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Contact: Nijmie Dzurinko (215) 667-0066
Youth Convene for Healthier Schools
Young People of Color to Congress: Keep Moving Forward on School Food
Los Angeles – While most teens are enjoying their summer vacation, members of the Youth for Healthy Schools advocacy network will be traveling from 12 states to meet at The California Endowment in Los Angeles, for three days starting July 30, to share strategies about how to make their schools healthier places to be. At the top of their agenda: school food.
“We support Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in demanding that Congress uphold strong school food standards in the upcoming reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HFFK),” remarked Sandra García of the Southwest Workers Union in San Antonio. “This isn’t child’s play – we may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than our parents.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three U.S. children is overweight. The USDA counts thirty million youth that eat school lunch every day, and two-thirds of those do so out of need. For almost 20 million young people throughout our country, school meals are a primary source of nutrition.
These young people know firsthand what it’s like to live in communities where healthy options are scarce. “We traced the path of students walking to school and all they see is fast food chains with food high in fat and sodium,” shared Isaías Vásquez of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos in Denver. “When that is the alternative, it’s crucial that schools only serve healthy food.”
Implemented after the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the enhanced National School Lunch Program’s nutritional guidelines, which include more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and limits on fat and salt, are now in their third year. The future of these standards is being debated in Congress.
Despite these common-sense measures that polls show most parents and voters agree with, other groups including corporate food and agriculture giants have hotly contested their implementation and reauthorization.
“It’s sad that some members of Congress seem to care more about the health of corporate profits than the next generation of youth,” reflected Jamal Jones of the Baltimore Algebra Project.
“Youth of today have way more power to change our society than what we’re taking advantage of. The health of our schools’ food directly affects us and it’s our duty to change it for the better!” said Andrea Boakye of Youth Empowered Solutions in Charlotte, N.C.
About Youth for Healthy Schools: Youth for Healthy Schools is a collaborative organizing network of 15 youth and parent organizations of color in 12 states leading a movement for school and community wellness as part of the Healthy Communities II Initiative of the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing. For more information, visit www.youthforhealthyschools.com.
Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây
cuando comes fruta, recuerda quien planto el árbol
when eating fruit, remember who planted the tree.
This is a Vietnamese proverb that we all say together to start every food justice collective meeting.
Before I was born, my grandparents lived in the home my parents reside in now. While they lived in California, my grandpa grew all kinds of fruits and vegetables: peaches, grapes, nectarines, green onions, bonsai trees, and a plethora of other edible things. I can’t remember eating all those yummy things but what I do recall is my parents slowly cutting down vines, trees, flowers, and bushes weekend by weekend because it was getting to be too overgrown and too many bees were swarming around all the young people my mom babysat for afterschool. I think it was also because our backyard didn’t fit in with the rest of my suburban neighborhood’s decor. Although my father continues to grow some things like Japanese eggplant and green onions for their miso soups, it will never be the kind luscious forest that my grandpa dedicated so much time and effort into. I never realized the importance of this small bit of my own history until I started to engage more with food justice and food sovereignty work.
It wasn’t until college that I became more aware about the importance of knowing where and how the food I ate came from. Before then, I always just tried to rush through school lunch so that I could avoid as much as possible all the comments and stares about the onigiris (Japanese rice balls) my mom packed me for the day. I started becoming involved in Berkeley’s Student Food Collective- a student run store on campus that sold local produce and alternatives to junk food. At the same I was also engaged in a students of color political coalition known as CalSERVE where I developed much of my analysis on race, class, and gender. It was the intersection of those two spheres that really catalyzed my interest in food racism and the food industrial complex and led me to write my senior thesis titled: The People’s Department vs. Last Plantation: an analysis of USDA’s discriminatory lending practices against minority farmers and its impact on the US food system. I never thought that particular year-long project would result in the organizing I do today with young people through the Food Justice Collective.
