Strengthening Farm to School with Community Partnerships & Youth Voice

Posted on October 5, 2020

This year, the High School for Environmental Studies (HSES) and social justice organization 1Freedom in New York City make up one of fourteen teams selected for our Northeast Farm to School Institute. Its team members represent essential Farm to School roles including school nutrition staff, administrators, classroom educators, and community organizers. The diversity of roles within this particular team highlights how partnerships that extend beyond the school hold enormous potential for elevating and engaging students as partners in real world Farm to School projects.

Community partnerships benefit everyone in the system, and HSES and 1Freedom have an established collaborative food justice afterschool program that they are looking to expand upon through the Institute. Andrew Margon, teacher at HSES, explained how advantageous it was to partner with 1Freedom and bring Directors Hector Gerado and Liz Guerra into the team. “They have 15 years of focused organizing experience, and they brought that to our team of administrators and teachers, who have a lot of competing interests because of the nature of the school environment. We still have a lot to do in our Farm to School team... but just in the values statement process alone (see “Action Planning” chapter of Connecting Classrooms, Cafeterias, Communities: A Guide to Building Integrated Farm to School Programs), there was a moment when Hector and Liz dropped the Black Panther 10-Point Plan into the chat as we were honing in on our statement. It catapulted our focus.”

“The Institute helped us to kind of reposition ourselves and refocus our lens,” Liz explained. “The Action Planning Process helped us think about how we're going to approach [a new summer] program.” That program is a three- to four-week summer youth brigade that is engaging young people throughout New York City to create mutual aid programs in their immediate neighborhoods. Students from the HSES and other high schools are working with 1Freedom to set up “Solidarity Fridges” stocked with free food for the taking in their neighborhoods to address food insecurity and food apartheid. These paid positions are part of 1Freedom’s work to integrate food systems education and activism in a real-world setting. 

Programs like this aren’t built overnight, but are framed around relationships, community partnerships, and youth and community voice and agency. So what really matters when it comes to youth voice and Farm to School? We spoke with Andrew, Liz, and Hector to listen and learn together about how they're working to amplify youth voice. Here are the key takeaways:

HSES students gardening. Photo sourced from New York Times, December 2019.

Trust Youth as Experts 

The trio talked about the importance of building trust and respecting youth as experts - experts in their own experience, in their communities, and in their unique perspectives. They speak to how allowing youth to show up as experts can be the start of a trusting relationship, but they also acknowledge that it isn’t always easy as a teacher to give students the reins. 

“We want to help create that expectation for young people, that they are, in fact, experts in their neighborhoods,” Liz shares regarding the summer youth brigade and the paid positions for high school students. “Explaining to students upfront that they're experts starts that conversation around trust. It's really important that we value them. It's more than just saying, ‘Here's your certificate, congrats you've completed the program.’  It’s, ‘You're going to get paid the next three weeks to do this work.’”  Liz shared that some people question paying the students, suggesting that it isn’t necessary or money well-spent. Liz disagrees, saying the paychecks help the entire family. “A number of our young people are our rising seniors, and applications for college are costly.”

Andrew’s food systems class embeds student voice throughout the curriculum.  “The culminating project asks students to identify a community need, and then build a project to address that need. We go about it through a democratic decision making process.” Andrew says. “As the teacher, I'm often in this position where I'm promising my students that what they decide is what I'll support and help make happen. It's a kind of terrifying experience from the teacher's perspective at times! I might have my own opinions about what seems a little more feasible, and I'm trying to help scaffold [their ideas] to help us get to something that we can actually accomplish. But I also want to honor the agreement that I'm making with the students. The past few years, the students have built community action events that seek to both raise awareness of and address food waste and food insecurity. They're in the driver's seat: building or developing relationships with local nonprofits, community farms, soup kitchens... They're the ones cooking food on the day of, making the flyers for the event, designing the t-shirts that we wear. It’s the most successful that I've been in a classroom setting with this experiment of trying to give students as much power as possible. It's been really rewarding both for me and for the students, based on their feedback. But it's really hard.”

How does a teacher engage in democratic decision-making, giving students the power to be in the driver’s seat? Andrew laughs and says, “It's messy to just give people space to brainstorm and try stuff. It’s about being okay with, ‘What would my administrator think if they walked into class when we were brainstorming ideas, and it's just crazy loud, and kids have their phones out?!’ Embrace the mess and the mistakes, it's all part of the learning process!

1Freedom's youth brigade and solidarity fridges.

Build Relationships 

Research indicates that building and sustaining relationships is key to student engagement. As adults, team members are engaging in their own relationship-building as part of the Institute; The experiences of Andrew, Hector, and Liz bear this out. 

COVID-19 restrictions, physical distancing, and virtual learning have all put a strain on schools, causing many students and staff to be more isolated than ever. But because of the strong relationships already forged by HSES educators and 1Freedom, Andrew noted that students continued to participate in their collaborative after school program at HSES. “As far as I know,” Andrew said, “when the pandemic was at its height in New York City and teachers were burnt out and freaking out, I think 1Freedom Club might've been the only club in the school that was still functioning remotely, still having your regular meetings, and students were showing up. That's just a testament to the community that Hector and Liz have been cultivating.”

The team’s collective approach is to engage youth as full partners, even thinking about nurturing the next generation of leadership for their school, organization, and community. How can schools assess where they are, embrace these ideas, and make a plan to deepen authentic youth-adult partnerships? Check out this Seed to Tree tool and Roadmap to Agency rubric from UP for Learning that shows different stages of partnership. You’ll note that HSES, 1Freedom, and the students are working in the stage of full partnership — a fully fruiting tree! 

Food Systems & Food Justice Can Be a Lens for Examining EVERYTHING

“Perhaps ironically, the types of meaningful learning experiences described here return us to a much simpler time, when learning was more connected to daily life and where young people learned in the company of their elders as well as each other.” 

-Milton Chen from the forward of Powerful Learning, 2015

The quote by Milton Chen reminds us that because food systems and food justice are part of our everyday experiences, they are powerful topics for making learning relevant and engaging for students. Andrew talks about his food systems class, and let us in on his recipe for success. “This is a food systems class, and so we're looking at a lot of different social problems, but it's through the lens of food mostly. That's the opportunity for new content. The students have expertise from just existing and living in all of these areas, but maybe they haven't all had the experience of interpreting them through the lens of food. And so I would say that that's the context that I'm trying to offer them in the class, but mixing that with what they already know creates a more fruitful discussion about what's important to us as a class community.” 

Make Food Education Culturally Sustaining and Relevant to Students 

Hector reminds us that as educators, sometimes our cultures, perspectives, and experiences aren’t that of our students and so we add the idea of making food systems education culturally sustaining and relevant to our students.

“One of the things we do is ask the students about the food their parents, grandparents, or whoever is the cook in their home makes, and how that connects to them. How does food connect to their ancestry? Because a lot of today’s delicacies were once slave foods. It's not just about who's eating good and who's not eating good. How can we create our own sustainable systems of food?” The question that Hector leaves us with is the power and opportunity in Farm to School.