2022’s Student Leadership Conference

July 22, 2022
Student at SLC smiling and preparing smoothies with classmates

By: Renae Cairns

In May, students from TFFJ’s Afterschool Program, The Food Justice Collective, were excited to convene in person, for the first time since 2019,  to present the food justice and advocacy work they accomplished in their schools and communities at this year’s Student Leadership Conference. The Conference, held at Project Farmhouse in Union Square, brought together students from TFFJ’s four partner middle and high school campuses across NYC. During the event, students prepared recipes, presented their advocacy work, and brainstormed about the future of urban farming in New York City alongside other young people from two of our partner organizations:  Equity Advocates and the Youth Food Justice Network.

This year’s afterschool programming encouraged our cohorts, comprised of 102 students from 5 schools,  to identify food justice-related issues impacting themselves, their schools and their communities. They completed a root cause analysis to better understand the issues at hand and developed creative solutions to these issues that advance equity and justice in our food system. 

Students from the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn dove into conversations about the quality of school food, lack of variety and cultural responsiveness in school food menus, food waste generated by NYC cafeterias, and the critical need to address food insecurity among school-age children and teens. From there, the solutions created by TFFJ afterschool students varied drastically. 

At the DeWitt Clinton High School Campus in the Bronx, first-year TFFJ students built on the advocacy work of their predecessors and researched current legislative opportunities for improving school food. Led by the mentorship of TFFJ alumnus Joshua Delgado, the cohort surveyed their fellow students about their experience with school food, interviewed the campus’ dietician and cafeteria manager, and researched local policies, such as proposed NYC bill Intro. 1676, that would require the NYC Department of Education to report on scratch-cooking in schools, and  federal bill HR 6608, that would fund scratch-cooking pilot programs in U.S. public schools. Students shared their findings with local elected officials and are eager to continue their campaign for more delicious, healthy school food options in the 2022-23 school year. 

In Manhattan, students from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Campus (MLK) also recognized the present inadequacies of school lunch, while exploring the problematic history of U.S. public schools operating as tools for assimilation among Indigenous and immigrant students. In response to their understanding of school food today and in the spirit of fostering self-determination among young people, the MLK cohort collaborated with a campus film club to develop budget-friendly recipes and cooking videos. Each recipe featured at least one ingredient that can be grown on the school’s hydroponic farm and the videos act as a resource to encourage young people to get cooking and celebrate their cultures at home and at school.   

Middle school students from Brooklyn’s Urban Assembly Unison Schoolalso took a critical look at the food options available through their school cafeteria. Inspired by the foods and recipe ideas students wished were represented in their school food menus, the students created a 25-page cookbook titled Sprout,  featuring 10 student-developed and -tested recipes. Each recipe incorporated an ingredient grown on the TFFJ hydroponic farm and students prepared each dish, step-by-step, before it was officially added. In celebration of their extensive commitment to their project, hydroponic farm and afterschool program, the Urban Assembly Unison students were honored as Youth Food Justice Advocates at TFFJ’s annual gala, Feast 2022. 

Finally, our students from the Brownsville Collaborative Middle School of Agriculture & Technology in Brooklyn led a student-run smoothie bar at the Conference. Working together, the students utilized fruits and TFFJ-grown herbs and kale to whip up delicious, refreshing and fun smoothies for each and every attendee. Their initiative created a space for joy, celebration and laughter, all critical elements in our efforts to advance food justice in NYC and beyond. 

To wrap up the conference, a group of TFFJ alumni and other NYC students led a youth listening session with all of the conference attendees. The listening session focused on the newly established NYC Office of Urban Agriculture and how young people think this office can support a healthier, more sustainable and equitable food future for all.

We are so proud of all of the important food justice and advocacy work accomplished by our students this past year and are excited to continue our campaigns for a more equitable and sustainable food future this fall. We’d like to thank students and teachers from all of our farms for their profound work, as well as the Youth Food Justice Network and Equity Advocates for their programming support and participation.
We’re grateful to our generous partners at Fuku and Pipcorn for the delicious meal and snacks, Project Farmhouse for the beautiful space, and to our teachers, students and partner staff for making our work possible.

Renae Cairns is the Senior Program Manager at Teens for Food Justice.

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