Forget the seat, we’ll set the table: Youth involvement in Food Policy Councils.

Orientation at NYC’s Flip the Table Youth Food Council (Credit: Mara Gittleman)

“Youth are prominent in the food justice movement today. This isn’t just because they are ‘included’ as afterthoughts to existing projects and programs. They lead and have their own, independent voice.” (Steel 2010). Many food justice organizations, sustainable farming projects or garden based education initiatives are connected to youth development programs.  As children and young adults have become increasingly disconnected from their food sources, and as obesity and Type II diabetes become increasingly prevalent in young people, these programs provide a host of benefits for the participants and communities involved. Further, more than just participants along for the ride, young people have demonstrated tremendous initiative and leadership within just and sustainable food movements. However, considering that the food justice movement has touted itself as a diverse, inclusive movement where everyone may have a seat at the table, youth voices have been relatively absent from the food policy discourse.

One way in which youth (defined as high school age or younger) have begun to make their voices heard in the food policy arena is through participation in food policy councils (FPCs). Today, a small but growing number of FPCs throughout the U.S. are adding youth members, and an even smaller number are entirely comprised of youth participants.  In this blog post, we will explore current work focused on youth and food systems, as well as two case studies of youth involvement in FPCs in order to frame possible avenues for future research concerning youth participation in food policy.

Youth and the food system 

What drives young people to become involved in food justice organizations and activities? While individual answers may vary greatly, all youth are confronted by an alarming reality- – The Center for Disease control now predicts that the youngest generations of Americans will be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, largely due to our current food system.  It is estimated that poor dietary habits are condemning one in three African-American children to Type II diabetes by the age of 18 and one in four Latino kids to hypertension and heart disease (Steel, 2010). Clearly, young people have the most to lose from our current food system, and the most to gain by fighting for policy change. Today, youth across the United States are taking leadership roles in the food justice movement in order to build healthier, more sustainable food systems for their families, communities and futures. While the contributions of young people to the food justice movement, specifically in the policy arena, may be difficult to measure precisely, the emerging results are no less significant and inspiring.

One of the most comprehensive reports detailing youth involvement in sustainable food systems is The Food Projects’ 2007 State of the Field: Youth in Sustainable Food Systems report.  The Boston based organization’s report details data collected from surveys and or interviews of 41 organizations, programs and movement leaders in order to profile organizations linking youth and sustainable food systems, to explore the evolution of these organizations and  to determine both the local and national impacts of youth in food systems.

As part of the Food Projects’ survey, the organizations were asked to comment on why they chose to work with youth.  The report showed that: “organizations choose to work with youth for both philosophical and practical reasons.” The following are the Reports’ key points:

  • ·Youth are uniquely effective in communicating the organizations’ message to other constituents (youth, families);
  • ·Youth are marginalized in their communities/by society and need additional services and support to be successful;
  • ·Youth “get it” better or faster than adults; it is more effective to educate and work with them than it would be to do similar work with adults;
  • ·Leaders had previous positive experiences with youth and liked working with them.

The report shows that of the youth and food systems organizations surveyed, 95% manage agriculture or gardening education programs, and that 73% offer nutrition/health programs (State of the Field, 2007, 9). By contrast, “only 27% of programs leave the garden for the Statehouse, and get involved in food policy legislation” (State of the Field, 2007, 9). The report notes that this indicates both an emphasis on local, community-based work as well as a clear need for investment in driving change through policy (State of the Field, 2007, 9).

Food Policy Councils

An FPC consists of representatives from many sectors of the food system, and can include producers, consumers, educators, business owners, chefs, food justice and anti-hunger activists, government officials, grocers, and other stakeholders. In the Oakland organization Food First’s Report: Food Policy Councils, Lessons Learned, the authors describe the central goal of an FPC as to “identify and propose innovative solutions to improve local or state food systems, spurring local economic development and making food systems more environmentally sustainable and socially just” (Harper et. al., 2009).  FPCs engage with diverse groups across many sectors, including government programs, grassroots and non-profit organizations, local business owners, public schools and food workers. Food Policy Councils often conduct food systems research, such as a community food assessment, and make policy recommendations based on their findings and input from community stakeholders. Today, there are over one hundred FPCs throughout the United States that have emerged in response to pressing issues such as obesity, food security and food access as well as to promote policies and programs relating to food justice and sustainable urban food systems. In amplifying the voices of underserved constituents and communities, FPCs have the “potential to democratize the food system” (Harper et. al., 2009).

Yet our initial research has shown that few FPC’s are providing a seat at the table, giving opportunities for young people to engage with food policy. After implementing a preliminary survey of food policy councils throughout the U.S. to pinpoint the few that have either chosen to engage youth members OR are composed entirely of youth, we conducted two case studies of FPCs with youth involvement.

Case Studies

The goal of these case studies is to illustrate the differing nature of youth involvement in FPCs. The two councils, The New York City Flip the Table Youth Food Council, and the Worcester, (MA) Advisory Food Policy Council are two examples of councils with youth participation, though they vary greatly in their mission, structure and nature of youth involvement and leadership.

Case Study 1: The Worcester Advisory Food Policy Council. Interviewee: Liz Sheehan Castro, Project Manager

The Worcester Advisory Food Policy Council (WAFPC) was formed in 2006 at the request of the Mayor, with the primary goal being to bring together the many players of the food system in Worcester. There are several reasons why the WAFPC decided to seek youth participants. First, there is a strong youth  leadership/agriculture initiative in Worcester called YouthGROW, in which youth grow and sell food at local markets in the city. The WAFPC wanted to expand the opportunities available to these young people to include food systems work. Second, the WAFPC noted that there is a strong youth movement in Worcester that is involved with public policy work (such as anti-tobacco work) and with after school clubs involved with school gardening and food systems work. Finally, WAFPC noted that: “it is important to involve anyone and everyone in food system change, from youth to elderly and everyone in between.”

