By: Aliya Brown
Alyssa Gardner-Vazquez is a passionate advocate for food justice who embarked on a remarkable path with Teens for Food Justice. She started her journey with TFFJ as a teen volunteer, where her passion for sustainable agriculture continued to grow over time. Today, she’s back with the organization, armed with a Bachelor degree in Urban Sustainability, and even more determined to make a difference!
Alyssa has truly grown with Teens for Food Justice. She first joined TFFJ as a teen volunteer in 2013, she went on to become a mentor, and then TFFJ’s first ever Farm Manager. After taking some time to complete her degree, Alyssa rejoined TFFJ in 2022 as a Senior Farmer-Educator at the TFFJ/Whole Kids Foundation Farm at the MLK, Jr. Educational Campus. But her love for environmental science and farming took root even earlier than that.
Alyssa’s parents and teachers played a huge part in the trajectory of her life in a number of ways. After learning to grow a bean plant in a plastic cup in the first grade, her parents continued to cultivate her interests by planting a number of things with her growing up. This helped to nurture her love for growing plants and food, and allowed her to carry on a legacy of farming with roots in the Caribbean, straight to the heart of Manhattan.
The Early Days at Teens for Food Justice
Alyssa’s journey with Teens for Food Justice started during her high school years when she joined the organization as a teen volunteer. At the time, she had a keen interest in food sustainability and was drawn to the program’s mission, which aimed to combat food insecurity and empower young minds to be catalysts for change.
During her volunteership, Alyssa was exposed to the inner workings of the organization. She learned about civic engagement, food justice advocacy, hydroponic farming, sustainable agriculture, and the critical issue of food insecurity that plagues many urban communities. The experience was nothing short of transformative, fanning a lifelong passion within her for growing plants and healthy food.
Gaining Additional Expertise
As Alyssa’s volunteership and mentorship with TFFJ came to an end, she found herself facing a decision that many young adults do: the pursuit of higher education. With a strong desire to deepen her understanding of food science and sustainable agriculture, Alyssa made the decision to earn her Bachelor’s degree in Urban Sustainability with a minor in Earth and Environmental Science. During her time away from TFFJ, she immersed herself in her studies, gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to make a more significant impact, and ultimately return to TFFJ!
The Return to Teens for Food Justice
After earning her degree, Alyssa’s heart never wavered from the mission she was so passionate about. Armed with a new level of expertise and experience, she decided to return to Teens for Food Justice, this time as a full-fledged employee. Her return was a triumphant moment, not just for her but for the organization and the TFFJ community as a whole.
Alyssa’s role at TFFJ allowed her to apply her academic knowledge to the real-world challenges of urban agriculture. She is an integral part of the organization, helping to expand its programming and impact, improving existing hydroponic systems, and providing crucial guidance to students and interns, just as she once was.
Making a Difference Together
Alyssa’s journey is a testament to the potential of young individuals to be change-makers and advocates for food justice. Her return to TFFJ not only benefited her personally, but also represents a tremendous full circle moment for the organization.
Alyssa’s story serves as an inspiration to young people who dream of making a difference in their communities. Her journey from intern to advocate and teacher highlights the importance of following one’s passion, gaining the knowledge and experience needed, and returning to the cause you believe in to make a lasting impact. Teens for Food Justice and its alumni, like Alyssa, are shining examples of how individuals can be the catalysts for positive change in the world of food sustainability and social justice.
TFFJ was thrilled to honor and celebrate Alyssa as its Distinguished TFFJ Alumna at its 10th Anniversary Feast Gala in 2023.
Read Alyssa’s speech below:
Thank you, Kathy, for those beautiful words.
It really means so much.
When I was in the first grade, my teacher, Ms. K, handed us a plastic cup, a wet paper towel, and some wrinkly, dried beans. Those little beans then sat on the classroom windowsill and over the following two weeks, I watched in amazement as they grew. From nothing, came everything.
What I couldn’t have known then, is that in that moment, my life had changed forever. When you see -and play a part in- the magic of growing a plant, it changes you. Now imagine getting to taste something wonderful that you’ve grown with your own two hands. Not like the flavorless, overprocessed, chemically ripened and often unaffordable produce that fills lower-income markets. You then realize that there’s a world of possibility awaiting.
In the 4th grade, my family moved to Coney Island and if you didn’t know, its most famous bit of food culture is a hotdog-eating competition. Often surrounded by junk food in the neighborhood, it wasn’t always easy to come by affordable fresh produce. Lucky for me, my parents, who worked tirelessly for every penny they earned, understood the importance of a balanced meal. They made sure that there was a simple salad or some broccoli on every plate I ate. I thank my parents for that and for all the sacrifices they made to give me the best start in life they could. This start helped you pave the way for my future in more ways than one.
At 16, I discovered Teens For Food Justice and my understanding of nutrition and food policy really took off. Through the program, I exposed my family to things like Swiss chard, bok choi and more! Now, in my Caribbean household, stir fry is my designated dish that I have to bring to every family potluck.
Being a part of that first cohort of students building a hydroponic farm in Bedstuy was an experience I’ll never forget. We didn’t know if it would work, everything was so low tech and DIY and yet somehow, we were able to grow enough food that we could host monthly events for the community to take home. Families eating what we grew right here in New York City with our own hands. It was incredible and empowering.
After I completed the program, I returned as a mentor and eventually as the first farm manager for Teens for Food Justice. I had found my path.
I am so grateful that I was given the chance to participate at 16 in what was a new program at this time, and that today is 10 years strong. I am so grateful for Kathy, Tara and Teens For Food Justice for giving me the chance to build a career here. Through TFFJ, I get to be part of giving so many other young people a chance to broaden their advocacy skills, further their nutrition education and gain hands-on hydroponic farming expertise, all of which ensures a brighter future for each student and their communities.
Our students come into the farm not knowing what’s in store for them. I had a student just this semester tell me, “miss 💁🏽♀️, I don’t touch dirt” and I said, “Well that’s great because there is no dirt here, just lots of water.” The following week we needed all hands on deck to harvest about 150 pounds of food for their school community. That same student was the very last one to put down his pruning shears and leave the room. As he dragged his feet to the door on his way out he told me he didn’t want to stop.
Like I learned in the 1st grade, a tiny seed, with the right care, can grow into its fullest potential, and maybe give us a mouthwatering tomato, a nutritious bowl of salad – or, an entire generation of smart, strong, healthy changemakers who will build a better tomorrow.*
Teens For Food Justice is changing the world – healing and feeding bodies and minds. And we need your help. We need your support. Please join me in being part of this essential, and delicious, mission.
Aliya Brown is the Senior Communications & Content Manager at Teens For Food Justice.