack of a better word—rooted. And if his advocacy for Food Justice is noble, then his commitment to helping teens is downright pioneering.
Last year, Mason Melander wondered what else was “out there.” This year, he found out.
He talks considerably about Food Justice “access”—as in, are there fresh veggies in the neighborhood you live in.
“Notice I took out organic here—baseline is just ‘fresh’ and ‘affordable,’” he adds. “Let’s use West Oakland as an example—30,000 people, 52 liquor stores, one small market to buy fruit, veggies, and healthy staples. And no full-service grocery stores. People often guess violence when asked what the number one killer in Oakland is. Incorrect. It’s heart disease, which has a direct link to diet. Diet has a direct link to access and affordability. What foods can folks in Oakland access readily?—cheap fast food, fried food, junk food.”
He shares that he was raised by a single mother and brings up a vital point.
“What if we didn’t have a car and we lived in West Oakland or Jacques’ neighborhood in Watsonville?” he goes on. “How long would it take my mom, struggling just to pay our bills, to take public transport to get to a grocery and back? Who would watch me? Would she even go that far or would a Happy Meal at McDonald’s be tonight’s dinner because it’s affordable and we have access to it? These are the real conversations that families face daily in relation to food justice.”
One key component in the Food Justice spectrum revolves around whether the food you’re consuming is actually fueling you or dragging you down?
“This is not about being a purist,” he adds. “As the director of “Food, What?!” you will still find me enjoying a cone at Penny Ice Creamery. It’s about the big picture and your personal health. Are you eating a rainbow of colors to get a spectrum of nutrients? Are you drinking enough water to stay hydrated? Are you eating whole grains? We don’t teach about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. Youth already know what serves their bodies and what is detrimental. We just grow our own food, harvest it, and cook it daily. We celebrate our healthy food culture that we co-create with each meal.”
As a result, a great many of the youth that move through the “Food, What?!” program often reduces their own consumption of non-healthy foods. (Actually, Mason, Kayla, Sal and Jacques all speak of how much junk food they see see their peers consuming.) Some make significant personal gains shifting what they consume. Others cut down just one basic thing—soda, perhaps. But even that is considered a huge step.
Hello, Farm Bill.
Get to know it. It’s the massive piece of legislation up for renewal in 2012. It addresses farm subsidies, community food project funding, issues around the production of high-fructose corn syrup, and the infrastructure of our nation’s food system and much more. A recent Science article, entitled “Transforming U.S. Agriculture,” notes that even though American farms have “significantly increased their production yields in recent years, the environment and public health has been sacrificed.”
Oh, the buzz on the Farm Bill is big, big, big. Google the term and you’ll discover a great many people are charged about it. Of the Farm Bill that was last passed, The Civil Eats blog, for example, reports that “the bulk of the funding for agriculture went to subsidize industrial-sized commodity farmers (producing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice) in a big way. Congress voted to continue a pattern that, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), has allowed 10 percent of the nation’s farms to collect 74 percent of all farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009, a total amounting to over $150 billion.”
Jacques Jackson (above) and Kayla Kropp (below) and other local teens are planting seeds for a Food Justic future—and their own.
Food Justice: it’s like personal growth and recovery and that proverbial onion—there are always more layers to peel away, emotional or otherwise.
So, let’s catch up about FJ.
Fresh food accessibility to all humans. Check.
Greater understanding of the food system. Check.
Reworking the current Farm Bill for a robust reboot in 2012. Check.
Wait a second. Let’s explore that just a little further.
When we say “just” food, what are we really saying? In many ways, there’s a civil rights element in here. Comerchero notes the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), mostly Latino and Haitian farmworkers from Immokalee, Florida.
The coalition was formed in 1995 by a group of about 40 workers to thwart what was/is considered “gross human rights and labor violations” inflicted upon the migrant farm workers—those who seasonally come into the town to help harvest food. (“Immokalee” is a Seminole word for “my home.”) The Florida workers pick most of the tomatoes that are bought into America, both in fast food and in grocery stores.
The group garnered significant attention recently during a nationwide tour requesting Trader Joe’s—there were others, like one protesting Taco Bell—to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes.
“That penny would go straight to the farm laborer,” Comerchero notes, recalling a conversation he had with CIW founder Lucas Benitez, a longtime tomato picker. “Benitez spoke of what that translates into,” he says. “It’s the difference of earning $12,000 a year (for working six to seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day, with little to no respect) to upward of $17,000 a year.
