By Ron Triggs, Grade 8, Edgar P Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, New Orleans
I have always lived in a food desert, meaning fresh and healthy food options are not readily available where I live. Instead, there’s a gas station corner store down the street from my house where most people buy food. At school, I want to see more fresh, healthy, culturally relevant foods in our school lunches. The New Orleans student of color population is at risk when it comes to eating nutritious and culturally relevant school meals. In Orleans Parish, an alarming 83.8% of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch compared to the national average of 48.1%. And, students eligible for free or reduced-priced are disproportionately students of color –88.1% of eligible students are Black.
During the 2012-2013 school year, I and other youth organizers from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools surveyed students, staff, and administrators in New Orleans schools about their perceptions of school food. Most students reported that school food is critical to getting them through the school day, and that they care about access to fresh, healthy and local food.Try putting yourself in a student’s shoes. Why do you think students of color struggle to get food that is nutritious, healthy, culturally relevant and tasty in their schools? Is it just because they’re low income or there a bigger problem? I think the problem is not only about giving students access to healthy food at lunch – which is important – but is a problem directly related to our food system.We operate in an economy that privileges profit over people. The people who grow our food work hard for a living, but the majority of dollars generated in the food system go to those at the top – not the farmers. It’s a system that benefits corporations, not people.
To better address the root causes of these issues – which we know affect the quality of our school meals – I joined a group called theFood Justice Collective, a collaboration between Rethink and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative. The Food Justice Collective is a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic youth of color farming cooperative that shares the practice of collectively maintaining a farm plot as a way to unearth systems of racism and colonization that are at the root of why marginalized people lack access to healthy food, land and opportunities. Together, we’re working towards food sovereignty.
We are engaged in farming to gain knowledge and skills to grow our own fresh, healthy, and culturally relevant food – the kind of food we are working to get in our schools. We are a ten member collective and we have invested our own money and time to make this collective work. We maintain and operate our own budget, purchase seeds and tools, and are developing relationships and an accountability structure necessary to carry out our farm plan.
In the Food Justice Collective, we practice cooperative economics: everyone works together with equal decision making power and ownership. We believe that by building a youth cooperative we can begin to rebuild a food system that guarantees money is invested within our own community, and that the quality of food available is our community is fresh, healthy, and culturally relevant. Our Food Justice Collective is a way for young farmers like myself to give my peers access the healthy food we really want.
For us, food justice isn’t just about ending hunger or only about getting better school lunches. It’s about growing food naturally and being able to have food that is affordable, accessible and high quality. I would like to end with this Vietnamese proverb that we say at every Food Justice Collective meeting:
Cuando comes fruta, recuerda quien planto el árbol (in Spanish)
When eating fruit, remember who planted the tree.