Empowering Youth through Food Sustainability and Healthy Communities

As the idea of healthy communities is becoming a popular way to sneak sustainability into popular planning discourse, I thought it would be interesting to write about a youth empowerment program that is promoting health and organic food systems.

The Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team (FEEST) is a Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association program, outside of Seattle, WA. FEEST’s purpose is to create a safe space for youth to gather to grow, prepare, and share healthy, delicious food, while becoming actively engaged in issues of food resources and the built environment in their lives.

FEEST’s young members lead Wednesday organic dinners at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. Monthly dinners are open to the community on the condition that guests abide by FEEST’s youth-developed Community Agreements that include “speaking your truth” and respecting self and others. The dinners provide the place for young people to express their hopes and concerns, including observations about their school environments, lack of fresh food in their neighborhoods, nutritional myths and realities, and ideas for multigenerational events.

I think that FEEST’s non-hierarchical organization and Community Agreements are a main factor in the organization’s success. In planning, we talk a lot about “don’t plan about us, without us” and the need for trust building and capacity building.

At FEEST, all of these ideas have been put front and center in the organization, rather than being given mere lip service. Young people, like any heterogeneous group in the political/power minority, are skeptical of decisions made for them by other people. So, one of FEEST’s strengths is trust building between the youth membership and the adult Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association members who coordinate the program. FEEST accomplishes trust by listening before acting upon anything and by having complete transparency about how decisions are made.

To put it another way, FEEST at first considered placing its young members on boards for relevant local organizations. However, a room full of adults following board procedures in a conference room can be very intimidating. Instead, FEEST invites the boards to hold its meetings at the Youngstown center, following FEEST’s Community Agreement rules. This makes the young members feel much more confident and comfortable and gives the youth a stronger, more valuable, and legitimate voice. I would encourage anyone who is interested in community engagement to find out more about how FEEST successfully works with youth, because the organization has found a good balance of leadership development, self-governance, and empowerment through self-aware learning and skills development.

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