“That’s a significantly different salary for workers to support a family on.”
Locally, Swanton Berry Farms and Jacobs Farms have been praised for the fair and just treatment of their workers.
So, you can’t really talk about Food Justice, without bringing up farm-worker rights. In fact, the mention of recent abuse of a farm worker back east, makes teenage Sal, from Beach Flats, sit up at the picnic table.
“I just really want people to be treated equally, you know?” he says.
“If you worked in an office,” Kayla adds, “you wouldn’t be beaten if you went to get a drink of water. People need to be more respectful to people growing their food.”
Justice For All
A few quails strut through the Life Lab gardens near the picnic table where we are situated, prompting Comerchero to get up and guide them elsewhere. I turn my attention back on Sal, Kayla, Mason and Jacques and ask them what Food Justice really means to them.
“Everyone having fresh organic food and enough water,” Sal shares.
“For me, it’s about the right for everybody to be able to get healthy food for a reasonable price,” Kayla adds. “And teaching the youth and spreading the word to be healthier; to be more local instead of going to big corporations to get your food—supporting local farms and influencing people to eat healthier.”
Mason reveals that he likes the aspect of keeping the environment healthy. “Since I’ve been here I’ve learned to grow organically—without chemicals because those chemicals run off into the ocean and kill life.”
For Jacques, some of it is about not just consuming junk food. It’s about “healthier food for low-income families that can’t afford to go far to healthy food places.”
These topics and others were addressed at a recent Food Justice conference called “Rooted in Community,” that the foursome attended in Philadelphia with Comerchero. It was there that youths from around the country attended workshops, networked and, perhaps, in the most inspiring move, created a Youth Food Bill of Rights. (Imagine that!)
After breaking up into small groups, the youths whittled down the list to include 19 points that they would like to see changed in the current system—everything from safe working conditions for farmers and a ban of high-fructose corn syrup to revamping school lunch programs and making certain healthy foods are available for children.
The list is being offered to help educate politicians and others within local communities to hopefully create positive changes in the current food system.
“When we were in Philly presenting the Youth Food Bill of Rights to the world, there was a moment where the youth organizers asked each youth to go out into the area surrounding us—Constitution Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed—and bring back two people to learn about the Youth Bill,” Comerchero says. “As I was striking out trying to get the park police to come listen, Sal was effectively educating people on why we were there and enticing them to come join us for a minute. He was clear and direct, no games, and spoke from the heart about Food Justice and the Bill. That’s strong.”
Listening to the group, it’s clear that their efforts are producing positive ripple effects. And while Santa Cruz is a bastion for such high ideals, the actions these locals are taking serve as a mindful example that profound effects can happen beyond the county. And it all comes back to the land, the soil and the food growing inside of it.
Speaking of … a “Food, What?!” worker approaches and hands Comerchero a kohlrabi, which looks as if a big beet mated with an alien radish. I’m told that it’s great raw and sliced in salads. The teens nod. Obviously, they’ve been been down this road before with Comerchero, who, naturally, begins slicing the vegetable. He hands me a sliver.
Yes. It is good raw, its turnip-like vigor and crispness balancing the slight zing it leaves afterward. I crave more, but Jacques is serving a helping of something entirely different.
“When I was little, I would eat McDonald’s three times a day and now I think about what’s in my food and what I want to eat to be healthier,” Jacques tells us. “It’s definitely influenced my food decisions.” (Although, he admits he’s more into fruit than veggies.)
I ask the others what they’ve gained from being involved at “Food, What?!” And as each of the teens shares, I keep hearing one word come up: Community. They all mention that not only have they learned more about how to create good change within their own communities, but that they actually want to.
“I feel like I have more power over my health and my community; that I finally have confidence and enough knowledge to know I can help and change my community to be healthier,” Kayla reveals.
“I just think people should respect the Earth,” she adds, looking away, and gazing out into the gardens nearby. “There’s so many people who aren’t aware of healthy food and I wish that there was a way everyone could become aware of that; that they could just buy a seed and then they wouldn’t have to go to McDonalds to get their food; that they could go in their backyard— grab a squash or some tomatoes. I wish more people really could see what we see—how much the Earth offers to us. There is so much that just shoots up all this delicious stuff that we get to eat.” n
“Food, What?!” is hosting a youth-led benefit dinner on Sept. 10 on the Farm (Life Lab) at UCSC. For more information, or to find out other ways to connect with youth and “Food, What?!” go to foodwhat.org.
