A Virtual Conversation with Youth Food Justice Leaders

Youth food advocates discuss food insecurity, racial inequality, and the importance of youth voice during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 13th, 2020, just three weeks into my new role as the Advocacy and Community Engagement Coordinator with Teens for Food Justice, I sat in my first all-staff meeting with my new coworkers as we reviewed the items we should all be taking home with us – work computers, chargers, folders and essential work resources – in the event that New York City schools were to close in the coming days. Two days later, Mayor de Blasio announced that NYC schools would be closed due to the coronavirus. In what felt like overnight, I had moved across the country, back to my home state but a brand new city, started a new job, and found myself at the epicenter of the United States coronavirus crisis. 

With similarly deliberate but also unsettling speed, the team at Teens for Food Justice worked to shut down our farms located within schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan and to distribute all of the produce to neighborhood organizations doing food distribution in the community. My colleagues and I made quick pivots to the urgent need of supporting our school communities and fellow New Yorkers in identifying places to find meals, food and other critical resources while also brainstorming how we could continue providing food justice and food education programming to our students and teachers as they adapted to remote learning. 

Each year, TFFJ hosts a leadership conference during which middle and high school students from our after school programs come together to share their community-based research on food accessibility and food justice. With schools shuttered, we understood that a “leadership conference” would have to look much different than it ever has. As Zoom calls, webinars, and virtual classes became the new normal and panels upon panels were conducted featuring career food systems and food justice workers and advocates, we felt like what was largely missing from these online conversations, educational workshops, policy platforms, and strategy sessions were the voices,  perspectives and expertise of our youth food justice advocates and activists. 

After surveying students, teachers, and administrators from each of our four partner school sites across New York City and in collaboration with four of our interns from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, we began planning a virtual youth-led panel. In a little over a month’s time, through weekly virtual meetings with our team of young people and program staff we ironed out the event’s format, content, questions, and purpose.

Our goal for the panel was to center and lift up the expertise of our panelists – Jesutoyin Olabode of Rockaway Youth Task Force, Melina Valle of CUNY Food Justice Leadership Fellowship Program, Nerelly Jiminez of Youth Food Advocates, Amina Castronovo of the Department of Education Office of Sustainability YLC, and Miguel Graham of Teens for Food Justice – while placing the critical work that each of these young activists and their organizations do in conversation with one another. The group discussed the meaning and importance of food justice, the interlocking forces of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism and environmental degradation, and the demands they would like our elected officials to meet in order for food justice, racial justice and environmental justice to truly exist in all of our NYC communities.

For me, the Virtual Food Justice Youth Panel made abundantly clear that our young people are mobilizing, strategizing, innovating and driving the transformation of our world. The call to action that I left with was how can our organizations, like Teens for Food Justice, and our movements further center and amplify the expertise and experience of our young people? How can we better invest in the next generation? How can we create more collaborative spaces so that the energy and ideas of our young activists are actualized?

If you missed the Virtual Food Justice Youth Panel you can watch it in its entirety here and I hope through listening to this panel you leave with your own call to action. How can you advocate for food justice in your community? What ideas do the young people in your life have? What is your vision for a just, sustainable and equitable future?

I want to thank each of our panelists for making the Virtual Food Justice Youth Panel an incredible event, Keith Carr, City Harvest‘s Policy and Government Relations Manager, for facilitating a great discussion and our TFFJ interns – Miguel, Gilaisy, Messiah and Josh – for the hours of planning and preparation that made this event possible. 

You can rewatch the entire Food Justice Youth Panel here!

For more information about any of the organizations mentioned in the piece and how you can support their work, please visit their websites:

If you or anyone you know is in need of food or other critical resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, please see the following resources:

Get Food NYC: COVID-19 Emergency Food Distribution

Coronavirus NYC Neighborhood Food Resource Guides

City Harvest’s Food Locator Map

Hunger Free America’s SNAP Application Assistance

Community Food Advocates’ Pandemic EBT Flyer

NYC Well: Free Digital Mental Health Resources

Empowering Teens Feeding Communities Building a Healthy Sustainable Future