Introduction: Youth & the Food System

Youth have been key to advancing social justice movements throughout history. They will play a critical role in the movement for food justice as well

In April of 1960, three hundred college students gathered in Raleigh, NC to determine how they could build on the success of their sit-ins.  The organization that emerged, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was instrumental in creating the sense of urgency that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine the civil rights movement—from SNCC to the Freedom Rides, to the Little Rock Nine—without the organized energy of youth.  (Martin Luther King himself was just 26 when he was drafted into the movement in the early 1950s.)

In a similar way, young people are poised right now to play a major role in the food justice movement; and in fact, they already have:

  • The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Student Farmworker Alliance forced the fast food industry to the negotiating table for the first time in 30 years. Through teach-ins, rallies, op-eds, boycotts, and other strategies, this unique alliance of Florida tomato pickers and concerned college students raised national opposition to the abhorrent conditions of farmworkers’ lives, and succeeded in getting agreements from McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Sodexho, and other major food corporations to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes in order to dramatically improve farmworker wages and lives. With the help of student partners, the CIW Campaign for Fair Food is thriving and continues to win concessions from industry.
  • The Real Food Challenge is taking aim at $5 billion worth of college food spending; in effect, getting schools to divest from industrial agriculture and invest in a fair, green food economy. RFC members on dozens of college campuses nationwide are working with food service directors to improve their own school food – with an intended national outcome of twenty percent of college and university food being “real food” (healthy, regionally-sourced, fairly-produced) by 2020.
  • The youth of Rooted in Community (RIC) have developed a Youth Food Bill of Rights, spelling out the kind of food system they want to grow up in – and declaring their intention to work for it. RIC is a network of organizations empowering low income teens through urban farming and food justice work; its annual conference is a powerful opportunity for youth from around the country to learn from each other, demonstrate their leadership skills, and recognize that their internship with a farming program in their hometown is part of a much larger movement. At the 2011 conference in Philadelphia, they kicked the adults out of the room and set about drafting their demands and dreams for food justice for all.

Across the country, through these organizations and many others, a new generation of young leaders has been nurtured on inner-city urban farms, school gardens, college campuses, internships, and at their own kitchen tables.

In the food justice movement, the time is right for young people to take the lead. They have the greatest stake in the future – and given the current statistics on obesity and health, where one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese and one in three will develop diabetes over the course of their lives (a number that increases to almost one half for children of color), they have the most to lose. But as Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel told Slow Food’s International Congress in 2008, “There is bad news and good news about the youth of America. The bad news is that this is the first generation in America predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than its parents.  The good news is that there is a group of young people who are determined to change that.”

In these pages, you will hear the voices and stories of these young people, determined to change the odds and change the world, and meet organizations who are empowering those youth to grow and inspire the movement. United across lines of race, class, and geography, these youth could be the tipping point to force revolutionary change all the way from Capitol Hill to your corner store.

By Siena Chrisman, WhyHunger, and Anim Steel, Live Real/The Food Project.