Youth are recruited through partners currently involved in the WAFPC and through local schools and after school clubs doing work related to food and agriculture. Youth are invited to large, public quarterly meetings and the council members “try to ensure that the meetings have space for [young people] to participate in meaningful ways.” The WAFPC has also held “pre meetings” for youth participants so that they can prep them for the issues being discussed through background information, reviewing the agenda, and helping them to understand the particular “meeting culture” they are about to enter. The quarterly meetings are scheduled during weekdays at 3:30 so that the youth members can attend.

The WAFCP reported that the youth council members tend to be particularly interested in school food, urban agriculture and developing a walking/exercise trail on a local public school campus. During quarterly meetings, the WAFPC works to ensure that space is provided for youth to share their concerns and opinions, which often takes the form of breakout sessions or small group discussions. Further, during the pre-meetings adult members work with youth to find ways to ensure that their voices are heard at larger meetings.

Currently, the WAFPC cannot point to any policy recommendation that has been solely youth driven. However, it did note that the youth participants have been instrumental on work relating to school food.  For example, they helped develop a smoothie initiative that was piloted at one school and then expanded to other High Schools through the city.

Case Study 2: Flip the Table: Youth Food Policy Council, NYC. Interviewee: Mara Gittleman, Co-Founder/Administrative Director.

NYC’s Flip the Table Youth Food Policy Council, founded in 2011, is the first youth FPC in NY, and one of the only youth-driven FPCs in the United States. We asked Mara to describe the motivation for forming Flip the Table, and her response is below:

“Youth of color, youth from low-income communities, and LGBTQI youth pay the highest cost as a result of the inequities in our food system, and simultaneously aren’t granted any agency within the current political system. Compounding the problem is the tokenization of youth within both non-profit organizations and government programs, and the constant use of a deficit model that lays blame on the youth instead of on institutional power structures. Youth and community representation are lacking in the food policy councils sprouting up in cities nationwide, highlighting structural racism and oppressive power structures. YFC emerged as a solution. Instead of waiting for a food policy council to form from the top down in New York City and then fighting for a seat at the table, we decided to create our own table, with youth as the leaders.

There are many organizations in NYC that conduct great food justice work, however they often work in silos due to limited resources. The youth involved in many of these organizations are therefore limited in their exposure to how social, environmental, and food justice intersect.

We developed a unique structure, whereby well-established community organizations nominate a youth to be on the council, positioning YFC as a capacity-building and organizing tool to connect the many powerful yet disparate food justice, social justice, and environmental justice organizations in the city. By building a coalition of youth across multiple entities, we address the challenges associated with fighting systemic injustice on limited resources while amplifying the skills and voices of future leaders. YFC has built a framework so that those directly affected by the broken food system are given an opportunity to take on leadership role to transform it.”

Like the youth involved in Worcester FPC, the NYC youth members are primarily interested school food related issues, specifically, educating their peers about school food, and learning more about the foods they consume on a daily basis. Flip the Table inspired a new youth food council to start operating within one school, and noted that another High School in Bushwick is in the process of forming a youth council.

Reflections/Future Research

We began this research by surveying FPCs throughout the U.S. to determine if any were involving young people in their work.  Through our survey and through internet research, we developed a short list of FPCs that are engaging youth members. The two case studies detailed above represent the beginnings of our exploration into youth participation in food policy, which we plan to continue throughout the year.

What we have gathered from our initial research is that youth participation in food policy can take a number of forms. Flip the Table takes a bottom-up, table-setting, youth driven approach to involvement, while Worcester FPC, like many others has offered youth a seat at the table, but not a table-setting leadership role. However, Worcester FPC seems to be taking important measures to ensure that young people get the opportunity to participate in meaningful ways – a good first step in maximizing the value of youth participation.

If adult-driven FPCs are truly seeking to shape a more just and sustainable food system, young people must be provided with the space for meaningful participation. In the summer of 2012, Emma attended a well-intentioned meeting at the Mayor of Boston’s Working Group on Urban Agriculture. School food was a main topic of discussion, including what young people will or will not eat, yet not a single student was present.  In a city full of youth who are both passionate and knowledgeable about food issues (see for instance The Food Project, Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Program), their absence from this particular conversation was alarming.

FPCs need to do more to provide an inclusive environment in which youth can participate in meaningful ways in shaping  food narratives and resulting policy agendas. We welcome the growth of youth driven FPCs, such as NYC’s Flip the Table, who argue that rather than waiting for FPCs to form and then fight for a seat at the table, they will create their own table, with youth as the leaders and define the seating arrangements. While these youth led organizations may be able to sprout new ideas and effect policy change, it is likely that diverse coalitions of both adults and youth working together, as equally valued participants, will be the most successful agents of change in community and regional food systems.

Author bio: Emma Kravet is a second year graduate student at Tufts University pursuing a dual degree in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning and Agriculture, Food and Environment.  Her background is in youth development and garden based education. Julian has been funding this research and they will write a fuller article next year.


Ginwright, Shawn, Noguera, Pedro and Cammarota, Julio. 2006. Beyond Resistance! Youth Activism and Community Change: New Democratic Possibilities for Practice and Policy for America’s Youth. Routledge, NY.

Harper, Alethea et al. 2009. “Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned.Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy. Accessed December 1, 2011

Steel, Anim. 2010. “Youth and Food Justice: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement.” Food First Backgrounder: Institute for Food and Development Policy Vol.16 No.3

Watts, Cammy. 2007. Youth in Sustainable Food Systems.


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