Know What/Now What?
Things you can do to better your relationship with the land and the food you consume:
Grow Your Own Food
Already a gardener? Then plant a new crop. Veggie generating big buzz at the moment: kohlrabi. This curious, radish-like creature is terrific raw, and great when it’s sliced in salads. Never grown food? Consider planting a seed in your yard or in a pot inside. Things bloom, baby.
Rediscover the Joy of Stories
Head to the farmer’s market and—imagine this!—talk to one of the farmers. (In a Twitter era, talking is still hip. Trust us.) Ask the farmers why they farm. Comerchero says, “Ask them to tell you their story of how they got their hands dirty for the first time—and also be patient as they are interrupting their story to make sales!” Additionally, think of attending local farm events in the fall as there are many in Santa Cruz County. Once you are there, engage in a discussion with the farm laborers. “Ask them about their families,” Comerchero adds. “Ask them to describe what brings them joy in producing food and what their challenges are.”
Notice How You Feel When You Eat
Take note of what fuels you and what drags you down. Make the connection between your food and your feelings. See what’s there to explore.
Eat a Meal With Friends or Family and (Brace Yourself) … Connect
How about using food for the great connector it is in all of our lives? Eating is vital. We all have to do it. Added bonus: thank your ancestors who were farmers—as a blessing to the meal.
Get Fierce With Your Dollar Power
Each dollar you spend on food is a vote, so vote for a food system that nourishes you, the producers, and the Earth. Vote with all your beliefs and celebrate your power to make change.
—Greg Archer as told to by Doron Comerchero of “Food, What?!”
Get Your Justice On
A list of several ‘Food Justice’ portals locally and beyond:
UCSC Farm and Garden Apprenticeship. Visit casfs.ucsc.edu/apprentice-training.
Loaded with more curriculum education, farm knowledge, sustainability, gardening resources and inspiration than you could possibly imagine. From garden classrooms to apprenticeships, this is one local portal worth knowing more about. Learn more at lifelab.org or on YouTube at youtube.com/user/lifelabvideos?feature=mhum.
Santa Cruz AREA Farmers’ Markets
Lush and bountiful, you can’t get more local than this when it comes to buying produce from nearby soils. Boasting many locales: Downtown Santa Cruz, Westside Santa Cruz, Live Oak, Scotts Valley, Felton. Learn more at santacruzfarmersmarket.org. For Aptos Farmers’ Market, visit montereybayfarmers.org/aptos.html.
Cabrillo College Horticulture See cabrillo.edu/academics/horticulture/.
Food Forward is a local documentary TV show about “the people who are changing the way we eat in America.” Its tagline: Let’s Eat. Right. Now.
Written by food journalist Stett Holbrook and produced by filmmaker Greg Roden, Food Forward is a series of 13, 30-minute episodes exploring “new ideas of food in America as told by the people who are living them.” Each episode focuses on a different theme—school lunch reform or urban agriculture perhaps. Dig in. Learn more at foodforward.tv or on Twitter: @Food_Forward Santa Cruz.
Homeless Garden Project
An entity that stands out, its mission is, in part, to offer job training and transitional employment to people who are “homeless or at risk of homelessness. The programs offer trainees an opportunity to rebuild and develop basic life skills and a sense of worth as human beings.” Programs like the Womens Organic Flower Enterprise and Community Supported Agriculture. Visit homelessgardenproject.org.
A passionate enterprise launched by several farmers on eight acres just north of Santa Cruz. Supplies residents and businesses with fresh, organically grown, fruits and vegetables. Call (831) 426-6515 or visit freewheelinfarm.com.
Student / Farmworker Alliance
Partners with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for farmworker justice. sfalliance.org. Twitter: @sfalliance.
Pro Food Justice with a tagline of “Healthy Food for Everyone!” peoplesgrocery.org. Twitter: @peoplesgrocery.
California Food And Justice
A statewide membership coalition “committed to the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural and environmental justice.” cafoodjustice.org/ Twitter: @cafoodjustice.
