Food can do more than just power the body, it can power the mind

by Kelly Guava Jelly and Bao Nguyen
May 8, 2018

Photo courtesy of FEEST.

It’s probably not a stretch to say that most people don’t think about food on a regular basis. Well, it’s more accurate to say that most people don’t think deeply about food, beyond what will satisfy our taste buds and fill our tummies that day. Yet, most of us also have no difficulty swallowing the idea that food is more than merely energy for the body and that what we eat is an expression of our culture and values and, ultimately, of who we are.

But not all food are created equal! Nutrition, cost, quality, and availability of food are all determined by socioeconomic statuses like class, race, zip code, among other things. Because of this, the disadvantaged in our society are forced to consume food that is cheap, fast, and low quality, even if these foods don’t fit their culture and values.

This inequity is often called food INjustice and its (negative) impact on people, especially during their formative years, can be felt for a long time. One organization in White Center has been tackling this issue for over a decade.

Photo courtesy of FEEST.

“A home-cooked meal is an act of revolution!”

The declaration came out of Lisa Chen with the same certainty and ease as if she were saying her own name. She is, after all, the Executive Director of the Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team (FEEST), a nonprofit organization in White Center working to combat the root causes of food injustice. Her work every day is to revolutionize our relationship with food, one youth at a time.

It helps that Lisa is no stranger to this experience, having grown up in a single-parent household where planned meals – a privilege most take for granted – were the exception rather than the norm. She relied on fast food and Top Ramen and to this day she is still working on healing her own relationship to food as she guides the youth she works with to do the same.

“When we slow down, cook, eat together, we bring back the sacredness in the kitchen,” she explained. “We are combatting the grind that is capitalism and changing hearts and minds.”

Photo courtesy of FEEST.

Toward this goal, FEEST hosts weekly youth-led, improvisational dinners at two local high schools. By prepping and cooking together, these dinners help change young people’s “relationship to food and promote creative risk-taking and community connectedness.” Keeping it all in the neighborhood, the dinner is made using fresh produce and halal meat from local markets like Lee’s Produce, Castillo’s Supermarket, West Seattle Halal Market, and Samway. Dinner themes also serve as a platform for anti-oppression education around health inequities, our unsustainable food system, social and environmental justice, and youth movements.

FEEST also provides year-long, paid internships to students at Chief Sealth High School and Evergreen High School, who can choose to lead community dinners or spearhead campaigns to impact school food policies. Advocating for culturally-relevant and healthy food, FEEST gives youth the opportunity to speak, be heard, and make a difference for their communities and, more importantly, for themselves.

Being a youth-led organization means that youth get involved to run campaigns and community dinners, participate in major decision making processes, serve as board members, evaluate the organization’s work, plan fundraisers, and some even come back to be full-time staff members.

“First off, I have to say that FEEST is my original family,” said Tammy Do before pausing, tears welling up around her eyes. “They helped me create the person that I am today by giving me permission to ask the questions I didn’t know I could ask. They told me I have a voice and that my voice is powerful.”

Tammy, who grew up in White Center, credits her college enrollment to the staff at FEEST. She didn’t know many people in her life that went to college. Her “FEEST fam” were the ones who showed her what was possible. It led to her graduating from Evergreen College and she is now a first-year science teacher serving underrepresented students in Federal Way.

For FEEST, food is a building block to empower young people to not only talk about but to work on addressing the social issues they face. Food injustice is just one of the many inequities that people in poverty and ethnic minorities suffer from but since everyone has to eat, why not start this work at the dinner table?