I moved to New Orleans 2 years ago to continue and extend the volunteer work I was doing while in school with Mack McClendon, a community leader and organizer in the Lower 9th Ward. He and I dedicated a lot of thought and effort into building solutions around the lack of food security in the neighborhood. Out of the 10 businesses that exist in the Lower 9th Ward, 7 of them are corner stores that do not supply any produce. I helped him to build gardens and start up a community market with local farmers and other prepared foods vendors. While Mack is not with us here any longer, he taught me a great deal in relationship building and community led and driven solutions.
Today I coordinate the Food Justice Collective, a collaborative pilot program between Rethink Kids New Orleans and VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative where young leaders use food as a way to uncover and reveal the real issues of white supremacy and racism that are at the root of why our people don’t have access to food nor the ability to own and control our own food systems. Our group is multi-racial (Black, Latin@, and Vietnamese) and multi-lingual (Vietnamese, Spanish, and English) and spans an age range of 13-23 years old. We focus on intersecting histories of oppression in relationship to land and ownership of food systems. We are aiming to build bridges of understanding of past experiences (i.e. intersecting the narrative of Black sharecroppers to migrant farm workers from the Bracero program to the narrative of Vietnamese refugees who retained their agricultural wisdom to build their own modes of survival) that influence our present situation in relation to food. In addition to uncovering untold histories through reflective dialogue and intergenerational dialogue with different elders and youth, the Food Justice Collective voted to operate as a farmers’ cooperative where they invested ½ of their stipend into the farm to purchase their own seeds and equipment to plant, grow, harvest, and distribute to local restaurants, cooperatives, and farmers’ markets through VEGGI’s networks.
The Food Justice Collective has helped me connect back to my own roots and history and really appreciate the agricultural knowledge embedded in my ancestry and to my grandpa who was growing his own food, but also inspired my continued organizing efforts to build alternative systems and combat the food system we face today that is killing people of color- particularly youth of color in New Orleans. Here is our platform on food justice:
Racism and corporate greed coming from big agriculture (ie Monsanto) and junk food companies are shortening the lives of young people especially youth of color. As a result of malnourishing school meals, food deserts, and lack of access to own our food systems, we don’t see culturally competent food, real food, nor fresh or healthy food in our diets.
- we want access to fresh, healthy, culturally reflective food in every community.
- we want gardens in every school and community run by community members that grows food that reflects the cultures we come from.
My parents, Annette Esquibel and Victor Olivas, met at a small church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Just after my sister was born they moved back to California where my father was also raised. They eventually found themselves in Redondo Beach, CA. On Mothers Day in 1990, I first saw the light of day and breathed salty ocean air. Only a few years later my parents split up, and after floating between families in Palm Dale and Denver my mother ended up back in New Mexico. We still saw my biological father all the time, but it was in Bernalillo, New Mexico where I spent the entirety of my life with my mom and stepdad. A small town with two Native American Pueblos to the North and South, the Sandia Mountains to the East, and Intel Corporation’s home- Rio Rancho, to the West.
My mom married again to John Murphey, a young Irish-Mexicano born and raised in New Mexico. It took my biological father until I was about 9 to finally meet a wealthier woman in Colorado, remarry and eventually start a second family in West LA County.
My sister and I travelled between both families several times a year. Many new people we met were fascinated by how “diverse” our family was. I had many awkward conversations with people who couldn’t understand where I was from, or why I had a Mexican-sounding accent yet didn’t know how to speak Spanish.
Rodolfo Anaya’s “Bless me, Ultima” is a Chicano Literary classic about a young boy named Antonio coming of age in rural New Mexico during the 1940’s. A family friend and his mentor Ultima, is a curandera (healer) who goes to live with his family for her last days. His father’s family are the Márez and his mother’s are the Lunas. The novel provides a context for the history and unique culture that emerged from communities surviving hundreds of years of land removal and colonization.