San Francisco based, it works to ensure every aspect of your food—from the time it’s grown to the time it’s eaten—can be “healthy, safe, profitable, affordable and fair.”Learn more at rootsofchange.org. Twitter: @RootsofChange.
A national initiative striving to make real food the norm—not the exception. Bike riders hope to “bring to life stories of farmers, workers, and everyday youth and adults who have been deeply impacted by our country’s industrial food system, and who are working to change it.” Twitter: @liverealnoworg.
This portal promotes “critical thought about sustainable agriculture and food systems as part of building economically and socially just communities.” Learn more at civileats.com Twitter: @CivilEats.
This is just a sampling. There’s more. Send us your list and we’ll include it with our growing list online. And follow us on Twitter for daily updates and news on Food Justice all week.
Youth Bill Of Rights
From the recent Rooted in Community “Food Justice” Conference
• “We the Youth declare, state, and demand the following rights for all people around the world with an emphasis on equality. We demand healthy, organic, local, humane, affordable, sustainable, and culturally appropriate food for all people and especially low income people of color and low income people in our communities that are the most oppressed and hurt by the current food system.
• We demand respect for mother earth, for the Food Justice and Food Sovereignty culture, and for the indigenous cultures that are working to establish their own autonomous food systems. All must respect and protect the land that grows our food.
• We demand an end to the mistreatment of workers, farmers, animals, and the environment, that is caused by our current food system.
• We demand government funding for more nutrition education, and awareness in our communities, and for all communities. Education on things such as, but not limited to, health, seasonal produce, and diet related diseases, farming, organic, sustainability, alternative methods of farming and any and all subjects that those communities demand. People have the right to know what’s in their food, and to decide what to eat. We promote educating parents on nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Schools in our communities and all over the world must establish and be leaders with the tools and education that promote a healthy lifestyle. We recommend that schools recognize youth lead fitness programs as tools for success.
• We the youth demand more healthy food choices in our schools, and in schools all over the world. We want vending machines out of schools unless they have healthy choices. We need healthier school lunches that are implemented by schools with the ingredients decided on by the Youth. We demand composting in schools and in our neighborhoods.
• We the youth call for the termination of any and all Genetically Modified seeds, plants, and produce. We want a policy from the governments all over the world that ends GMO’s, no exceptions.
• We the youth absolutely don’t want any chemicals or pesticides in our food!
• We the Youth demand a ban on High Fructose Corn Syrup and other additives, and preservatives that are a detriment to our and our communities’ health. This must be implemented by our government, and governments around the world.
• We demand food that is grown within a 100-mile radius of our homes. We don’t want food traveling thousands of miles using up fossil fuels to get to our homes.
• We the youth demand that everyone working in the food system must be treated with respect, treated fairly, and earn at the minimum, a just living wage. For all those that are working in the food system we demand a model like the Domestic Fair Trade Association to be implemented.
• We demand the implementation of regulations from all governments and peoples on a global scale that prevent corporations from globalizing our food systems and our world as we recognize this as seriously costly to global and local human health.
• We demand an end to the subsidy of cash crops, including corn and soy beans. Rather than our tax dollars going to subsidies for industrial farming, we demand financial support for small organic farmers.
• We want a restructuring of the process of being certified organic and fair trade. This must come from the people, and from grassroots movements across the world.
• We the youth demand that a policy be enacted allowing for unused land to be made available for communities to farm and garden organically and sustainably.
• We believe farmers and all people should have the freedom to save their seed. Any law that prevents this should be reversed; no law shall ever be made to prevent seed saving.
• We demand an end to industrial farming, which accounts for one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Tighter regulation and steps must be made that will decrease the amount of emissions every year.
• We demand more farmers’ markets instead of super markets. The number of farmer’s markets must be increased every year until there are more farmers’ markets than super markets.
• We demand the continuation and respect of all cultural history and significance of food and agriculture. We must work to restore, remember, and regain our food culture, practices, and traditions in farming.
• We want healthy options in corner stores while empowering the community to make better food choices. We demand more jobs for youth to work with our communities to make this happen and help them control their food systems.
• We demand school assemblies to recruit more youth to promote food justice. The continuation of the movement for Food Justice, Food Sovereignty and cultivation of future Youth leaders is necessary for feeding our youth, our nation and our world.
For more information, please visit www.rootedincommunity.org.
Photos: Keana Parker