Many people I know share a similar history: “The first pioneers there were sheepherders. Then they imported herds of cattle from Mexico and became vaqueros. They became horsemen, caballeros, men whose daily life was wrapped up in the ritual of horsemanship. They were the first cowboys in a wild and desolate land which they took from the Indians. Then the railroad came. The barbed wire came. The songs, the corridos became sad, and the meeting of the people from Texas with my forefathers was full of blood, murder, and tragedy. The people were uprooted. They looked around one day and found themselves closed in. The freedom of land and sky they had known was gone. Those people could not live without freedom and so they packed up and moved west. They became migrants. My mother did not like the people of the llano. To her they were worthless drunkards, wanderers. She did not understand their tragedy, their search for the freedom that was now forever gone.”
Studies show that young women lose interest in academic and athletic programs after middle school. I did the same thing. In middle school I was in basketball, cross-country, soccer, choir, and excelling in mathematics. But when I turned 15, I couldn’t get along with my parents, school superiors, or the desert any longer. It had been a difficult freshman year; my grades dropped, I drifted from childhood friends and interests.
When I would visit friends and family in New Mexico for holidays, is when I began to miss and appreciate my home. I had a yearning in the pit of my stomach that’s hard to explain. I wanted to be in my room with my old things around me. I still liked living near the ocean, had loving friends and family around- But the yearning was deeper than that. I had to be physically present in the desert, with sandy clay beneath my feet, in order to begin my understanding.
The young boy’s struggle to discover his own identity describes my own: “It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet, for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting—They are quiet like the moon—And it is the blood of the Márez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name, and the spaces of the llano that have become their home.” I waited, then said. “Now we have come to live near the river, and yet near the llano. I love them both, and yet I am of neither. I wonder which life I will choose?”
The years I was gone a few friends were lost to gang violence and drugs, (many more recently just as we’re all reaching our mid-twenties) and my dad and step-dad both passed before the age of 50. They all may have had better chances of understanding the barriers they were facing and making it through if they had different opportunities.
Social determinants of health are environmental and social factors in a person’s life that determine the likelihood of certain health outcomes. Facing barriers to proper transportation, or access to real, whole foods significantly affects how prone someone is to disease.
Victor spent practically all of his life travelling between CA and NM trying to get his construction business going. His custom designs were perfect, but his love for his two distant homes was too great but still made enough to supplement supporting my sister and I.
“These were the people of my father, the vaqueros of the llano. They were an exuberant, restless people, wandering across the ocean of the plain.”
In Bernalillo County where Albuquerque is, communities in some areas live an average of 22 years less than others. These communities are most commonly communities of color.
It wasn’t until I began to learn the history of my family and the Chicano culture that I started to understand everything that my family and friends went through. Becoming a member of the SouthWest Organizing Project helped me understand the reasons why my community had lost so much and so many loved ones. Not because it was their time, but because they grew up in a society that had exploited their environments and values all of their lives.
I began as an intern with the Food Justice campaign called Project Feed the Hood, which sparked my passion for food in an entirely different way. I began to learn the importance of reconnecting with the land, the value of growing local, fresh food. And the power of spaces like community gardens to talk about social Injustices we face every day, including hunger, obesity and food access. I learned what it feels like to be empowered to make change in my community.
In 2014 83% of New Mexico households lived in poverty. Our state once again ranked #1 for Childhood hunger. 87% of households with Children are Food insecure, and families almost always are forced to choose between food and utilities, healthcare or education.
Now as a Youth for Healthy Schools fellow, I can continue to work with my community to address root causes of poverty and hunger in my community, and find new ways to build leadership skills and power with local youth. We can continue to share our stories with our partners around the nation, and collaborate with people who are facing similar social injustices in their communities.
Last week, the Detroit Food Policy Council graciously invited our Food Justice Collective from Rethink Kids New Orleans to key note speak at their conference. Juan Fortanel proudly repped our collective (a multi-racial (Black, Latin@, and Vietnamese) group of youth farmers and organizers studying how history, racism, and economics impacts our food system). He shared with the people of Detroit his own personal roots where his parents were migrant orange pickers and distributors in Florida and connected his own history to why it’s important to know the true history of your people.